Susan and I started our first business together over 20 years ago (when we were babies). 👶🏼 👶🏼
Not exactly. But we were young enough to have energy and enthusiasm, and old enough to have experience and confidence. We also had a great idea that we believed in.
What we didn't have was clients.
Lie #1: "Of course, we can plan a rodeo!"
Uh, no, we couldn't. Not even close. When Susan made this claim, we had just started down the yellow-bricked entrepreneurial road and the flying monkeys hadn't yet flown.
After that business meeting, riding home in the car, I asked Susan a relevant question: "Do you even KNOW anyone with horses!?" 🐴 That's not all I said, but I digress. 👿 Fortunately, we didn't get hired for the job. Whew. Relief all around that we didn't have to shovel out that manure pile. 💩
Here's the dilemma: there's a fine line between exaggerating one's capabilities and telling an outright lie. You need the experience to get the job, but you need the job to get the experience.
In an old episode of Friends, Phoebe discovers that Joey's resume includes skills in tap dancing, archery, horseback riding, and speaking French — none of which he knows how to do. Joey's reasoning for exaggerating: technically, he could learn how to do any of these things, just not well.
The truth is, the only way to get better at something is to DO IT. But when a client is paying for it, you'd better be able to deliver a quality product.
LESSON: Be realistic. Know what you can (and cannot) do well.
If we had been hired for the rodeo, I promise I would have figured it out somehow. 🤠 I'm not one to back down from a challenge. But I've learned a lot about client pitches since then and would definitely think it through before making that claim. (And no, I did not know anyone with horses.)
Lie #2: "Your logo looks fine."
Cringing, we held back our true opinion of a Word Art monstrosity, "designed" decades ago (Office '97). It was way past time for a logo update, but we feared insulting a potential client. We later had to cross that bridge again and give our honest opinion, which we should have done in the first place. In the end, we were able to create a new logo the client loved.
LESSON: Be forthright. If it's not good, say so (kindly) and offer a solution to make it better.
Lie #3: "We're happy to tweak that...yet again."
Honest Abe said it best: "You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you can never please all of the people all of the time."
Tweaking (not twerking) is an important part of our job. We edit, change, refine, adjust, review and re-review to complete a project well. When one client requested the 10th iteration of a Facebook ad, we finally recommended another designer that might be a better fit. Know when to say hello — and goodbye. When you've given your best and it's still not good enough, the best solution for all concerned might be to pull the plug.
The more important lesson we learned was to be specific in the proposal (i.e. two revisions, not endless...).
LESSON: Get specific with the details in the beginning — save everyone time and money. And headaches.
And here's the point.
As a freelancer, consultant, or small business owner, it can be tempting to say “yes” to every client or project that comes your way. After all, who knows when the next job will come along? And, no matter what happens, it’ll be worth it in the end… right?
When pitching to a potential client, there's nothing wrong with framing your skills in a favorable light. But be sure you're prepared to put your money where your mouth is. If you get the job, by all means, give it everything you've got — hopefully, you'll gain new skills and take your business to the next level. But if you're in over your head, know when it's time to find (and pay for) the expertise that is needed to get the job done.
Don't be afraid to collaborate, outsource — and when you do, disclose that to your client. We've won several proposals by being resourceful and connecting with experts to fill the gaps (and again, saving everyone time and money).
The truth is, there are plenty of reasons to say no to a client or a project. Maybe you already have too much on your plate. Maybe the project isn’t quite the right fit. Maybe the client is challenging to work with. Whatever the situation, you’re going to run into situations where it’s in your best interest to decline — and if you don’t master the art of saying no, it can lead to resentment, overwhelm, and burnout.
The point is, when you learn how to say no politely to clients, projects, or work that isn’t a fit, you’re leaving room to say “yes” to opportunities that are a better match. And those opportunities will make working in your business feel more focused, fulfilling, and manageable.