I will be the first to admit that I used to have a serious problem, one that still plagues me even as I write this. The problem is learning how to say “no” more, even when I’m really, really tempted to say “yes”. To those that have never experienced this problem, or have never realized that you, too, suffer from it, you may have a hard time understanding why saying “no” is really a skill and one that takes a long time to hone. I have been honing this skill over the last several years and believe I’ve finally gotten decently good at it.

There are a lot of opportunities to say yes:

  • When someone asks you for help working through a problem
  • When someone wants to hire you for a project
  • When someone asks you for your opinion
  • When someone asks you to buy something
  • When someone asks you to sell something
  • When someone asks you to think about something
  • Many, many more

With every opportunity to say “yes”, there is also an equal number of opportunities to say “no”. The interesting fact is that even though every single “yes” could easily have an opposite “no”, we tend to say “yes” far more often.

Let me give a few examples.

A customer of a paid product opens a support ticket and asks if I can make a small tweak for him. The tweak is relatively simple and will perhaps only take 3 to 5 minutes of my time. In the big scheme of things, what is 5 minutes? Sure, I will go ahead and make the tweak, it’s just one or two lines after all.

Another customer opens a ticket and asks if it would be possible to add a second, small feature. Sure, the feature only takes 20 to 30 minutes to build, so why not?

A person I have never worked with before emails me and asks if I would be interested in working on a small project with them. Being small, it is at most a 3 to 4 day project. Sure, why not, I’ll say yes.

If you have worked as a freelancer, a business owner, a support technician, or many, many other positions, these kind of requests will probably sound pretty familiar to you. We all get them all the time.

Especially when working in support, it is very common to get users that have a simple problem, which you promptly fix, that then they follow it up with “oh hey, while we are here, could we look at the border color in my footer?”, which is then followed up with “since you’ve helped me with this, could you also look at the spacing around my logo?”.

This is extremely common, but what you may not realize is that these little requests quite literally take giant chunks of time out of your day.

It has taken me 4-5 years of doing customer support to finally realize just how valuable learning to say “no” can be for me, my business, and my own time.

Earlier today I had a customer ask if I could help him change a little spacing around in his site’s footer. The fix was quite literally 2-3 lines of CSS, but I decided to say “no”. This might seem a little harsh, after all what is a few lines of CSS really going to cost me? But it’s not just this one instance of saying “no”, it’s the countless others that are to follow.

Every single day I get minor requests to help with this or that. When each of these take 5-15 minutes they can actually add up to a huge amount of time very quickly.

Is it too mean to say “no” to a 3 line CSS tweak? No, absolutely not. Why? It’s simple: I’m saying no to the request, not the person. As a person, I am more than happy to help you (the customer), but that does not mean every request will be meant with a “yes”.

Coming to understand the importance of this has quite literally saved me countless hours in the last year.

Let’s look at a few stats.

Since my site opened, just about two years ago, there have been 1464 contact form submissions. Some of these are project requests, some are support requests, some are customization requests.

Since I opened my support forum, I have personally posted 4748 replies to support tickets, a large number of which are customization requests.

Since I opened this site, I have posted approximately 1500 comments in replies to comments left by readers.

Since I opened the Easy Digital Downloads support forum, I have posted 11,548 replies to support tickets, a huge number of which are responses to “can you tweak this for me”.

Since I launched the Easy Digital Downloads website, there have been 810 contact form submissions, most of which are support requests and requests for minor customizations.

Since I launched the Easy Digital Downloads website, I have posted 1,067 replies to comments left on site articles.

That is a really big number when you add all of those together. 16,389 to be exact.

Obviously not every single one of those 16,389 items is something I have to respond to (some were responses I posted), but the point is that in those 16,389 items there are a huge number of opportunities to say “yes”, and an equally large number of opportunities to say “no”. Just imagine the amount of time saved if I said “no” to just 5% more of those than I said “yes” to? It’s huge.

The point I’m trying to make here is not that you should say “no” to people purely for the sake of saying “no”, but that you need to carefully consider exactly when you should say “yes” and when you should say “no”. Once you have thought about it for a while, I suspect that you will find exactly the same thing I have over time: saying “no” is extremely difficult, it takes a ton of practice, but it is a skill that is immensely value once you have honed it to a nice, shiny, sharp edge.

  1. Ed

    Amen Brother. Multiply 3 minutes by 1,000 and it equals 3,000 minutes of your time. What keeps me sane and focused on projects/plugin development is to remind myself that doing favors or tweaks for folks here and there hurts the entire group/customers/plugin development overall.

    Great post man!

  2. Darryl

    There might be an opportunity there for someone (not me) to hire themselves out as the WP yes man 🙂

  3. Flash Buddy

    I’m stuck in saying yes hell – H E L P !
    Thanks for a great article. I empathize with saying now to a small thing where you fully expect a rash of additional small things, ad nauseum.

