A Consultant’s Art of Saying No

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Consultants who cannot say no to clients, prospects, colleagues, professional associations, family, friends, or salesmen are doomed to failure. Their inability to say no stems from their deep-seated insecurities, and is manifest by a desire to be liked by everyone. This is not to suggest that you become a negative, autistic stinker. Certainly it's nice to be nice - but only when you have the time.

A modicum of self-respect and respect for your practice will prohibit you from allowing deadbeats, time wasters, and wheel spinners from encroaching on your precious time. Aside from your expertise, your time is your primary inventory and stock-in-trade.

Case History #1

Mr. C, a competent financial planning consultant, cannot say no to anyone. Four hours of every day are spent on the telephone; he allows these calls to ramble on interminably, simply because he cannot bring himself to tell the people on the other end of the line that he is too busy to talk to them (something they would respect, by the way). He accepts every luncheon invitation, whether germane to his practice or not. He answers all two-sentence inquiries with three- or four-page letters.

As a result, Mr. C. is invariably late for appointments, and his calendar is rife with conflicts. He has at-tended an assertiveness training course and two time-management courses, to no avail. He is on the verge of professional bankruptcy. But everyone "loves" Mr. C.

Case History #2

R. K., a health industry consultant, cannot always be reached. He feels strongly that certain periods of solitude and being "out of touch" are vital to his personal, intellectual, and professional well-being. He needs this time to "still the waters," as he puts it; he needs this time for clarity, without interruption. During these periods, no one knows where he is-not even his secretary. Those clients, who know him well and respect his knowledge, accept this somewhat aberrant behavior. Those who do not know him call him all kinds of names. But R. K.'s reputation has never suffered. He produces faultless work, has a full client load, earns over $ 150,000 per year in fees, never has a conflict in his schedule, and seems to have lots of time for whatever project is at hand. (I had occasion to visit R. K. once. My luncheon appointment with him was for noon. I arrived at 11:48 A.M. and breezed past his secretary into his office. He didn't look up or greet me, even though I stood, smiling foolishly in front of his desk. At 12N, he looked up and said hello, adding, "When I say noon, I mean noon, not 11:48. Sorry to have kept you standing there, but I was involved in a client's flow chart, and I couldn't be interrupted men-tally." I had to accept this with equanimity and respect.) R. K. is known as an eccentric - and he couldn't care less. Mark Twain once said, "It isn't easy to be a good eccentric anymore." One way or another, consultants are continually asked for free advice. Respect for your own professionalism demands that you say no just as any doctor or lawyer would. "Here is my card. Just call my office and set up an appointment." Self-respect invariably commands respect from others. No consultant has ever lost an assignment or a client by saying, "I have a client on Thursday morning. How would Friday or Monday afternoon suit you?" You're the doctor; the client is the patient. He has a problem to be solved; you do not.

  1. The client asks you to lower your fee.
  2. The client asks you to waive your fee.
  3. The client asks you to accept the assignment on a contingency basis, that is, if the project goes well you will be paid.
  4. The client asks your advice "off the record" at a cocktail party.
  5. The client is in dire financial straits.
  6. The client offers an assignment based on the fact that your final report will be dictated by him.
  7. The client is involved in shady dealings.
  8. The client would like a complete and specific methodology of how you can solve his problems - before you are retained officially.
  9. The client keeps you waiting interminably in his outer office. Get up, leave your card, and walk out. (If he calls again, ask to be paid for your waiting time.)
  10. You are constantly asked to donate your time by a trade or professional organization, after having volunteered all the time you can afford.
  11. You are asked for a proposal by a prospective client who has rejected two of your previous proposals.
  12. You are invited to dinner on the night before you are to submit a final report.
  13. Friends, family, or salesmen drop into your office unannounced.
  14. Former clients on the phone (unpaid) for one hour ask, "Do you have time for just one more question?"
  15. Colleagues call for a lunch appointment "just to chew the fat." Ask what they want to discuss, and then decide whether it is worth your while to do so.
  16. Someone wants to turn a twenty-minute meeting into a lunch or dinner.
  17. Someone wants to discuss a business matter "over drinks."
  18. The middle-management people of a client organization want to socialize and fraternize.
Case History #3

Paraphrasing an old musical comedy song, H. L. is "just a consultant who can't say no." He has, in the past twelve months alone:
  1. taken on more assignments than he can handle -at fees lower than standard,
  2. signed contracts with two publishers to write books,
  3. offered to accept two speaking engagements - one on each coast - within the same week,
  4. signed a partnership agreement with a colleague to do a series of seminars,
  5. offered to write a weekly column for a professional magazine, and
  6. accepted the position of educational committee chairman of his professional association.
H. L. is now the defendant in two lawsuits and the plaintiff in three others against clients who refuse to pay his bills due to non-feasance.
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