Robert Bowen February 22nd, 2011

The Art of Saying “No”

For the most part, working in the design and development communities can often leave you feeling like somewhat of a ‘Yes’ person. That person who stands behind the client, nodding in agreement and understanding as the path to the project unfolds before you. For in this business, it pays to wear this agreeable hat. It helps the client begin to see us an ally in their mission, someone who they can work with to make their project see the proverbial light of day, not have to work around so to speak. [fblike] When they see us filling the role of the ‘Yes’ person, the client is often put at ease and they can feel less guarded around us. This tends to make it easier for them to communicate their ideas as they feel like we are less likely to challenge them on any of it. They can be free to explore their ideas in what feels like a safe atmosphere. However, there comes a time in our careers that we have to step outside of that role and tell the client ‘No’. Suddenly that client comfort zone is challenged, which means we have to proceed with care. It is not as simple as just saying ‘No’. These situations can be a bit delicate, especially since we are usually in the more submissive role as the employed. Clients are not often used to being told 'No' about anything in this corporate culture of "the customer is always right" that has its hold in the business world today. Besides, just because we have had to switch gears over to the 'No' side does not mean that we are prepared for the working relationship to come to a close. Which if we are not tactful in the least, then that may be precisely where things go once we say 'No'. Below is a look at some of the ways we can let a client down easy without risking current or future projects.

Just For Clarification...

We are not attempting to paint all or any clients with an unreasonable brush here. We are simply saying that there are times when hearing a ‘No’ can be a deal breaker, and if not handled correctly can leave a bad taste in the client’s mouth, which will return each time they speak your name. And that is just not good for business. We do not want to get a reputation for being disagreeable, but we also know that there are times when the client has to be told 'No' — whether they like it or not. And let's be honest, each of us can have a tendency to get defensive or somewhat hurt when we are told 'No', so why should we not expect for our clients to feel this same tinge of rejection and react to it occasionally. After all, we are all just people. And when we are paying for a service, we often do not expect those whom we are paying, to tell us 'No' when we ask for anything we deem within reason. Sometimes, our clients are in this same boat, and unless we tend to the situation cautiously, it can have a lingering effect. There are many reasons for saying "No". One of them is a job burnout.

Considering the Client Type

Is this a new or existing client? Because the way you handle them will generally be different depending on which category of client they fall into. If this is a new client or potential client, then you are going to tend to maintain a more professional edge to your decline that might also tend towards the dishonest end of the spectrum. Whereas if you are dealing with an existing client where the relationship is much more established and comfortable, then you might have a more relaxed approach that tends towards the open and honest side of things. For example, if you are taking time off to go to Comic Con and because of this you cannot take on any new work, you might avoid the full details of the situation as you decline taking the task from a potential or new client. Mainly out of fear of this effecting the way they view your dedication or professionalism, and in turn your company. However, if you are dealing with an existing client, being more personal, and in this case more honest, might feel like the more comfortable path to take. After all, they will already have an idea formed about you and your company that will likely not be impacted negatively by this decline. So the client’s status, as it were, does come into play when you are determining the best way to tackle telling them ‘No’, it is often not just a black and white situation. Where they sit on the spectrum can steer the direction we need to go in when it comes to declining their wishes, and that consideration cannot be dismissed. In Short:
  • Whether the client is a new client or an existing one can impact how you handle these situations.
  • New clients tend to require more of a professional approach, whereas with existing clients we can tend to be a little bit more laid back.
  • The more personal the reasons we have to say no, the more likely the white lie is the better option over the truth to maintain that professional edge.