  4. jtorres_mora

    I think it is time for you to have more people to help you in your business. A strong thing your business is serving people. Looking for a solution where more people could help you. All the best

  5. Ed

    @Flash Buddy – then you just have not reached that point yet where you have gotten so pissed off and frustrated with yourself that you have not made any forward progress in days due to helping other folks out instead of doing what you need to get done. That was the wall for me – Took me 1 week to get a 30 minute stretch of coding done because I was being dumb about answering questions for other folks and not taking the phone off the hook. Sometimes just not saying anything works just as well as saying “No”. LOL

  6. Chris Lema

    It’s a special club – the one filled with people who say No a lot. Glad you’ve joined up. Welcome! It’s the best decision ever and you’ll be saying Yes to better things because of it.

  7. Timothy Maina

    I’ve struggled with this for a looong time just because I wanna keep my rep as a “nice guy” but it’s been hurting my business. Great article Pippin, I’ll keep working on saying no more often.

  8. .Blake

    Looks like a job for WP Jack of Trades. Lol 🙂

  9. Raymon Schouwenaar

    So Pipin you’re a busy man! So i gues you earn your money with these plugins! Nice to hear!

  10. Uncle Jimmy

    While work’n at a SignShop I finally put a Sign on my office door that read, “Favors Cost $65 an hour” …Ha!!! ;)~

  11. Nick

    Definitely easier to teach someone how to fish.

  12. Tom McFarlin

    Pippin – I think this is something all of us younger guys are having to learn and sometimes the hard way.

    I’ve recently started doing this this year but I’ve noticed that it gets easier every time.

    And, like a wise dude once told me, “saying no to something means saying no to something else.” For me, it’s always a matter of what do I have – or want – say yes to in return?

  13. Brian Krogsgard

    The biggest lesson I’ve learned from saying yes too often is that I physically can’t deliver on everything I say yes to if I don’t say no more than I say yes. If nothing else, that encourages me to say no more. I hate not delivering, and every time I feel in over my head, I remember how I should’ve just said no.

    It sounds like you are ahead of me in this regard, but man, I’m getting there fast. Great post, Pippin.

  14. Joel Williams

    I say yes to almost everything, the number of “five minute jobs” I do a day takes up probably three times as long as the actual jobs themselves. I like helping people out so it’s hard to say know. I need to learn from you and Chris Lema.

    Thanks for the inspiration and reminder!

    • Flash Buddy

      Hey Joel, send me your email. I’m currently overloaded with 5 min. jobs and need to offload a few!

    • Joel Williams

      Haha, “No”. See just learned how to do it 🙂

  15. Eric Daams

    As a freelancer, I have found it increasingly easy to say no to clients — especially prospective clients that I have never worked with before. I increasingly find myself just saying I’m not taking on any new clients at the moment. Because as Tom McFarlin said above, I say no to those jobs because I want to be able to say yes to something else: product development.

    When it comes to support for those plugins, I feel like it’s a bit more of a challenge. I totally identify with your “3 lines of CSS” example — I have done that over and over again. Figuring out how to say no to stuff like that is something I am going to need to get much better at.

    On that note, I loved your comment in your podcast interview earlier this week, about spending far more time in support with your first few customers than with later ones. That is very, very good advice, and one that I think is worth keeping in mind when you consider which requests to say no to.


    • Pippin

      I find I do the same: say no to most prospective projects so I can work on more product development.

  16. Christopher Blanco

    This is awesome man… your very talented and i respect you as a person alot.. Great article…

    • Pippin

      Thanks for the link!

  17. Sebastien

    I too have a hard time saying ‘No’ at times but yes, saying ‘No’ does help you a little every now and then. It does take practice but the end result is better not just for yourself but for the client as they can go and find someone who can say yes.

    I know that might seem a little mean but a client should feel comfortable with someone who can give results when they need them.

    • Itender Rawat

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I am waiting for your further write ups thank you once again.

  18. Ed

    If a client is costing you time and money asking excessive questions then it is better for you if they go somewhere else. 😉 Don’t get me wrong here. If a particular client emails me once a week (or back and forth emails to get an issue or problems figured out) for an answer then I do not consider that excessive. If a client is sending me an email a day or several emails a day and some are related to services I offer and the others are questions about everything under the sun then I am very comfortable with laying down the law with that client. The alternative to allowing something like this is you hate yourself, you lose other valuable clients, you fall behind production/development schedules…you go out of business.

  19. Ed

    A positive tip that really works well to establish “the law” ahead of time and to avoid upsetting clients.
    If you create all your service level agreements and the reasons for “the rules” and post them online and they are dated. ie your Forum then you can send a short personal explanation to the client in the email response with the link to that Forum post. What happens is the client understands that these are the rules and the reasons for why these rules are necessary. There are a ton of other bennies of doing this, but the most important thing is to avoid having a client take something personally. If it is already posted info then it is usually accepted by the client without any personal or emotional phooey. 😉

    PS – Yeah this post really hit home for me. Ok no more comments from me I swear. ha ha ha.

    • Pippin

      That’s great advice.

  20. Dan

    I need this advice I am a yes I will doormat and I get walked all over all the time.

  21. Laura

    I’ve been practicing saying no for about a year, but still have a long ways to go… Thanks for sharing. 2014 is my year to perfect No.

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