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Just Say NO

CANCELING YOUR CLIENT'S CARTE BLANCHE SOMETIMES IT'S BAD BUSINESS to say yes to every last-minute request or unreasonable budget proposal that comes your way. It can be better for your bottom line - and your peace of mind - to say no.

DON'T SELL YOURSELF SHORT Bobbi Taylor, owner of Breckenridge, Colo.-based BT Event Productions, notes three reasons to say no: First, "if it's not going to be financially rewarding; second, if it's out of your area of expertise; and third, if it doesn't meet the criteria of where you want to be.

"Look at what your time is worth and what you're worth," she says. "If you try to be all things to all people, you'll get yourself in trouble."

Randy Fuhrman, owner of Randy Fuhrman's Creative Concept in Los Angeles, agrees. "You have to go with your intuitive sense," he says. "Are you making enough money for the client to take you away from getting other business? You have to weigh what you're getting paid to what your services are going to be.

"If I would have started saying no a long time ago, I'd probably be a lot further along financially," he adds.

Mark Harrison, managing director of London-based event planning company The Full Effect, warns that it's "important to avoid giving in to clients who do not have a sufficient budget [and who] push for a job on which corners have been cut, so that the success of the overall event is compromised.

"The client will often promise more work and that [the budget will be larger] for the next event," he says. "However, next time they will either expect more for the same money or will not work with you again because they were not satisfied with the end product."

If you're worried that saying no might sully your professional reputation, Curtis Dahl, owner of Tarzana, Calif.-based Curtis Dahl Photography, notes that when a client tends to be unreasonable, other people already know about it.

HIDDEN BENEFITS It isn't uncommon for a planner, photographer or caterer to resist saying no early in his or her career out of fear. "It used to be that I'd never say no," Taylor recalls. "I was worried I'd lose business."

Taylor quickly learned, however, that saying no can sometimes create "the phenomena that makes the client want you more."

Fuhrman also found this to be true. "When you start becoming unavailable, that's when people start paying for you," he notes.

In one instance, a potential client was gruff initially, but when Fuhrman turned down the project, the client came back with $3,000 more and an entirely different attitude. "He'd softened," Fuhrman says. "It's amazing what's happened overnight."

WALKING A TIGHTROPE Of course, saying no has a downside.

"We try not to make it happen," says Susan Lacz, principal of Bethesda, Md.-based Ridgewells Catering. "It's just not good business practice. We take it case by case." By asking herself questions such as "How much business do they give us?" and "What kind of turnaround time do they give us?" Lacz can better gauge her response.

"Develop good relationships with your clients," Harrison advises, "and keep lines of communication open at all times so that any challenges can be met before they develop into a problem."

When you have to say no to loyal clients with whom you've developed a rapport, they "will understand if they're really late" requesting your services and you happen to be overbooked, Fuhrman notes.

"I go above and beyond as much as I can," Taylor says. But "if it's causing you stress and it isn't financially rewarding, you have to ask, does this make sense?"

TIPS ON TECHNIQUE Lacz says she tends to decline business most when her company is booked, generally during the holidays. When declining, "a letter or a phone call from me, the owner," helps clients feel a little better about the situation, she says.

"You have to have a little bit of savvy when you say no," Taylor notes. "There is a bit of a technique. Say it with confidence, knowing that you're making the best decision for you, for your company.

"You also want to say no with the tone that you would welcome them coming back to you at a later date," she adds.

What it if you've already taken on a project but have no choice but to stop in the middle of the job? Dahl advises drawing up a release and having both parties sign it. In today's litigious climate, it's smart "to sever a relationship legally," he says. "It's important to protect yourself."

SETTING STANDARDS Setting minimum standards is another, less confrontational way of saying no. "We quite frequently turn down requests for small pieces of business [that] do not meet our minimum requirements," Harrison says. "We will not spend a disproportionate time on small projects." He will consider making an exception for a valued client, viewingit as a "marketing expense."

"If I don't get a budget," Fuhrman says, "I won't do a proposal. That's another way of saying no."

Having a set of standards as a measure by which to accept or turn down projects also can work to your benefit. "You've got to make a list of what you are about - your criteria," Taylor says. "I had a client doing what they thought was a very snazzy event and spending $20,000 for 50 people for one night. I ended up saying no to the project because it didn't fit my criteria." This same client came back, spent $160,000 and did a three-day incentive trip to an exotic location, she notes.

UNITED WE STAND Above all else, Taylor advises that her peers have the courage to say no more often: "If more people used discretion in that area, it would help educate clients in knowing what they can and can't expect."

RESOURCES: BT Event Productions, 970/453-0910; Curtis Dahl Photography, 818/708-7282; Randy Fuhrman's Creative Concept, 323/860-0900; Ridgewells Catering, 301/652-1515; The Full Effect, +44 1234 269099

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