by Doug Dolan
Why is it so hard to tell a client you simply don’t want to do something?
Someone approached me recently with a marketing project she knew I’d be perfect for. As if that wasn’t enough of an alarm bell, she went on to explain that she worked for a not-for-profit, knew nothing about marketing, had zero budget and couldn’t make the smallest decision without consulting her tyrannical boss and a committee of meddlesome volunteers.
Naturally, being swamped already, I said yes. And things went as well as my gut told me they would. I got drawn into a whole branding exercise that wasn’t in the scope of work, then watched as various unpaid but warmly received ideas went straight down the drain. In the end I made less per hour than the kid who cuts my lawn — with fewer perks.
So why did I say yes? Because it was for a good cause? Because I like to give people the benefit of the doubt? I can always come up with some rationale from what I imagine is my nobler self. But the fact is, like many of us in this business, I seem to be really bad at saying I can’t take a job on, even when it’s idiotic to add one more thing to my plate.
Part of it is the entrepreneurial fear factor, the irrational notion that you’d better seize every opportunity fate throws your way or watch all the building blocks you’ve put in place over a lifetime mysteriously turn to vapour. Either grab that bird in the hand or risk finding yourself looking on, birdless, as your competitors take the spoils.
Maybe it’s also a cultural thing. Americans — notwithstanding Getting to Yes and those other smarmy guides to corporate consensus building — seem to be very comfortable giving the thumbs down. Whether it’s Nancy Reagan imploring us to “Just say no” or Vietnam War protestors chanting “Hell, no—we won’t go,” the U.S. has a time-honoured tradition of exercising the first right of refusal. Whereas Canadians, the Flanders-like neighbours in a nation that asserted its independence (sort of) without a shot being fired, are just too polite for our own good. Certainly that points to another cornerstone of our national identity: self-congratulation. But it doesn’t help much with my business planning.
Besides, it’s not like I never say no. Last year I quit in the middle of a project — a first for me — after the client rewrote my copy over Sunday brunch with his wife (who, he assured me, had studied English literature at Oxford). And I recently deflected an annual report offer by invoking what I’d previously assumed was just a lame industry joke: “I think the fee is missing a zero.”
But for every such victory there are too many moments when I ask myself, “How did I ever get roped into this?” The Friday afternoon request for a job that’s needed Monday morning. The conference call that devolves into a chorus of conflicting orders bellowed into a hands-free phone — by people who have even less respect for me than they have for each other.
I’ve tried to protect myself from my own obliging nature with a simple set of rules that someone once shared with me. Before you take on any job, you should ask these three questions:
1. Does it pay well?
2. Could it lead to promising opportunities?
3. Do you admire and enjoy the people involved?
You should be able to answer yes to at least two out of three. So if the team is great and the project will open new doors, it may be worth doing for a lowball fee. But if it’s a one-off assignment and the people are idiots, don’t get sucked in, even if the money is good.
Which sounds great in theory. But then why did I take on that well-paid but unspeakably dreary report-writing gig — for clients who gushed enthusiastically about my work before using every chisel in their committee toolbox to chip away at whatever was good in it? And then when they called to ask if I’d take on another job, why did I say, “Sorry, I’m really busy, but let’s stay in touch” — when I should’ve said point blank that working for them was a soul-destroying experience I’d never care to repeat?
I don’t know. Because I might need the revenue, I guess. My accountant always says that if you’re turning down too many jobs, it’s time to raise your fees. But if you take that to heart, you can end up only working with dorks and missing out on some amazing opportunities. So instead I spent this past weekend doing a Website for an obscure regional retailer — a job that’s as likely to get me more business as placing an ad on Craigslist. And while the client may be a nice guy, the fact is I’ve never exchanged two words with him.
So I’ve done it to myself again. Clearly, when that call came in I should’ve just said, “I don’t know…maybe.”
Doug Dolan is a Toronto writer/communications consultant.
May 09, 2011 12:28 AM
Awesome post. I wish it were that easy, sometimes, to say "no." I really do. But it's reassuring to hear we're no alone.
May 13, 2011 11:04 AM
So true! Thanks for sharing, Doug!
May 15, 2011 06:44 PM
If it's at all telling, Americans do it too.
Perhaps it's an occupational hazard!