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Knowing When to Say “No”

In all my years of practice, I have never once regretted turning down a prospective client. I have, however, found myself living with the regret of having accepted a client or a case I never should have taken. Now, you may think that after 25 years in practice, mistakes of this nature would be at thing of the past. You’d be wrong.

A case, client, or customer can be a bad fit for many reasons. Maybe it’s just the wrong time and you’re too committed to other endeavors in order to serve the new client effectively. Perhaps the assignment is just a little outside of your comfort zone. Sometimes the customer is just a bad credit risk and there is a real possibility that you won’t get paid. Occasionally, of course, the customer is just stone cold crazy.

Many years ago, I represented a construction company that was very good at building big boxes – Home Depots, Wal-Marts, Best Buys, etc. Times were tight and their backlog wasn’t quite what they wanted it to be, so they bid on and won a contract to build a convent. The convent was a gorgeous and involved project featuring a soaring cathedral ceiling in the chapel, residential units, an indoor swimming pool, and well-landscaped grounds.

We wound up in a 5 week arbitration in which the photocopying bill exceeded $50,000.

I never asked them about it, but I’m sure there came a time before the contract was signed that the red flags went up. I can almost guarantee that there was some discussion – either internally or at a pre-bid meeting – at which the thought arose that this project was not down my client’s power alley. I don’t know when or how they convinced themselves otherwise. I only know the result.

When I got married, my wife and I wanted our wedding rings made out of rose gold taken from one of her stepmother’s rings. My wife’s stepmother was a wonderful person taken too soon and we felt that we could honor her by incorporating something of hers into our wedding bands. My wife picked up the rings one week before we were to leave for our Hawaii wedding/honeymoon. When we unwrapped them, it was like Christmas in July.

My wife’s ring looked gorgeous. She was thrilled. My ring looked like a third grader’s arts & crafts project. “Thrilled” is not the word I would use to describe my reaction. When I returned to the jeweler, he initially balked at my suggestion that the ring was less than acceptable. His reaction changed when I asked him this:

“Imagine that Baltimore Magazine came to do a story on your work. The entire town would see it and judge your abilities solely from that one article. Is this the piece you would want featured?”

He took the ring from me without another word, disappeared in the back, and had an assistant come out some time later with the rose gold he had detached from the ring. He never reappeared. Perhaps his feelings were hurt, but the point was made and understood.

Every initial client meeting, each new purchase order or RFP, comes with an opportunity to define you. The question at each juncture has to be asked: “Is this what we do best?” If that answer is “no,” yours should be too.