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How Saying “No” Wins More Work

Written by curtismchale on January 19, 2018 Blog.

Winning more work is what every company wants. They want to stop wasting time on proposals that don’t put money in the bank.

Unfortunately, far too many freelancers and agencies enter talks with a prospect from the wrong angle. They default to saying yes, and only bother with anything getting close to a no when pressed hard.

Your prospects can see this. They hear yes from everyone about every idea, and they know you’re saying yes to win work. That’s not what awesome clients want. They want someone who will tell them the boundaries of their project inside the budget they have.

This post is going to look at the way you should be using no to show your expertise and win more work. Some prospects will drop out part way through the process, but they were unlikely to be awesome clients anyway, so you just saved yourself time writing a proposal that would have been declined.

When you use no to set boundaries with prospects about how to work with you, and what you can do for them, they’ll respect you for the professional you are.

This is part of a series of posts highlighting talks from WooConf. Watch the video or keep scrolling to read the points below.


You are a Maker and a Manager

I recommend reading Maker’s Schedule, Managers Schedule by Paul Graham, if you haven’t already. In this post from 2009, Graham talks about Makers (developers/designers/creatives) and their need for large swaths of time to create. Interruptions break that flow. There’s a great comic called This is Why You Shouldn’t Interrupt A Programmer that illustrates this well. The fact is, an interruption means it takes 45 minutes to get back to a task. And small blocks of time mean that makers don’t feel like they can dig into work they need to do.

Contrast that with managers who have their time broken up into hours. A meeting is an hour. They have an hour for email, then a meeting.

Most business owners, including myself, need to operate at least part of the week in Maker mode and part of it in Manager mode. I use ‘mullet productivity’ to facilitate this. I work 6:00-9:00 without interruption and 12:00 to 3:00 on stuff that can fit into hour-long slots.

When you start interactions with prospects, you need to start them with this in mind.

I begin by asking them a series of questions and, until they’ve answered those questions, I say no to getting on the phone with them.

I say no to getting on the phone with them.

I say no because I need to know if it’s a qualified project I’m interested in before I put it on the calendar. If they don’t have time to answer questions provided in the first email, they’re telling me they don’t value the project enough. If they don’t value the project enough, that’s a red flag.

If I take a project they don’t value, then I’ll be chasing them later to get answers to questions.

By not answering my questions, they’re also showing me that they don’t value it in terms of budget. My rates are high, which means only highly valuable projects can afford me.

If my questions are answered, I move onto the second no as it comes to my call schedule. I only take calls on Tuesday afternoons and Fridays. I don’t make exceptions because I need the rest of the week to focus on tasks that current clients need me to do.

I have existing agreements with clients, so I need large chunks of time to do good work. If I take calls randomly throughout the week, I’m always in context switching mode and giving partial effort to the people who are paying me. By keeping calls to one of two days, I know I have lots of time to do good work for clients I have.

If you’re not protecting your development or design or content strategy time, you’re harming the quality of work you’re doing for current clients.

When clients ask to jump the queue, I tell them they go on a list that has many other people on it and doesn’t exist anyway. If you’re not protecting your development or design or content strategy time, you’re harming the quality of work you’re doing for current clients. That means you’re harming your business.

Three No’s in the first call

My first two no’s protect my time; the next three are about making sure that a client has a project they value. The only goal of my initial client call is to dig in and determine whether they view the project as a priority and I’m the most valuable asset they have to meet that priority.

It starts by covering:

  1. Why they aren’t doing something else of higher value in their business.
  2. Why they are hiring someone to do this or aren’t using their internal team.
  3. Why they aren’t going with a cheaper option because there is always a cheaper option.

With the first item, there are always a number of things that can be done in any business. You need to know where this project ranks in importance on their To Do list because it’s going to impact resources they put aside.

If it’s their least valuable project, they’re not going to want to spend much money or devote much staff time. You’re going to do a bunch of legwork to get it done.

If it’s their most important project, use the opportunity to talk about how valuable the project is. You don’t do this to establish the maximum you can charge; you do this to ensure that what it will cost to do the work costs at least one-third the value they’ll receive. In fact, if you can price at one-tenth the value, you’re in a much better position.

