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When to say no

When to say no


15 Oct, 2018

‘We have 24-hour supermarkets, you can get a McDonald’s day or night, and Amazon delivers on a Sunday,’ says regular Quest contributor, Steve Bulleyment, director of Lincolnshire-based specialist auto locksmith company Car Key Man. ‘We’re all working longer and expect other people to be open too. But whereas a large business can scale itself up, when you’re on your own, you can’t work 24 hours. You have to sleep and eat – and even have some fun!

‘Why aren’t you open on a Sunday? Don’t you want the work?’ This was a potential customer, who was so busy working the rest of the week he only had Sunday to get a spare car key. He wasn’t happy that I chose to say ‘No.’

I’d tried it, working every hour I could, and here’s what happened (and talking to other business owners it’s a common pattern) …

The puppy phase

Brand new and ready for anything. The phone won’t be ringing much at first, but when it does you spring up and want to play, to get out and do what you’ve been training for. At first, nothing is too much bother, you feel you should be answering the phone night and day, and you’ll take anything that comes along. ‘No’ isn’t in your vocabulary.

The getting-away-with-it phase

Eventually you’re not thinking about every single thing. You have routines and the phone is ringing enough, like a real business. You’ve got a few regulars, but the bills are coming in too, so that’s handy. You still grab the work when it’s there. Local veterans of business (the ones who can’t afford to retire) tell you ‘You never know when it might stop son. Never turn a job down – it may be your last.’

The established phase

When people ask you ‘How long you been at this now?’, you know you’re established. You’re not panicked about missing the odd call. People can get hold of you any time, so they do. You get busier and busier. After so much quiet time early on, you’re happy to be working full-time. Eventually, unless there’s a recession or global financial crisis (I’ve got the T-shirt), then you’ll get too busy. This is the ‘reward’ for being professional, honest and reliable. Doing what you say you will, when you promise to, is rare in business. At this point, you’d be justified in thinking you’d made it. But you’re not finished yet.

The one-armed plate spinner phase

The success should feel great. It’s what you dreamed of when you wrote your business plan. However, the mind-set of ‘grab this job, it may be the last’ is still running in the back of your mind and causing problems for you. The warning signs are one or more of the following.

You start to let people down.
You miss phone calls and messages. Regular customers say ‘You’re getting hard to get hold of.’
Taking a holiday becomes a problem. 

You feel guilty when you’re at home and feel like you should be at work. Likewise, when you’re at work, you know you need time at home.

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At some point, as you get more and more satisfied customers, something gives. It could be the quality of the service you provide. Sometimes it’s missing your kids in the school play or afterschool dance show. Worst of all, your relationships suffer with those you love the most. 

At my busiest, I worked 70–80 hours a week, much more than in my RAF days. Other than the school run (which I started 16 years ago and am still doing!) I was a visitor in the house and couldn’t be relied on to get home when needed. I wouldn’t say ‘No’ to any customer and it was a problem. I just couldn’t keep all the plates spinning. One by one, they started to fall and break.

Then I had the worst possible experience trying to keep everyone happy. I’d had three weeks off sick, after an operation. Work stacked up so high and, just as I was getting fit enough to drive, the 2011 snow fell … and fell and fell. I went out in treacherous weather conditions, desperately trying to catch up. I developed an infection and fever, a complication from the operation. I was working when I should have been resting. That Christmas, just a few weeks after the snow, I spent most of the time in pain with a temperature – but still the phone kept ringing!

Without wanting to sound dramatic, in those dark days I was disappointing everyone. If I was home, I was watching the phone; if I was at work, I’d dread the phone ringing again. I was late to my customers and letting them down badly. I’d left the RAF to be in charge of my destiny, and yet my life was in my customers’ hands. 

The ‘enough’ phase

If you want to stay married, in business and sane, then something has to give. Thanks to a coach that was helping me, I finally decided two basic things. First, I needed to find an employee and, second, I needed to say ‘No.’ It’s not a natural thing, and even now I feel guilty when people call out of hours, stranded or locked out. However, if I’d kept going I wouldn’t have lasted 14 years and still be in business. 

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No one will tell you that you need to say ‘No’, but you do. I’ve learned a few basic things that help me keep a balance. Here are five things I now do to control my world and the stress that comes with a business. I hope they help you too.

  1. Be where you are. When you’re at home turn off your work mobile. If you need to be contacted by friends and family, but don’t want two mobile phone contracts, then buy a cheap pay-as-you-go as a personal phone. 
  2. Always under-promise to your customers. If you don’t have time, be honest and tell them. If they think you’re coming to do work for them and you don’t turn up, they’ll be disappointed. Think about how it feels to wait in for someone that doesn’t turn up. Manage their expectations
  3. Try to enjoy the day. This sounds obvious, but you’ve trained hard to do this and it’s not just about getting finished. Try to do the best possible job for your customer; feel proud of your work. 
  4. You only get paid once for the job. If you rush it, or take any shortcuts, you’ll need to go back, unpaid, and sort it out. 
  5. Get paid and then move on. Part of me booking in extra work was being owed so much by my regular business customers. I was busy and broke, simply because I didn’t have a handle on when I was getting paid. So do a good job, charge well and get paid – or at least have a date when you’ll be getting paid. That way, you’re in control. 

Remember, it’s OK to say ‘No.’ If you start to dread the phone ringing, there’s something wrong. 

That’s it. As business owners we have this amazing opportunity to live a life on our terms. That doesn’t mean every day is a fairy tale, but it should mean we control what happens to us, wherever possible. 

Good luck, have fun and remember it’s OK to say ‘No!’


Steve’s business, the Car Key Man, is a specialist auto locksmith company covering Lincolnshire. Launching in 2004, Steve spotted an opportunity to solve the problem of replacing lost and stolen car keys. The company now offers workshop facilities as well as a mobile service. Recognising the needs of concerned vehicle owners, it offers free consultations to find an affordable solution to the growing number of car key problems.


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