Why it’s okay to say no to new business

‘No’ isn’t a common word in a typical business owner’s lexicon because it would be mad to turn away an opportunity, right?

Not according to bookkeeping business owner Lisa Garratt. She believes in some instances it can pay to walk away.

We spoke to her to see how she makes the call on whether to shake hands or show new clients the door.


The Pulse: Could tell us a bit about yourself and your business experience?

Lisa: I’ve worked as a business administrator and sales analyst for most of my career within the building maintenance, pharmaceutical and accounting software sectors. In 2012, I decided to open my own bookkeeping franchise business.

The early days were tough but I’m now at a point where I’ve got a good client base and a manageable workload.

Most of my business these days comes in through referrals from existing clients or accountants, so I can be a bit more discerning about who I take on.

The Pulse: How do you decide who’s a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of client?

Lisa: I offer anyone who gets in touch a free one hour consultation so I can get to know them and their business.

During this face-to-face meeting, the main things I’ll consider whether our values align and whether they’re being realistic about the amount of time needed to do the job.

I won’t take on any clients who I believe will ask me to do things that breach tax laws.

Similarly, I’m very cautious about those who blame everyone else but themselves for the poor state of their books and the money they owe the ATO.

READ: 5 types of customers who are bad for business

The Pulse: Are there any other warning signs to look out for?

Lisa: In my experience, body language and the way people address you speaks volumes about the type of client they’re going to be.

Are they open, generous and respectful, or are they cagey, aloof and abrasive?

Are they waffling on and not letting you talk, or are they happy having a genuine dialogue about how you could help them?

These are some of the things I look out for when I’m weighing up a new client. And I always listen to my instincts because nine times out of ten they’re usually right.

The Pulse: Have you ever been wrong about a ‘no’ client?

Lisa: Yes! I took on a client who I’d usually walk away from because their bookkeeping was a complete mess.

However, they were good people at heart and I felt sorry for them that they’d got themselves in such a pickle. I knew the job was going to be tough but I felt confident I could turn things around for them.

Within a few months, we were on the road to recovery.

Today, they’re in good shape and are still clients of mine.  My advice to anyone considering working with a ‘no’ client is to think very carefully about the consequences of their decision because happy endings like this one are rare.

READ: Why difficult customers are good for business

The Pulse: Why do you think so many business owners fear saying no?

Lisa: I think the main reason is that they fear potential lost revenue.

This is totally understandable because it’s hard to say no when you’re struggling to make ends meet.

However, in my experience there’s always a cost (usually a whole lot of stress) when you take on difficult clients.

While no one likes to forgo income, saying no has bought me time to spend with the people I love doing fun things and you can’t really put a price on that.

The Pulse: Any advice on how to let a client down gently?

Lisa: Have a clear list of the reasons, accept that it’s going to be awkward, and own your decision. This means you’ll be well-prepared to deal with the discomfort of saying no and won’t be easily pressured into changing your mind.

Don’t be afraid about being honest why you can’t take on the job — just make sure you say it in a kind and respectful way.

Once you’ve done it a few times, you develop a format for these difficult discussions and it gets easier with practice.


Lisa Garratt is First Class Accounts bookkeeper who prides herself on offering down-to-earth customer service and exceptional bookkeeping. She is passionate about giving business owners the peace of mind they need to focus on growing their venture.