The Art of Saying No to Clients

 Photo:  Fey Ilyas . License:  Creative Commons

 Photo: Fey Ilyas. License: Creative Commons

You've poured blood, sweat, and tears into landing that new video client.

The thought of saying "no" to them sounds crazy.

Once you get a client willing to pay you, you want to do everything in your power to keep that client paying you. Your rent and groceries depend on it.

Many video professionals grit their teeth and suffer though countless unreasonable requests.

But not saying no when you should is a dangerous game:

Once clients push your limits, many of them won't stop. They keep pushing as long as you let them get away with it. You end up staying up all night doing work you never dreamed of when you first took on the project.

You don't have to suffer through this. Saying no promptly and tactfully will save you a lot of agony.

Learning how to say "no" well is an art. The sooner you learn it, the sooner you can keep clients happy and keep yourself sane. Keep reading to find out how to do it.

Standing up for Yourself (Without Losing Valuable Business)

When it's time to stand up for yourself, how you do it has a huge impact on how well a client receives the news. Personal tirades and attacks and emotional outbursts aren't your only options. You can be firm without sabotaging your relationships.

It starts by keeping these things in mind:

What Makes a "No" Effective? Three Key Elements

It's totally understandable if you're feeling hesitant to deny a paying client. You don't want anyone to take it personally or jeopardize the relationship.

Fortunately, you can smooth things over if you include a few key elements when you say no. Naomi Dunford put together an excellent list of three elements to focus on:

First, make sure your rejection is clear. The last thing you want is to make a half-hearted attempt to deny the client's request, only for them to follow up a few weeks later furious that you haven't finished the work they thought you were doing. A clear rejection avoids that, and it will actually earn you more respect than a vague one.

Another thing to consider: sympathize with the client's situation. A lot of service providers have this idea that they have to go along with everything the client wants to deliver good customer service. That just isn't true. But sympathizing with the client's situation is an important (and overlooked) element. In other words, use your manners and express your appreciation for the request and condolences for not being able to go along with it. It will save a lot more relationships than a snippy email.

Finally, give the client a compelling reason why you can't fulfill their request. You don't technically have to do this. But a rejection without any explanation could leave clients with the wrong ideas: you don't like them, the project, and so on. Giving clients a legitimate reason (besides "I don't want to do that") gives them something to help ease their sense of rejection. Here are just a few reasons you could use:

  • Lack of availability due to prior work obligations (including other work for the client)
  • Lack of funds to take on the work due to a limited project budget
  • Lack of skills/experience to do the work
  • Lack of technology or equipment to complete the requested work
  • The work falls outside the scope of the project contract (this is probably the strongest reason you can use)

Take Your Time and Make a Calculated Reply

In the section above, you probably noticed how coming up with an effective "no" takes some thought. It can be enticing to shut down an unreasonable client right away, especially if they've been bugging you for a while. But resist the temptation to fire off a "No! Absolutely not!" email before you've had time to think things over and formulate a reasonable reply.

Once you cool off, it's a lot easier to imagine the situation from the client's perspective. You can't give them what they truly want – more work – but you can give them a thoughtful, courteous reply. Email is a great way to do this. If a client ambushes you with requests on the phone or Skype expecting an immediate answer, don't be afraid to ask for time to think it over. You can email or call them back when you've collected your thoughts.

Just like with client proposals, you can create rejection email templates to help make sure you hit all the key elements. You can modify these to suit the situation, saving yourself a lot of time by not having to start over every time from scratch.

Set Your Limits Early

If you're working with a pushy or overeager client, it usually won't take long before they make an unreasonable request.

That's also the best time to put your foot down.

If you don't, unreasonable requests become par for the course. The dangers of "scope creep" are gradual but very real. A few weeks pass and you've completely lost control of the situation. You end up powerless and resenting the client... not exactly the best conditions to do great work.

That's why it's so important to establish limits early on. You set the precedent that you're a video professional who won't just roll over and give in to every crazy demand. This kind of testing usually starts out with a minor request when a client either doesn't think the project through or just wants to see if they can get more work for free. It's easier to knock down a minor request before it evolves into a series of major ones.

Rejecting the client early on can be tricky, especially if they're new and you're still unfamiliar with them. But standing up for yourself will establish you as a true professional. It will even earn most clients' respect.

Make a Counteroffer If You Can

You can't (or aren't willing to) help your clients with unreasonable requests.

That means you have to say no… even if they won't like it.

But you don't just have to say no. You can brainstorm different ways to help clients still get what they want.

Whenever you can, include a counteroffer whenever you reject someone. This shows clients you do care about them getting the results they're looking for. And you'll do whatever you can – within reason – to help them get those results.

"I can't help you with X, but have you thought about Y?" language is powerful. Beyond just showing consideration for the client, you can propose alternate solutions that clients might not have thought of themselves.

Next time you have to say no to a client, think about how you can make a valuable counteroffer. Show them you're willing to meet them halfway to achieve their business goals.

Here are just a few potential counteroffers you could try:

  • Offer different alternatives to accomplish the client's goal
  • Offer to do the requested work instead of certain tasks you planned to do for the client
  • Offer to honor the request in a few weeks (or whenever you become available)
  • Offer to modify the project contract and do the work for more money
  • Offer to refer the client's request to a service provider with the requisite experience

Accept That You Can't Win Them All

In an ideal world, clients would completely understand your reasons for saying no. Denying their requests wouldn't have any negative effects on your relationships.

But the real world just doesn't work this way.

Sometimes clients get emotional and lash out. They can't handle it when a service provider dares to reject them. They take it personal, things get nasty, and the relationship blows up.

It's never fun to deal with this. But handling the occasional nightmare client is just part of doing business. When it (inevitably) happens to you, you don't have to get sucked into all the drama.

They might resort to name calling and insults. They might whine about you on social media. But you don't have to stoop to their level. You can stay collected and focus on moving forward, doing whatever it takes to end the toxic relationship and form a better one with someone else.

You can't win them all, and that's okay. The only way to deal with disrespectful, limit-pushing clients is to fire them. Take comfort knowing that you've protected your time and dignity by not agreeing to ridiculous demands that cut into your free time and lower your hourly rates.

Your Turn

Sometimes saying no is the only move to keep yourself sane.

That's understandable. If you pay attention to your delivery, you'll get your message across without aggravating too many clients. You'll protect your time and your valuable business relationships.

Do you have a hard time saying no to clients? How do you handle it when a client makes an unreasonable request? Leave a comment below and share your experience!