How & When to Say No to a Client

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Saying ‘no’ is one of the most important things I have learned how to do during my time as a developer, business owner, and freelancer.

Not saying no can easily lead to a far more enraged client than if you had blindly given in to all of their requests. It can also cost you a lot of money, time and health to try to keep up with constant changes or scope creep.

Now, I’m not saying you should default to “No”, but here are some clear examples I have dealt with first-hand

If it’s going to hurt their project, say no.

I have worked on countless projects where clients were given exactly what they demanded, without them knowing what the knock-on effect would be on their project. Every time, this leads to a very unhappy client. The client will actually question us on why we did not advise them on the inevitable failure of their idea.

Be it fixing a car or building a website, the customer needs your expert guidance. They may have preconceived ideas of what needs to be done or how to do it. It is our job to use our professional knowledge and guide them to a happy resolution.

If a client's instruction is based on poor knowledge or just plain bad ideas, you’ll need to tell them “no”. Except we’re not actually going to say that outright. I have found the best way to do this is to first explain the downfalls of their plan - tell them where it can go horribly wrong. Then before they can come up with another grand plan, suggest a feasible alternative that achieves their end-goal, but without the aforementioned downfalls.

If the client insists, then, of course, you may want to go ahead with their requests, ensuring that your concerns are put down in writing. If the communication was over a phone call, then send an email summary of the phone call, once again outlining your concerns for future reference; they have been warned, and will not be able to argue otherwise.

If it’s not in scope (they want free work)

Assuming that a project brief has been signed or a quote has been agreed on, you’ll need to react early and swiftly for any requests going beyond that. While a certain level of value-ads can make your customers happy, it is a very slippery slope should it go unchecked.

Ensure that when a new request is made, that you gather the bare minimum information needed to ascertain whether it falls within the project scope. Then explain to the customer tactfully that this will cost extra. Explain why it will cost extra. For example “adding this feature will add an extra 18 hours to the cost for XYZ reasons.”.

The customer may already be aware that they will be paying extra. Don’t assume, though, that the same client won’t try to get it free anyway.

Again, if the customer cannot afford the full cost for their request, you may want to guide them to a less costly alternative that achieves the same or similar goal. Customers can be very appreciative of this - you’re “going the extra mile” for them while telling them ‘no’.

If it’s not in your field of expertise

I am guilty of this one. When I first started freelancing as a web developer/designer, I jumped at a client's request to design some posters for them. I had not really done print work at that point, and greatly underestimated the work involved. The client was happy with the end result, thankfully, but it cost me greatly in time to get that result.

Do not be scared to refer work to someone who specializes in the task you are not familiar with. They came to you because they already trust you, so it is unlikely you will lose all business with them over this singular task.

Transparency is a highly underrated concept in business, in my opinion. Telling a customer that someone else can do it better, or cheaper, builds trust and respect.

If you really don’t have the time

Do not back yourself into a corner. It is not worth the mental and physical health impacts to run yourself or your team into the ground to meet unrealistic deadlines. If you don’t have the time, there are three options:

Suggest an alternate delivery date
Suggest a more time-friendly solution that fits you
Worst case, refer them to someone else

The first two sound great, should the client accept them. If the client insists that they NEED this done by XYZ, and you know you may not be able to deliver, it is better to preemptively refer them to one of your contacts. At the very least, you will build some repute with the person you referred them to, and while you may lose a client, they won’t be leaving 1-star reviews all over the internet for late delivery.

Practice

Saying ‘no’ will feel wrong at first, and it will take a while to get used to. It will, however, become second nature and you will find yourself guiding clients and completing successful projects. The amount of client drama decreases as transparency increases.

Good luck!

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