What Kind Of Client Work Will You Turn Down?

My 2Bobs podcast partner, Blair Enns, will sometimes ask this question: “What does it take to get fired around here?” He’s wondering whether a particular culture will spit people out. That is, after all, the proper job of a culture: to attract the right people, yes, but also to spit the wrong ones out.

I’ve often wondered the same question about “what sort of client work will you say no to?” You and I both know that you say yes to almost everything, right? It comes from:

  • A scarcity mindset, which I’ll be writing about soon.
  • A right-fit lead generation problem where you have to reach down into the opportunity bucket in order to stay busy.
  • Some new and interesting opportunity gets your heart racing when you’re bored with your business.

Behind that landscape of reasons, though, is a haunting truth: each of us is somewhere between fraud and guru, and our own incompetence is difficult to measure and surface. It’s even more difficult to address.

So back to what client opportunity you’ll say no to, and why you’ll do that.

So here’s how this works now. You’re driving around town with a hope-filled heart, waiting for the radio to crackle to life from someone back at the shop. “Hey, Tom, we just got a report that Acme Corp might need us!” You start heading that way while you gather more detail.

But you’re driving around in an unpainted, white step van. So about two blocks before you arrive at your next victim’s office, you pull over to the curb, walk around to the back, pull both doors open, and start flipping through the 20 or so magnetic signs stacked inside the back door.

After finding the sign that most closely matches what the customer is looking for, you’ll slap it on the side of the van—eyeing it up for straightness—and drive the remaining two blocks. The needy client looks out the storefront as the van parks and notes that the “expert” has arrived.

All this was aided by the invention of the color copier and presentation decks, both of which enabled you to create an expertise of convenience, changing it like today’s specials at a restaurant.

No, folks. The restaurant name and cuisine are carefully chosen and predictably the same, and that’s why the proprietor can justify the massive expense of a neon sign that will shine for decades. It’s only the night’s specials that are written on a chalkboard…because they change every night!

Remember the excitement and pride when you opened that box of new business cards earlier in your career? How that ink smelled and the crisp, luxurious paper felt? In that era, you wisely put a lot of thought into what they proclaimed because you were going to live with that positioning statement and presentation of expertise for five or even ten years. Now you can get business cards in a day. That’s handy when you unpack at a convention only to discover that you left all yours behind at the office, but it’s a lousy excuse for changing your positioning to what a customer wants to see, just like that “expert” in the van.

Back to our topic. That “no” that you blurt out needs to be as firm as the “yes” that you eagerly toss the prospect, and here are the best reasons to say no to any given opportunity:

  • It stretches you too far out of your comfort zone. You do need to be stretched in order to grow, but irresponsible stretching is merely incompetence and it’s wrong.
  • Taking on this new project will cheat your existing clients.
  • Expanding your capacity this quickly will mean that you compromise on some of the new hires that you are pursuing.

The more intuitive your expertise, the more dangerous this is. You don’t see kidney specialists secretly hoping a heart transplant candidate accidently comes to her office so that she can nail that first surgery she’s always wanted to do. But you do see design firms itching to do a naming project or PR firms itching to build a website so that the client doesn’t go elsewhere and digital media experts itching to take on an employer branding project.

The fact that we are constantly tempted to step outside our core expertise is because our expertise is not sufficiently deep and grounded in research and observation. It’s just too easy to pretend.

We don’t need renaissance people doing storytelling. We need storytellers who have researched this, developed and tested truly proprietary methods of crafting stories, and we need to stop the bullsh1t claims based on making nonsense up because that’s what we think clients want to hear. Let’s treat our profession a little more seriously, okay?

That promise that digital-everything would introduce measurability to our industry was a bad prediction. It’s more nuanced than ever, and if enough people knew what they were doing, you’d see less growth-hacking, fewer books on the secrets to marketing, and more firms truly standing head and shoulders above the others.

There is ample room for innovation in your space. Pick a swimming lane and quit jumping laterally to wherever the water seems more inviting. Pick one area this year to beef up your capabilities so that you can speak with more certainty.

Start saying “no” to more work that’s not really a fit, be disciplined about looking for right-fit clients, and start kicking everyone else’s butt in the competition department. I would say that about 20% of my clients are really delivering differentiated outcomes and I wish that number was higher.

What would it take for you to say “no” to a client opportunity? Every year that passes should be more reasons to say “no” rather than more reasons to say “yes” to opportunity.

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