Second, ask why they aren’t using their internal team. With one of my clients, they weren’t using the in-house team because their one WordPress person was junior and didn’t have a solid, tested deployment system for a large-scale site. Their other resources were working on core software they sell. They needed someone to come alongside them for six months and build out the development process and help them handle 4,000 users a day being added to the system.

That was the value I brought.

Third, ask why, all things being equal, they are not going with a cheaper option. Sometimes it’s because they tried a less expensive option and got burned. Sometimes it’s because you’re a strong referral and you’re more valuable to them.

All three questions serve two purposes. First, the prospect is telling you why you’re the right choice for the project, and why this project is valuable. Second, they’re selling themselves on your value as well. That helps you win work.

Occasionally, you will discover that the project is low priority or they should be using their internal team, or a cheaper option is a better choice for them. None of these things are bad.

You’re likely the only person who had this conversation with them, the only one that didn’t fire off a price and then follow up. That makes you stand apart and more valuable in their eyes.

You’re likely the only person who had this conversation with them.

Once I’ve done this with prospective clients, the only person they talk to next time is me. There is no one else in the initial bidding for a project because I was the only one that was honest with them.

You’re not Indiana Jones

The final no that’s crucial in winning more work is saying no to building the proposal on your own.

You’re not Indiana Jones. You shouldn’t go into the wilderness and return with treasure. You’re Gandalf.

Gandalf does amazing things. He fights monstrous flaming demons and knows a lot about everything, but Gandalf works in a team.

Gandalf works in a team
Gandalf works in a team.

Collaborate with prospective clients to build a proposal that’s awesome. Yes, I write the first draft of a good proposal in Google Docs, but then I share it, and we work through most of it together.

The only two items they don’t get a say in are the pricing and the timeline. Neither of these is a surprise though. They’ve heard pricing similar to what they’ll see on a proposal. They’ve heard timeframes that match what they get in a final proposal.

If the pricing or the timeline is a surprise to them, you failed to communicate and sent the proposal too early. It’s your fault. A proposal is simply a summary of everything you’ve already talked about with prospects. Take responsibility and have better conversations next time.

Saying no is not about making clients audition

The goal of saying no more often isn’t about being a prima donna. I’ve had clients come to me with stories like that. Stories where the client was treated with disdain once they could get on the phone with a development agency.

It’s about providing the best service possible to your prospective and current clients. By protecting your time from random interruptions, you’re ensuring that you give current clients your best work. You’re also making sure that call times aren’t full of distractions about other projects you “should be working on.”

Protect your time like you protect other things that are important to you
Protect your time like you protect other things that are important to you.

Trying to talk clients out of a project is about digging deeper into the value they expect. When you understand the purpose behind a project, you can make sure that you deliver the value they need, not just what you think they need. Your job as a consultant is to diagnose and solve real problems in their business, not just push code around the page based on a task list.

When you understand the purpose behind a project, you can make sure that you deliver the value they need, not just what you think they need.

Finally, by not venturing into the wilderness to build a proposal, you’re ensuring that the prospect is invested in the process from beginning to end.

Start setting boundaries to win more work. Enjoy more focused time to do the work, and your clients will treat you like the expert you are.



14 Responses

  1. anphira
    January 25, 2018 at 5:30 pm #

    I definitely say “no” a lot.

    No, I won’t take shortcuts. No, that decision will come back later to bite you. No that’s just a bad user experience.

    Of the clients who get turned off by it, about half of them come groveling back later saying they’ll do things the way I want (mostly because they go to the person who tells them yes and then it gets completely messed up and now they want me to fix it).

    • curtismchale
      January 26, 2018 at 8:13 pm #

      I think you need to watch that word “groveling”. While I want to make sure that I’m not getting strung along with prospects so I say no, I never want them to feel like they are groveling for me to come back to them.

      Our language is often a very subtle window into our beliefs. If you are saying groveling, how are you thinking about your clients?

  2. Leo Koo
    January 25, 2018 at 9:50 pm #

    Thanks for the article. I’m learning to say no. It’s tough coz I sometimes feel that I’m leaving business on the table. But better good business than getting bad clients (and a bad reputation)

    I like how you say no
    1) if the client isn’t interested to answer your initial series of questions
    2) if the client can’t fit into your calling schedule (this is brilliant!)

