Practice Management Small Business

How to Say “No” and Still Look Like a Hero

Written by Salim Omar

I recently talked to a practitioner who found himself in an awkward situation. A prospect came to him asking for services that he wasn’t prepared to perform. The CPA confessed that he stammered a bit when speaking with the prospect and didn’t feel like he handled the situation elegantly. In the moment, he was grappling with multiple thoughts at once:

How to Say “No” and Still Look Like a Hero

“Darn. What this guy’s asking me to do is not my forte. In fact, if I take on this work, it’ll take me away from my core services!”

“I can’t afford to turn down any work right now. If I want to grow this practice, I’ll just have to grin and bear it.”

“This prospect is a good friend of one of my clients. If I do turn him away, he may get ticked off. Maybe he’ll tell my client and he’ll dump me. Besides, I don’t want to make it look like I don’t appreciate the referral.”

So much unnecessary anguish!

If you find yourself in a similar position, here are some things to remember.

Excellence or Mediocrity?

Of course you want to provide excellent service. But if you’re serious about that, remember that most high-performing firms have specialties. They focus their energy on one area and become an expert. There’s no shame in that. No one can excel at everything. When we try, we wind up doing many things, but none of them particularly well. Take pride in your area of expertise and don’t allow yourself to feel shame in turning down work that falls outside of it.

Looking Incompetent

If a practitioner gains a reputation for being incompetent, how did it happen? Did it happen because he or she turned down work? No. It happens when practitioners try to “fake it” and take on work that falls outside their scope of expertise. Don’t fall into that trap.

Words to Win

There are elegant ways of turning down work that will not only keep your dignity intact, but will actually make you shine. For example:

“This falls outside my area of professional focus, but I can introduce you to someone who specializes in this.”

You might cringe at the idea of admitting your limitations, but actually it presents you with an opportunity to compliment yourself without sounding arrogant. You can remind the client in what specific areas you do excel. For example: “When you’re looking for tax reduction, I’m your expert. But my friend Diane specializes in payroll services.”

Kindling Referrals

Additionally, turning away a prospect can potentially result in new clients down the road. By pointing the prospect in the direction of a service provider who’s a perfect fit, you’re saving him or her time and hassle. If you don’t have a perfect fit in your network, invest a few minutes in helping the prospect locate one. Make a call or two. This is an easy way to “wow” the prospect, and since you’ve already told them what your specialty is (see “Words to Win”) when he or she encounters someone who needs your particular services, they just might send you a referral.

Importantly, you are also building goodwill with the firm you are referring business to. I had a similar situation a few months back when one of my clients was looking to sell a partial interest in his business to a key team member and needed a business valuation done.  Since my firm does not provide this particular service, we connected the client with a local business valuation firm. The business valuation firm has since become a strong referral source for my firm, sending us the right types of clients.

What About Going ‘Above and Beyond’?

You’re right in thinking that going the extra mile for a client adds up to world-class service. How, then, is turning away work a good thing? Shouldn’t you be shouldering the work no matter what it is, even if it’s a challenge? Maybe, maybe not. It comes down to how you answer this question:

“Will the end product be something I’d feel comfortable showing off?”

If the answer is “no,” it’s best to say no to your prospect and point her or him in the direction of a more fitting practitioner. Make no mistake, this isn’t about laziness. You’re not avoiding hard work. You’re conducting your practice with integrity and protecting your reputation.

What are some businesses you work with that you would refer clients or prospects to?

Build a spreadsheet with related business professionals you trust, and their specialties and contact information so you can make referrals in a flash.

About the author

Salim Omar

Salim Omar has spent the last 20 years uncovering the keys to success of any CPA firm.

He’s used his financial expertise and his own struggles in the early years of starting and growing his CPA firm as a springboard for understanding the success principles that create accounting firms that are profitable, respected and fun for their employees.

Feeling unfulfilled and tired of corporate politics and a long commute, in 1996 Salim left a “cushy” corporate CFO position with a corner office to fulfill his mission of starting his own CPA firm.

He soon found out that this was no easy task, and he struggled with low-paying clients, poor cash flow, and a high employee turnover.

After going $100,000 into debt, Salim made it his mission to transform his struggling practice into a highly profitable, 12+ person firm that it is today. Best of all, he works only a few days a week while his practice continues to thrive.

Salim is considered by many as the #1 advisor and thought leader for accounting firms. His company, CPA Marketing Genius, helps practitioners avoid the same pitfalls he encountered, and to create their own lifestyle practice.

He has authored popular books such as, The Million Dollar CPA Firm, and The Ultimate CPA Practice in the New Economy. He has been featured in a range of prestigious publications such as The CPA Journal, Financial Advisor and Wealth Manager and on the cover of Accounting Today.

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