Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Is saying no the end of the world? Well, I used to think so. I used to believe that if I said no to a client my world would end. She would take her business elsewhere and I would never have another client again. I was really afraid to assert myself, even when I knew I was right, or at least justified.

Where do fears of saying no come from?

It’s funny – when I was a corporate employee, when I worked as a development team lead, I was fortunate enough to have a great boss who listened to me. The team I managed was awesome – we respected each other, and debated ideas. I had a great working relationship with the internal clients we served. Plus, those clients were internal. As long as we kept our jobs, they had to work with us.

I had no fear in that environment telling my clients no.

I told them no when they asked for unreasonable time frames, questioned crazy product feature requests, and redirected them when they wanted to micromanage. No fear.

But, it was very clear – that was my job. I had the backing of management behind me, and I was a filter between the client and my team.

And when I was wrong – it happened – it was my job to say so and come up with an alternate plan. It sometimes meant late nights and scrambling around, but it never meant the end of the world, or even the end of my job.

But now that I’m running the show, its much, much more frightening because I don’t have a management team behind me – I’m it! While I do have a few folks help me with tasks, I don’t yet have a full-time team I work with day in day out. Saying no looks different now.

I recognize this same fear in a lot of my own clients.

Two types of saying no to a client

The way I see it, there are two main situations when saying no is scary. Rejecting a client completely – saying no to the entire job. And saying no to a client who’s making requests that you know are counter to their goals and objectives.

Saying no to a job

My father has always owned and operated his own businesses. When I was growing up, he owned a successful dairy processing, manufacturing, and distribution company. When that market changed, he regrouped and bought a fencing company. Currently, my two siblings and I all have our own businesses.

However, none are the size of my father’s businesses. We didn’t ever see the “building” of these businesses. We’re all starting something from scratch and working out how to do that. Right now, every customer is needed. And turning one down seems insane. We feel like we need them all!

Red-flag Clients

It just took my first potential customer with a huge red flag to turn a job down. He ranted about his previous web designer and even told me that he wasn’t going to pay the guy. I was bummed (because the job was a cool one) but I wasn’t scared here to say no. It was pretty obvious this would never go well.

And then, I did take a few clients on, even when I did see some red flags that I thought I could deal with. I was scared at the thought of letting these paying clients go because I needed the paycheck. None were terrible, but a few were unpleasant jobs that didn’t end up paying enough to deal with the headaches they brought. I started to wonder what clients I was missing out on while I worked on these sub-par jobs.

Dream Clients

I stumbled onto a dream client pretty early in my solo career, and when I say stumbled, that’s the truth. I was doing very little to no qualification of leads, and I was taking on any clients who didn’t have car lot sized red flags waving.

Working with clients who are genuinely a pleasure to work with can really change your outlook. When you know that you help them, and they trust you to help them, it feels great and both of you win. I think that knowing those customers exist out there can help you set your own boundaries (aka qualification requirements).

I realized that these were the clients who I missed as I worked with the not-quite-right-for-me folks. Keeping the experience of working with these clients in mind makes it easier to turn a job down. You can remain positive and polite and don’t have to burn any bridges either. I wrote previously about how to say no and I give ideas how  you can actually be helpful while saying no.

Saying no during a project

Growing up, I always heard the saying, “The customer is always right.” In a household with a business-owning dad, I knew that meant, “The customer might ask for insane things, and you might disagree, but they’re paying, so do what they ask.”

Interestingly, my husband’s father was a barber and owned his own barber shop. He had a very similar outlook. He said that when you run your own business, you don’t have a boss – every customer who comes in is your boss.

So, with that mindset in our house, I had a really hard time when clients would ask me for things that I knew wouldn’t be in their best interest. It took a while to really feel comfortable knowing how to handle those requests. Here are my guidelines/ways to handle requests that you want to turn down.

Be the expert

So, then next time one of your web-design clients wants a paisley background behind her blog, give her expert advice. She has hired you presumably because you’re an expert, not in spite of that. If she really knew what’s best, she’d be doing it herself.

Kindly explain why that idea would not be the best for her. Don’t belittle her or her idea, but instead talk about her end user, her customers. If there are some merits to her idea, praise them – “Ah, you’ve seen how Ling’s Cars is successful using the paisley – awesome!”

Then, direct them back to what their own customers would like. Use information you collected at the beginning of the project and talk about how those customers would feel about blog text on a busy background. Talk about the consequences for her particular audience. I’ve found this to be more persuasive than talking about numbers and facts. People care about their audience.

Finally, give your, “In my experience,” recommendation. That recommendation could include a place where paisley would be effective so that your client can have a “win.” You should also provide your recommendation on what that blog background should be. Don’t just say no – give an alternative with audience-focused reasons. Give your client something to agree with or choose so they still feel like they have some control.

Draw a line

You will get requests for things that you absolutely won’t do. Some of those reasons are legal – no, I won’t copy your competitors website and add your colors. Some of those reasons may be personal – no, I simply can’t work with a photos of spiders. (aside – I actually wrote the name of a big spider and felt so creeped out just now that that I had to remove it.) And some might be moral – no, I won’t add a gambling page to your blog.

Everyone has things they just won’t do. Make your list now, before you’re talking with a client. If you have your list already, it’s easy to say no to those things.

Say yes, but get it in writing

Sometimes, there’s just no avoiding it. It’s something like the decorating client who wants to pain her room Carolina blue, but you went to NC State and can’t stand the color. Or, she wants to paint the walls blood red, and you just know that will look hideous in her room, plus it will be hard to cover up.

You give her your expertise speech, but she still insists. If you don’t feel comfortable refusing, you can get her request in writing. Write up the request along with your recommendations, and have the client sign that they really do want to go with their choice instead of yours. This will help you in a few months when the client realizes that you were right and they want to go with your solution. You may end up re-doing the work, but you will be paid, and the client can’t put any blame on you.

Next Steps

In the end, most of your clients are going to appreciate your expertise. That’s why they hired you. Having your red flag list and your draw the line lists, as well as kind recommendations will position you as the expert you are. They’ll also remind the client that you do have experience that they should be listening to.

Think about where you draw the line. Make a list so it’s easier to stand firm. It will be different for you than for your colleagues, so also think about who you could be referring clients who make impossible (for you) requests to.