    And your other three no during the call. Bookmarked this article and shared it! 🙂

    • curtismchale
      January 26, 2018 at 8:13 pm #

      Thanks Leo.

  3. Shivam Aggarwal
    January 26, 2018 at 5:18 am #

    Wow this is so logical, though counter intuitive initially. As a service based startup, we often make this mistake of being ready to do work at lower prices with clients who don’t value the project and later we are having to do that extra work to keep them interested in answer in our questions. This does help me understand a lot of things wrong with our process.
    I am grateful to you for such a helpful article.

    • curtismchale
      January 26, 2018 at 8:14 pm #

      VALUE is the key word you used there.

      I would always add that you need to make sure that you can eat, but in general you want to be working on things that people value.

      I’d love to hear how you update your process.

      • Shivam Aggarwal
        January 27, 2018 at 6:19 am #

        Yeah Curtis, I will share with you probably during some time next week.

  4. Charles Watson
    January 26, 2018 at 6:04 pm #

    What do you do when a potential client passes all the “no” tests and becomes a client, but then takes _forever_ to produce their content or perform some other task that only they can perform? Anyone want to share their best practices on how to get that derailed client back on track so you can actually finish the project?

    • curtismchale
      January 26, 2018 at 8:16 pm #

      My contract says something along the lines of:

      “if the client is two weeks late getting stuff then the project is billed in full. They can come back within 2 months to start it again, but it gets added back to the schedule as it fits. If they don’t come back in 2 months, it’s a new project.”

      Clearly there are exceptions. I had a client who had their wife die. I told them to forget about everything for a year. When I reached back out to them in a year they said they needed 6 more months. Then we finished the project in a timely fashion under the original terms.

  5. Gaurav Tiwari
    January 27, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

    “NO” is decent but only once you have a lot (of work) on hands. When I started – and I started in a small town – there weren’t lot of design related works. So, I had to say “Yes” for every project even when I didn’t like the concept/work type at all or the pay was at lower ends. Even after these 7 years of saying lots of YES and NO(s), I have not been able to differentiate between the cases I should say NO or YES. This post does give me some good insights. But I still think it’s very important to tell “NO”, only if you mean it. In my personal opinions, this may increase your sales for time being – but may cause you loose your credibility in the market.

    • steveto
      January 29, 2018 at 3:58 pm #

      Hey Gaurav,

      I think I can answer this for you as I am in the same position, having been made redundant at work and starting out with nothing (WITH bills to pay)!

      Always remember this: You are NOT Paid for your time, you are paid for your value and this is the perception that you must convey to your potential suitors when striking a deal.

      You’d be surprised at how many people come back to you after you say no to them. They aren’t used to it and if they are lowballing you, that means they will try to get it cheaper somewhere else. Let them, because they will finally realise “you get what you pay for”, then your value shoots up. “oh, this guy must be good.” Part of getting new contract/business is building a pipeline. Something that will continuously bring in future business.

      Sure, you need something now and if you keep on looking and hunting, something will drop in your lap…even for the short term. Then suddenly, people get back to you “Do you remember our last conversation? I’d like to talk to you about something.”

      Saying no now, paves the way for your future.

  6. Nerd Joe
    January 30, 2018 at 1:25 am #

    Excellent article. It is correct that when you say No to a client, they think again that why this person has rejected my offer, which means that he is really an expert in the field and he does not have much time for the work and they will reconsider you for the work. 😉

  7. Mark Challice
    February 6, 2018 at 1:46 pm #

    My favourite question to a prospective customer is always “Why do you need a website”?

    The facial expressions you get in response are priceless! But, having been asking customers that question for over 14 years it still tells you most about your prospective customer.

    Have they planned how they are going to grow their business or do they think that a new site will solve all their problems?

    Have they thought about keeping content and products up to date?

    The ones that have are the ones you need.

  8. Robin - WP Guru
    February 14, 2018 at 6:25 am #

    Well said. I have sticked with my philosophy of working within minimum ballpark, not using premium theme etc.
    In turn I have got good quality clients, very understanding and cooperative and easy to work with.
    This had helped my productivity as well as quality of end result i deliver, due to the trust built up.