Contractors are allowed to say no — it’s how they say it that’s going to make or break their businesses. No is a polarizing word with several meanings, many of which can be based on negative feelings and past experiences.

According to Michael Riegel, director of A/E/C Business Strategies in New York, communication of what is truly meant by a no must be done clearly and positioned correctly.

“Do you mean no as in not the way it was proposed, not in the timeframe, not at the price you would like; the desired project will not satisfy the technical needs; or just ‘No, I am not interested?’” he said. “The ability and need for the business owner to be clear about the meaning of the no is also helpful in crafting how the message is delivered and by what means.”

In considering each transaction, Riegel encourages contractors to base their communication with customers on a built relationship, not on a one-time transaction. A developed relationship can help protect contractors from the potential negative effects of saying no.

“As a business owner, my goal is to connect personally with my clients and customers to create an ongoing relationship,” he said. “There are times when I have to decline projects, but because I have developed a relationship, rather than considering it purely transactional, I have made deposits into that relationship bank account that help assuage any hard feelings or disappointment.”

Riegel teaches project management as part of his business, and he emphasizes constraint and the competing nature of cost, speed, and quality. According to him, it is necessary for contractors to offer customers a way to choose two of the three. The reason being is that it is virtually impossible to achieve all of these elements at the same time.

“It is important that we be direct with our clients and let them know what is preventing us from saying yes, whether it is a regulation or some physical limitation,” said Benny Ramos, solution principal, Business and Leadership Solutions — North America — West and Asia-Pacific, Skillsoft, Boston. “Whatever the case, honesty is normally the best policy. We should be ready to let the client share their opinion, actively listening, before we tell them what possible alternatives may be.”

Ramos explains to his clients that in building relationships with customers, saying no can be an opportunity to gain the trust of customers. This trust can strengthen the relationship, especially when the customer feels heard and valued, even if contractors cannot meet every request.

“Most people are not comfortable with potential conflict, but the Golden Rule of treating others the way you would like to be treated may go a long way,” said Ramos.

To further help contractors effectively tell their customers no, Riegel recommends what he calls a four-by-four approach to doing business.

“The four attributes of you, your staff, and your company are competent, qualified, responsive, and responsible,” he explained. “Achieving all four of these attributes, all the time, will alleviate some of the fear of disappointing a customer, not meeting financial goals, insufficient backlog, or losing staff.”



Understanding how to say no is important for HVACR contractors, and so is knowing why to say no.

Ken Misiewicz, president and CEO of Pleune Service Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, has experienced telling customers no on several occasions throughout his career. Some examples include credit holds, requests outside the scope of support, locations outside the service area, safety, ethics, and schedule.

As a commercial contractor, Misiewicz has also had to say no to some immediate requests based on workload. He explained that in construction, there are times contractors have to decline quoting work due to an excessive backlog or a stacked schedule.

“If we do it right, the relationship is fully intact, and we’re still looked at as a premium partner,” he said. “If we do it poorly — bluntly, without a sound explanation, etc. — it usually results in a frustrated or upset customer, which is never in our best interest.”

Environment is another reason that contractors might decline a customer request.

Buddy Smith, president of Russell’s Heating & Cooling, Chesapeake, Virginia, has had to say no or put a job on hold because of sewage waste under a home. The company will explain that these conditions are unsanitary and that the technicians cannot be expected to do work in that environment until it is cleaned up.

“We continuously train our people to never say no,” said Smith. “I believe that when you tell a customer no, it immediately puts them on the defensive. Once they have their wall up, it is difficult to accomplish anything. Instead we say, ‘What we can do for you is …’ This ensures that we are always perceived as positive and helpful.”

Outside of sanitary conditions, some contractors will say no to certain customers based on the activity that takes place at the establishment. For example, Rosenberg Indoor Comfort, San Antonio, doesn’t provide service to places such as gentleman’s clubs, and its policies don’t allow customers to be abusive.

“We tell the client that it is against our policy to service those types of establishments,” said Michael Rosenberg, president of Rosenberg Indoor Comfort. “And if a client is abusive, we simply tell them that we can no longer service their account and then give them a referral to another contractor.”

Another issue that Rosenberg’s company navigates are customer requests to purchase from but not have the company install HVAC equipment. This is also against company policy because it could void the manufacturer’s warranty, it causes the company to take on a fair amount of liability, and the customer potentially faces serious safety issues from faulty self-installation.

According to Derek Cole, general manager of Simmons One Hour Heating & Air, Laurinburg, North Carolina, no matter what the reason, it can be acceptable to say no to a customer.

“It’s generally accepted when you can follow it with a solution and not just leave a no sitting there,” he said. “Following up every no with the why behind it and offering a path to yes will diffuse most situations.”


Three Strategies to Saying No

In declining or denying a request, Michael Riegel, director of A/E/C Business Strategies in New York, recommends contractors try the following strategies:

  • Be clear and consistent. There is value in explaining yourself and being firm about what is important to you as a business owner. The customer may not like the no, but they will appreciate honesty and integrity.
  • Leave the door open for future opportunities. The impact of the language around denying the request can often last longer than the actual project. A phrase like, “I would like to help you with this project; however, I have to decline because …” shows interest and serious consideration, even though you have to deny a request.
  • Offer to make a referral. While the request may not be a good fit for you, it will likely be a good fit for another company you already know. A willingness to make a referral will engender a tremendous amount of goodwill with the customer as well as the business you refer the work to. The power and spirit of generosity pays dividends in the future.


Publication date: 1/21/2019

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