Sometimes I can’t believe I first learned this concept from a Dilbert Cartoon. Even if desperate for work, you must realize what you don’t do. And learn to say “no.”
It’s not about being an ass. It’s about focus. It’s liberating, and counterintuitively, if delivered right, it can build trust.
It’s liberating because you don’t end up obligating yourself to commitments you’re not prepared to handle. Saying yes to things you can’t provide because of lack of tools or time, or because they are well outside of your experience places an immense burden upon you where you’re obligated to them. As long as you have the power to say “no” – your fate is in your hands, and you retain your own position of power in the negotiating process.
It builds trust because if you do make commitments you can’t keep because of conflicts with other commitments, or simply because it’s not your expertise, you end up setting yourself up for failure. Whereas saying “no” – if it comes from self-assurance, from the certain knowledge that here is your focus, and that what you’re being asked isn’t, that you can’t promise to deliver what they expect, you come across as mature, reliable, and a person who makes good judgements about the proper tool for the job.
If you think I’m kidding, we landed a long-term client because after looking the location over, we told them up front that we weren’t experts on everything they had on site, and weren’t sure they were a good fit for us. They decided they didn’t really need some of the other services, but really needed what we could provide.
When you’re in consulting, you trade on your reputation, and like life in general, on the perception of your reliability. Showing good judgment by saying “I’m not the man for the job, but I think he is” goes a long way to building and maintaining that reputation when it comes sincerely.
As an aside – there are always gray areas. We ended up picking up that client and learned a lot from it – but a huge part of why we’re both happy with the relationship is because we both understood what we could provide and what they expected from the beginning. At the same time, you shouldn’t stagnate – always push the boundaries a little bit to step outside of your comfort zone and learn something new. But never lose your focus. Know what you do, be prepared to tell people what you don’t do – and offer to help them find someone who’s a better fit.
If they’re talking to you already, the odds are you’re close enough to what they are looking for that you can probably be a huge help for them – even if it’s pointing them to someone who really fits their needs.