I’ve learned over the last few years that if you develop a reputation for being helpful, an ever-growing number of requests will come your way.
For me, requests for coffee to “pick my brain,” for introductions to my network, or for me to retell the story of The Muse’s founding (which is online if you Google it!) are the most common these days. I’m by no means a celebrity, of course, but I counted over 35 email requests for my help, advice, or time in the last month alone, unrelated to my day-to-day business operations or mentorship programs I’ve already committed time to.
I love being helpful when I can, but there’s an inherent conflict between saying yes and saying no. Saying yes takes time away from my growing team, who need my time, presence, and support, as well as from my friends and family. In fact, if I had said yes to all of the requests last month (assuming each takes 30 minutes), it would have taken me over 17 hours. That’s almost an hour every workday!
Saying no, however, is both a missed opportunity to help someone and to build a relationship and a risk of coming off as rude, even if your reasons are pure. Oh and not to mention, harder to do. I’ve opted for balancing the two as much as possible, but finding the best way to say no has taken some time.
Whether it’s that publicist who keeps trying to run a pitch by you (after you’ve said no—four times) or that young grad who keeps asking to meet you for coffee, everyone deals with inquiries from people they’d rather not say yes to. So what’s a busy professional to do when an inquiry email you don’t want to take comes through?
Here’s how I’ve handled it.
Situation 1: You’re Being Pitched
Let’s start with the easiest one. If you’re being pitched by someone you’re not interested in or able to help (be it a publicist or services provider), do the following:
- Check if there is an unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email. If there is, unsubscribe right away.
- If not, ignore and archive this first email, unless it’s clearly written personally to you. I’ve found that 99% of these are sent in bulk, and no one will take it personally if you don’t respond.
- If that same person follows up (even if it’s clearly written by a robot), send a quick note saying you’re not interested. I think of this as a chance to be nice and give salespeople or publicists the information that I’m not a good lead, so they can spend their time elsewhere (and also stop emailing me). This is the email template I use:
Thank you for your email. We are not in the market for any [type of service or subject pitched about] at the moment, but I will let you know if that changes. In the meantime, could you please take my email address off of your list?
Thanks in advance,
No matter what, do not agree to get on a call to “just learn about what we can offer” unless you’re actually interested. This never makes anyone go away, and it usually leads to more persistent follow-up, since you’ve proven yourself to be a warmer lead.
Situation 2: You’re Getting a Cold Email for Time or Advice
So you’ve gotten an email from a random person, asking for your time or advice. You’ve used your judgement and, based on your capacity and his or her ask, it doesn’t seem like you’ll have the spare time to help out. In those cases, there are two great options:
- If you’d like to help but don’t have the time, try what I call the “punt tactic.” Send a short “Thanks for thinking of me—I’m booked up this month but if you reach out in [some time in the future], I’d love to help however I can.” Many people will never follow up at all—either because they forgot or because they don’t need your time and advice anymore—so you can rest assured that the people who follow up are the ones who most need your help.
- If you don’t think you’ll be able to help no matter the timeline, communicating why you’re not able to in a friendly and clear manner and offering a next best alternative is the best approach. Not sure how to say that? Try a modified version of Alexandra Franzen’s killer email template for turning down a good friend.
Situation 3: You’re Asked to Help a Friend of a Friend
Sometimes, there’s some special circumstance involved—for example, that young grad asking for time is the brother of a former colleague. Unfortunately, your mutual contact hasn’t checked with you first (as he or she should) before introing or giving out your contact information, so you’re left to decide if you can turn this person down and how to do so without ruining the relationship. Your options:
- If you feel like you have to do it, even though you have no idea how to fit it into your busy schedule, suggest a 15-minute call rather than meeting in person. Turning a coffee hour into a quick call is more manageable and forces the asker to spend your time wisely. You can also offer to answer one or two pressing questions via email. (People usually understand if you add the context that you’re over-scheduled right now but want to help sooner rather than later.)
- If you’re not the right person to help but you feel like you need to do something, consider whether anyone else in your network might be willing to help. Forward the request to your contact first, asking if he or she can spare 15 minutes for a call to help someone, since you don’t have the right experience to do so. You can then let the asker know that you’re not the right person to help, but that you’ve asked someone else if he or she would be comfortable being introduced and you’ll follow up if you hear back.
- If the intro was via a loose acquaintance and you’d prefer to turn it down, try the punt tactic above and give the asker either some time or advice via email if he or she follows up in the future.
It may not be easy, but once you’ve gently turned down a request that isn’t a fit, you’re already one step toward spending your time on the things that matter the most to you. And that is something to be celebrated.