It’s easy to think as a business owner that doing business is primarily the customer’s choice. We want more business, so as long as we can do the job ethically and to the parameters asked of us we should basically always say yes — as long as the customer is still saying yes, right?

Put another way, we ignore our misgivings because they want to work with us, and we sure could use some more business/money. We rationalize why it won’t be “that bad” or “does sort of make sense” to take it on.

But like any relationship it goes both ways.

You’re not doing yourself or your customers any favors by bogging yourself down with the wrong people (or the wrong projects). You’ll be busier, and maybe make some money. But the glow of a victory can blind us as we go off the rails. Next thing we know our business has grown further from our goals and we’re not even sure why.

By doing this we’re giving the control of our business away, and it will affect our happiness and the quality of our work.

There’s been a lot of advice about how the wrong staff (and hiring decisions) can tear a company apart from within. But I submit that our choice in partners and customers is just as important. Getting these wrong makes us chase our tail — stagnating innovation and denying us the time to improve core services.

Here are some things to watch out for based on my research and personal experience.

Be Prompt, But Expect Punctuality In Return

It’s a matter of principle.

Everybody has bad days where they are not on their game. But when bad behaviors become a pattern, we have a choice about whether to continue tolerating them.

I once had a client that had to be in control of our meetings — when we set them and where we’d meet. I noticed after awhile that he would reply promptly to emails or texts to set appointments as long as I made myself very available and allowed him to set a time and place. If I ever got more assertive than that and suggested a place, he would simply not reply until it was too late to feasibly meet at my suggested time, then counter with his own time. It was a pattern.

Passive aggressive.

And it was a person for whom being perceived a certain way was more important than being real or actually getting things done. That’s a negative behavior pattern than bleeds into other things.

We’ve all had a customer that frequently put things we needed from them off to the last minute, then turns around and freaks out at us that we can’t finish the project in the 5 seconds they have left before deadline. It’s possible it’s an issue of better managing expectations early on from our part. But it’s also possible they’re just an inconsiderate and disorganized person.

Sure, things come up. But how often they do, and how we deal with them, says a lot.

Chronically disorganized people tend to make their failures everyone else’s fault.

You get the idea.

You don’t need that kind of junk in your business. It will ruin your mood, slow your other projects, and take away from the drive that makes you great in the first place. You’re doing yourself a favor to fire these clients. If it doesn’t come to confrontation, finish the agreed upon project and politely decline anything further.

Own Your Mistakes, But Expect it of Others As Well

Have you ever been told “Sorry, I’ve been busy,” by someone who never takes your calls or replies to emails?

“I’m busy” is not an excuse. Everyone is busy. Their busy is not more important than your busy.

How is it some very busy people manage to hold to their commitments and stay on top of their stuff while others are constantly apologizing because “something came up”? Seems random, but it’s not a fluke.

Busy yet successful people take charge of their day. They aren’t passive, they value time, and embrace their mistakes.

Productive business people I’ve interviewed confirm this. The difference between someone very busy that can’t seem to get ahead and someone who gets a lot done each day is planning, organization, and an attitude that is fair but assertive.

It’s a person who values their time and doesn’t tolerate it being wasted, but is also respectful of everyone they deal with (and their time). It’s a person who owns their failures and is always looking for a way to be better.

A simple “You’re right; I dropped the ball here. Here’s what I’m going to do to make it right,” statement goes a long way toward settling tempers or hurt feelings.

A person that habitually refuses to acknowledge their own part in an issue will probably not make a good client — and will definitely not make a good business partner.

Grow By “No”

There have been books and numerous articles published on how wielding “no” can improve your productivity and happiness.

“No” is uncomfortable, and we often fear the awkwardness that we think will stem from telling someone “no”. Sometimes the apprehension of saying no to something we really don’t want to do causes us not to answer at all. This type of freeze-out seems common in business, but doesn’t actually help anyone.

Or, worse yet, maybe we say “yes” to something we’re uncomfortable with simply to avoid the “no”.

Here are a couple situations that can be a snare for this:

  • Someone asks if you can perform a service you used to offer but have tried to move away from.
  • Someone asks you to do a small piece of a larger, ordinary service. You don’t normally do this one piece by itself because it’s either not effective or not lucrative.
  • Someone asks you to perform a service that’s related to your expertise, but does not actually fall within your “main thing”. An example is being in IT and being asked to build a website. Maybe you know “enough” and think you could wing it, but…

In my experience none of these scenarios end well. Even if the client was happy at the end, each time I allowed myself to be talked into one of these snares I ended up unhappy throughout the project.

Even though I begrudgingly agreed to it, it’s hard to stave off feelings of being taken advantage of, being rushed, or simply stressed at being outside a comfort zone.

Playing To Your Strengths Rather Than Just “Improving” On Weaknesses

Challenging our comfort zones only really helps if it means learning something that helps us and that we’re interested in. If I want to be a public speaker, for example, it helps me to confront my anxiety of crowds and overcome it. If that isn’t a goal, putting myself through the anxiety seems needless and takes my focus away from more useful things.

We have this idea that to be successful in business means to be as busy as possible. But busy does not equal productive. In fact, stretching ourselves too thin is what some C-level executives call one of the biggest productivity drains. This might mean wasting too much time online or with email, or too much time researching and not enough time doing.

Trying to be good at everything, to experience everything, or to work with everyone only leads to frustration. It’s unfair stress we put on ourselves, and if we get discouraged we’re even less likely to succeed.

Here’s a quote by Steve Jobs that captures this concept perfectly:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

You don’t have time for your “main things” if you’re being pulled a dozen directions. Every time you take on the wrong project, you’re diluting your efforts on the right ones. Every time you work with the wrong partner or client, you’re taking away from opportunity with the right ones.

I’ve been hampered by all these things and have learned the hard way like most business folks do. Some of that advice is hard to swallow at first because it seems contrary to what we’re used to. But I can tell you that, while my efforts certainly haven’t been perfect, it propels me forward every time I get these right.


Time is limited, and we have to budget it well to get what we want. We can’t waste time on unproductive tasks, just as we can’t be led astray by toxic people or non-ideal clientele. Sometimes no one else can tell us what the ‘wrong’ versions of these things are for ourselves.

By being willing to say “no”, to cut loose the things and people that aren’t moving us forward, and to focus on tangible goals, we remove some major hurdles. If you’ve resolved to change your business this new year, this type of focus could be the way forward.