I grew up working in my family’s retail business. I was taught the customer is always right and it’s a privilege to serve them. So this is difficult for me – it goes against my nature, but yes, there are times you should politely walk away from a customer. There comes a time to say “no.”

When to Say “No”

The Profit Margin is Too Tight – This is a tough one, but the margin should have room for changes, mistakes, material inflation, and labor overruns. I’ve taken low profit jobs to keep employees busy or to get my foot in the door for future orders, and I’ve underbid jobs that did nothing but lose money. If you’re cutting it close, have a good reason.

You’re Too Busy – What a great problem to have. If you’re maxed out, don’t fool yourself and take on more jobs. Overbooking will overwork your team, put undue stress on the organization, affect quality, and cause missed deadlines. Before taking on too much, ask yourself – can we complete all of our commitments and do this job?

It’s Not Up to Your Standards – A friend who owns a video production company recently decided to NOT connect with the new marketing team of a customer he’d worked with for over two years. The new team was producing television ads not up to my friend’s standards, and although he had no part in the ads, he didn’t want potential clients to associate his name with their TV work.

It’s Illegal, Unethical, or Questionable – We’ve been asked to duplicate trademarked graphics without consent, which is illegal and unethical, but what about questionable requests? If you would consider a service, product, or strategy questionable, don’t take part in it.

It’s Not Your Expertise – Rather than scramble to learn a new product or service, outsource it or turn it down, and provide a referral. If you receive enough inquiries for similar work, you might consider adding it to your product line.

When to Say “Maybe”

Have you ever wanted to say no to a customer because they were difficult to work with? Of course you have. I imagine we can all name controlling, demanding, and unreasonable clients who are loyal, profitable, and ethical. They’re good clients in every other way. It’s your responsibility to make it work as best you can by providing the best service possible and giving realistic expectations to the customer. You shouldn’t consider saying no until the scale of their demands outweighs the work they provide. And even then, the retail clerk in me wants to tell you to suck it up and do your job, but there’s a line between a profitable yet demanding client, versus an energy sucking, time consuming nuisance. Before you say no, consider if you’ve done everything within your power to help the customer understand your parameters and expectations.

Your customers and jobs should help towards your vision. Accepting work that isn’t profitable or doesn’t fit your culture will weaken your organization. Having said that, proceed with caution. The customer may not always be right, but should always have the benefit of doubt. Have you ever turned away a prospect?

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