Saying No is an Essential Business Skill

Backbone image used under Creative Commons license. Courtesy of University of Liverpool Health Sciences.

As business owners, we LOVE to say yes to our clients. “YES, I’d love to shoot your birth!” “Yes, I can absolutely come take photos of your newborns!” And saying yes whenever you can is a great way to build your business.

But if your business is going to survive, if you are going to avoid burnout, you also need to know when and how to say “no” to clients.

Some examples, all drawn from my own experience:

  1. Photographer has been there 21 hours, including all through the night, shooting the birth and immediate postpartum. It’s been two hours since the baby was born, which is the longest time allowed in the birth photography contract. Mom is settled in a postpartum room and about to take a nap while dad goes home to get older siblings to meet the baby. Mom says “Can’t you stick around to shoot the kids meeting the baby? It should only take an hour to two for dad to bring them.”
  2. You include in your birth package a mini maternity session which is 30 minutes long and includes just mom and her partner. Client shows up with her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews (14 people total) all dressed up and asks “Can we just take a few of the whole family while we are here?” You have another client coming for her mini session in 30 minutes.
  3. You’ve already booked 4 births with due dates all within three weeks, and someone comes to ask you to take them on as well.
  4. Parents really would love to have a birth photographer, but they’ve only budgeted $75. Can’t you please do it?

In all four of these situations, the client is pushing the boundaries of the business, and the photographer needs to be able to say no in a professional manner that doesn’t alienate the client.

Some techniques to use when you do need to say no:

  1. Say no by saying yes. In the first situation, the photographer really needs to go home and get some sleep, instead of waiting around a couple hours and then spend even more time shooting. She’s fulfilled the contract. The photographer could say something like
    “I really need to get home and get to bed, and my contract only allows for 2 hours of postpartum coverage. If you’d really like photos with the kids, I do have a hospital newborn session we could do tomorrow. It costs $X.”
    This is saying yes to what the client wants (photos with the kids) while preserving what the photographer needs (sleep and payment for more work beyond what is already completed.) This is easier if you manage the client’s expectations in a prenatal consultation, by explaining that if parents want photos with older siblings or grandparents, they need to happen within the time frame in the contract.
  2. Say no by communicating more clearly and sticking with the contract. In the moment, this is such an awkward thing. I’ll admit that I had a hard time not giving in on this one. I explained to my client that as our contract stated, this was a maternity session for her and her partner, not a family session. I explained that we would go ahead with the maternity session as planned and IF there was time before my next client showed up, we would do one group photo. In retrospect, communicating more clearly up front could have cleared it up before it got really awkward.
  3. Say no by referring on. As flattering as it might be to hear they want YOU, don’t fall into egotism thinking you -and only you – can take everyone who wants to hire you. Best case scenario: you run yourself ragged trying to make it to all those births. More likely scenario: You miss a birth or provide terrible service with slow turnaround. These things can lead to a bad reputation, which hurts you more long term.Know your limits, and build relationships with people you can refer to when you’re booked. They will return the favor, and the goodwill in the birth community will come back to you far more than greedily trying to do all the births yourself!
  4. Sometimes you just have to stiffen your backbone and say flat out say no. In that last example, I simply said “I can’t do that, my expenses are too high and I would lose money on the job.” The woman then asked if I could refer her to anyone who would do it in her budget and once again I had to say no. “I’m sorry, but I can’t expect any of my colleagues to lose money on a job, either.”

That last one can be a tough one. It can be HARD to say no when you need to, especially if you are a pushover or sometimes let your compassion overrule reality. What helps the most with this is *practice* – and if you can’t start with clients, start with other people in your life. The PTA president who wants you to do more than you’d like. The neighbor who is always expecting you to help take care of his yard. etc. If you can’t even start there, find a friend of family member who will role play with you. Role play it several times. Role play over the phone, role play in person.

Speak firmly, but not aggressively.
Don’t get mired in explaining yourself. Often clients take those explanations as negotiation. Keep it short and simple.
Repeat as necessary.


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