Why you should never say “can’t” to your clients (& what you should say instead)

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I was recently listening to an interview with James Clear–productivity hacker, athlete and entrepreneur.

He made a very interesting point about two seemingly similar words that can have very different meanings.

Those words? “Can’t” and “don’t.”

He was specifically speaking about it in terms of self-talk. When you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s very different than telling yourself you don’t do something.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, picture the difference between saying you can’t eat sugar and you don’t eat sugar.

When you say you can’t, you’re restricting an action that you wish you could perform. When you tell yourself you don’t, you’re empowering yourself.

Don’t is a decision.

It got me thinking about marketing and building a small service-based business.

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Imagine a client calls you, and asks if you can do backend development on their website.

Instead of telling them that you can’t do the work, imagine telling them you don’t do that kind of work.

Do you hear how that small tweak in vocabulary can completely change the way you brand and market yourself?

On the one hand, you’re basically saying that you’re incapable of doing the work. Or less valuable of a company.

On the other hand, you’re basically saying you may or may not have the skills to do it, but you have the discipline to not take every job that comes your way.

Creative entrepreneurs who have discipline will find they have the right kind of clients, the best kind of business, and an optimum work balance.

And with a business like that, saying “no” to the wrong kinds of clients becomes easier.

Which frees you up to say “yes” to the right kinds of clients.

Give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised how you begin to feel about yourself and your business once you start using the word don’t instead of can’t.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or experience in the comments.

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About Preston D Lee

Preston is an entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, and the founder of this blog. You can contact him via twitter at @prestondlee.

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Comments

  1. Lancia Soans says:

    Excellent! Nice perspective, makes sense. Thanks.

  2. This is great. However, It just came in my mind, what if the client asks “why not?” what would be the best answer? Given that I am really not knowledgeable of these back end stuff.

    Anyway, thanks for this another great post Preston. I’m a regular reader by the way 😀

    • I’d say that an honest answer would be best – but pitched positively.

      For example, if someone asks you to do something that you can’t do (or can’t do well), you could say “That’s not my area of expertise, I prefer to focus on… “.

      If it’s something you just don’t enjoy doing, why not say so? “I could do that for you, but I really don’t enjoy it. I prefer to focus my time and energy on the areas where I can help you most like… ”

      In either case, you could also give a referral to someone who you’d trust to do the work – thereby keeping the client happy and potentially helping a friend/colleague too.

    • I’d say that an honest answer would be best – but pitched positively.

      For example, if someone asks you to do something that you can’t do (or can’t do well), you could say “That’s not my area of expertise, I prefer to focus on… (insert your area of brilliance)”.

      If it’s something you just don’t enjoy doing, why not say so? “I could do that for you, but I really don’t enjoy it. I prefer to focus my time and energy on the areas where I can help you most like… (insert two or three things that you’re great at and would love to help this client with)”.

      In either case, you could also give a referral to someone who you’d trust to do the work – thereby keeping the client happy and potentially helping a friend/colleague too.

    • Arnold, first of all, thanks for reading regularly. I love hearing from people who get a lot out of Millo! That’s a great question. I say something like “by focusing on [specialty here], we can become the very best one to serve you in [specialty]. So we don’t do any work that might detract us from the goal we have to be the best [specialty]er around. But I do know someone who is really great at [other request]…

      Does that help at all?

  3. Realy great post! so simple and yet it is what it is, a change of vocabulary in what we express to people in business and in life in general.

  4. How simple is that! Thank you for this small, but empowering post.

  5. Thanks for reinforcing for me to that it is alright to say I don’t do something. I always feel somewhat guilty saying anything negative but you are so right that don’t sounds so much better than can’t. I also say “I don’t like to do that” but sometimes that sounds so much like a spoiled kid that I will now remove the “like” in that sentence. Thanks a bunch for the post.

    • Kati, that’s a really great point. And it matters a lot in how you say it. Like you say, if you’re not careful, you can sound like a little kid or a snobby person to work with. But if said in the right way, it can be powerful. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Gorgi Jurukovski says:

    Preston, this post couldn’t have come at a better time. It really helped me in rejecting a project today but still keeping the client. Thanks.

  7. I totally agree, I stopped trying to do everything a long time ago, I focus on specific things for a reason. I often refer people to those I feel can handle the things I do not do.

    That’s why partnerships are valuable.

    • Absolutely. Some people even take a finder’s fee and make that a pretty serious part of their business. Do you do anything like that, Stanley? Or just the goodwill?

      • For now just the goodwill. I give clients a general (google-search-like) referral so they don’t come back and say, “Hey! that place you referred me to kinda screwed me…” LoL.

        Still looking for good partnerships… 🙂

  8. Laura Hall Briedis says:

    I’ve finally started doing this… Thank you 🙂

  9. Tiryk Borrego says:

    I need to begin doing this

  10. I agree! Smart article. It truly makes a difference, I noticed it in a couple of times. Clients are pleased of the answer and you don’t feel guilty of not knowing how to do the extra task.

  11. Everything I ever read on this website is so valuable. I’m always learning something new! thank you!

  12. Radu Mazilu says:

    Choosing our words wisely can make a huge difference when we, as freelancers, talk to clients. Knowing what and how to say it will make or break the relationship in the first few e-mails and I really think that it is important to try to maintain solid relationships with past clients. (It is a potential source of work in the future, but it is also the morally right thing to do, in my opinion.)

    Although this is a great example (can’t vs don’t), there are many other changes that we can make. Any phrase can basically be manipulated to fit the personality of your client. Understanding how they think and what motivates them will give you a more holistic view of their mentality and you can then change your message so that it is in complete alignment with the way in which he/she thinks.

    I will give just a small example of the power of communication:

    If, lets say, your client is a courageous entrepreneur who is willing to take risks and receive higher rewards, then you will be better off presenting him what he could potentially WIN when working with you. (EX: “Since I have a lot of experience in your industry, working with me will get you the best design.”) This sense of “wining” is in perfect alignment with his mentality and he will be more inclined to like you and what you are doing.

    The other side of things would appear when you are working with somebody who likes the feeling of staying safe and not having unexpected costs. This might be a business owner that has worked hard for what he got and he would rather not grow his venture than to risk losing anything. When you get such a client, it is better to present what he might LOSE if he is NOT working with you. (EX: “if you DON’T work with me, you might NOT find somebody else with the same experience.) Since his subconscious is convinced that he doesn’t want to lose anything, this message will make him more inclined to accept the offer.

    I hope the length of this comment did not bother you. (Sorry if it did.) But this is a subject I am interested in and I just wanted to show how some small tweaks in our language can make such a huge difference.

    Thank you for the great articles,
    Radu Mazilu
    http://www.radumazilu.com

    • @radu_mazilu:disqus , the length is no problem at all. Thanks for taking time to really put some serious thought into the issue at hand here. I really appreciate it! Great insights.

Trackbacks

  1. Why you should never say "can't" to your clients

    He made a very interesting point about two seemingly similar words that can have very different meanings.

  2. […] Why you should never say “can’t” to your clients He made a very inter­est­ing point about two seem­ingly sim­i­lar words that can have very dif­fer­ent meanings.Tags: Entrepreneur Freelance […]

  3. […] Never say “can’t” when speaking with a client. If it’s a service or project you don’t provide, say you don’t do it. When clients hear the word “can’t,” they stop listening and devalue your company’s abilities. It’s the worst word to use when dealing with customers and clients. […]