How to Survive Saying No to a Client

When you’re working with clients, it’s important to have boundaries based on clear communication and mutual respect. Then, when you have established your boundaries comes the difficult task of enforcing them.

What happens when enforcing policies means saying no? In many cases, you may run the risk of losing an ally in the other party once the word “no” leaves your mouth. This is why it’s so important to figure out a way to honor your boundaries while making connections and developing relationships — even when you need to say no.

Here are a few situations when you may need to say no to a client with examples of gentler ways to do it.

A Non-Ideal Client Wants to Hire You

The Situation:

You’ve been communicating with a potential client and through your communication you are certain that this client is not an ideal client for you. The client, however, thinks you’re perfect and wants to get started ASAP.

The Gentler No:

“I’m flattered that you think I’m up to the task, but I have to be honest. I don’t think I’m the best match for you and your project [you can elaborate here on why, if you choose]. I’d love to send your information to a colleague who may be a better fit for your specific needs [assuming you've given your colleague the rundown and have gotten his/her okay].”

A Client has Unrealistic Deliverables and Deadlines

The Situation:

You’ve been working on a project, and the client revises your proposed timeline with overly aggressive milestones and unrealistic deliverables.

The Gentler No:

“Wow, I love your optimism on the project plan revisions! I think we can meet [compromise on one or two points, if possible], but let’s rework the rest of the estimates so we’re closer to what we originally discussed when we scoped out the project. If all goes well, we might hit those optimistic milestones anyway.”

A Client’s Idea Isn’t Doable/Relevant/Appropriate

The Situation:

The client takes your mockup and cuts and pastes it into a new design that isn’t feasible, isn’t aligned with what they initially wanted and/or lacks a professional appeal.

The Gentler No:

“I see you have some new ideas for the design. I think I have a better idea of what you’re looking for now. Let me take another stab at the design based on what we talked about and the feedback you’re providing [ideally, you'll be able to extract one or two of the changes they really want and work it into a new design that solves the other problems].”

A Client Requests Last-Minute Work

The Situation:

A client emails you at 2:00 pm on a Friday afternoon with an emergency project he/she wants completed by Monday. It is not urgent from business standpoint, but the client just wants it done and off his/her plate as soon as possible (waiting would not have a direct impact on the business).

A Gentler No:

“I’m not working this weekend, but I’d love to tackle this next week. Let’s touch base on Monday to discuss the project and a timeline.”

A Common Thread…

All of these examples have one thing in common – the gentler no focuses on respecting the client, compromising and offering an alternative whenever possible. Ultimately, if your goal is to give the client what they need to feel valued, appreciated and listened to, you can’t lose.

Have you ever been in any of these situations? Did you try a gentler no? Did you get the result you wanted?

Image credit: jurvetson

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  • Ingvar G

    We have developed many large solutions where we rent our software to clients. Examples of sites that we have done are: http://doreserve.com (that we also did in icelandic and russian language under different names), we have also done Notando.is, that is now in the works of becoming notando.com. We have also done some other large scale solutions for clients. During our work for these and many more sites we have had constant requests for more included things in the apps, what should be and what should be changed. I think that one should NEVER say No to a client. This is something I learned a very long time ago, because everything has a price. If asked, would you not make a change to a 48 hour work on a site for 1 million dollars ! Of course, so it is just a question of HOW much it will cost. NEVER say no to a client, find out what you are satisfied with when working on the task and give your price.

    If you don’t have confident that he will pay you, ask for milestone payments, so that he always pays upfront for some x percentage of the work.

    The main thing here is NEVER say NO, always find the right price and conditions that suits you, and test if the client accepts. If he does, then the deal is good for all …. Right ?

  • http://www.idude.net iDude

    I’ve experienced a situation where a non-Ideal client wanted to hire me. We had talked a number of times on the phone regarding the scope of his project. It kept changing left and right. It was clear that this prospective client did not have a solid grasp on what they wanted me to do. I gently turned down the work and they appeared to be just fine with it.
    A week later, I had a desperate voice mail message where they were begging me, telling me that I was the only person that could help them with their project. I returned the call, and again was gentle in repeating “No” along with reasserting the reasons why I could not help them.
    A few days passed and I recieved a very ugly nasty voice message. Lot’s of swearing and belittlements. This time, I took off the gloves when I returned their phone call. Trust me, there was nothing gentle coming from my mouth. I was brutually honest with him, regarding his project planning and his behaviors. He apologized. (I thought this was end of it).

    Well guess what? A few more days passed, there’s another voice mail message, this time he was nearly in tears begging me. (I did not return the call and used the call block feature).
    Clearly a Non-Ideal Client and clearly somebody who does not deal well with being told “no”.
    I don’t know if anybody else has went through this awful experience. It’s surreal in a creepy sort of way, and the kind of stuff you’re not expecting to occur on a business level.

  • http://www.idude.net iDude

    ‘No’ is the word I use when something is not in the best interest of either the client or myself. When it comes to being pushed or pressured, I have a habit of reminding them that I’m independent contract labor. I’m not their employee and I’m not subject to working mandatory over-time.

    True story, I had a client that wanted something cranked out ASAP. It was nothing critical. We had talked about it earlier that day. I was not able to fit it into my schedule for that day. The next day, hell called me up saying how he could not understand what was taking so long with a 3 hour long project. I reminded him of two things. One, that I do work for other people who value their website just as much as he does his. Two, that I need time away from the computer for myself. That I have a life outside of work just as much as he does.

    For the most part, I find that too many programmers/designers are afraid to use the “no” word and end up backing themselves into corners with endless hours of no sleep and needless stress. Most clients I’ve worked with have appreciated the honesty involved with me telling them no. The alternative to doing so would result in an Iffy Yes.

    Trust me, you can survive saying NO to a client just fine. The sun still comes up the next day. If a client is difficult to work with to begin with, remember there’s another client out that’s better waiting for you. You just have to go find them.

  • Neil

    Just say no. It’s easy, it’s simple. Unless the client has a truck load of money and they’re paying up front the following rule of thumb applies – If they’re not reasonably easy to deal with they’re probably not profitable. You can still say it in a friendly manner but it’s best to be firm and up-front.
    I had a similarly surreal experience like the one described by iDude above. In the end I had to get my barrister involved to put a stop to the on-going harassment.