Consider the Project Stage

Where exactly are you in the project when the situation arises? Because this can also heavily weigh in on how you handle telling the client ‘No’. If it is in the initial stages, meaning the client is just contacting you to ask you to come on board, that is quite a different situation than being in the middle of a project and having an instance crop up where you have to tell the client ‘No’. If things have not gotten started, then you can feel free to skirt around the truth and be as blase as you feel you need to. However, if you are in the middle of the project, then it is usually of utmost importance that you be completely up front and honest with the client as to why you cannot comply with what they have asked. The easiest way to see the distinction here is by using an example where you feel that complying with the client’s request, would cross either a personal or professional line that you have decided that you would never cross. For instance, if a client approached you to do a sexually explicit site, and you or your company were opposed to doing so, you could easily turn them down and be as up front with why you declined or not. However, if you have already been hired and contracts are in place, when the client asks you to add some sort of sexually explicit elements to the project, then you have an obligation to honestly address why you feel you must decline. So how far along the project has progressed can also set the tone for how to approach this oft times delicate situation, and govern exactly how honest you should be with them. Generally, the further along you have gone down the path with the client, the more they deserve to know the full reasoning behind your decisions to decline their offers or wishes. In Short:
  • The stage that the project is in also plays a part on the how this situation gets handled.
  • If the project is just getting underway, then skirting around the truth or avoiding some details is usually not as big a deal.
  • If the project is already in progress and you have to tell the client no, then you should be as honest and up front as you comfortably can be.

Rules of the Refusal

Now beyond the considerations that we have to make in order to judge the situation correctly for determining our approach, we also have to remember that there are a few rules that we can adhere to so that our refusals to the client are perhaps more digestible, and overall easier to swallow. Below are a few of these proverbial pointers for making the rejection have less of a lasting negative impact on both you and the client.

Do Not Leave Them in the Lurch

The first tip, and one of the most important when it comes to telling a client 'No' without having to suffer any repercussions, is to always recommend another course of action for the client to take. Rather than simply giving them roadblocks, offer them solutions to help them find their way once more. If you are turning down work, then point them towards others in the field whom you trust to take care of their needs. Often this kindness will be remembered by the client in the future, not to mention by the other design/development team you directed them to as well. If you are in the middle of a project and have to tell them that you won’t be able to comply with their demands, then provide them with alternatives that you can do to still get their project where they want and need it to go. Doing so might just be the sugar needed to help make this medicine go down, so to speak. To sell them on another direction you need to be able to make it look as attractive to them as the idea they proposed, so do not try to go at this blind. Take in what they have said, and let them know that you will get back to them on this once you have fully considered what it is they are asking for. This will give you the time you need to formulate workable alternatives to present to them. Wherever you are in the project, try not to be just another problem that they have to get around by telling them 'No'. Try to be the provider of solutions that they had not yet considered instead. In Short:
  • When telling a client 'No', try to offer some other routes that they might take.
  • It is always better to offer detours rather than simply putting up roadblocks, this helpfulness will tend to be remembered.
  • Take in their request and do not get back to them immediately, this gives you time to formulate an alternative to provide them with.

Always Be Aware of Tone

Now this next tip might seem like a bit of a given, but we thought that we ought to bring it up anyway just to air on the side of caution. That is to always be aware of your tone of voice, or just the overall tone of the discussion. And more than just the tone, you want to fully consider how all of your words will come across and be received by the client. This is not always an easy task, but it is by far, one of the more necessary ones to tackle. There are many ways that tone can interpreted and words can be taken that spell trouble for your company, so getting to know the client is a big part of understanding how your words will go over. This comes even more into play if all of your communication with the client is done visually via e-mails and messaging, not audibly or in person where tone is easier to discern. It is harder to get a handle on the nuances that could be read into your messages that you in no way intended. Given the circumstances, that you are essentially rejecting the client or their ideas, knowing the tone that gets attached to your dialogs is even more critical. You do not want the client walking away from the situation with the idea that you were disrespecting them, so that is the lingering feeling they have when they are asked about their experience with your company. Read through, or go over in your head, the way that you plan to let the client down, so that you can try to assess any negative tones or hints to a lack of respect that could be gotten from somewhere in your words! In Short:
  • The tone we use when telling the client 'No' might communicate more than we intend, so we need to be mindful of it.
  • When communication with the client is done online or via e-mail, then the tone that can be read into it needs to be considered as well.
  • Take the time to vet your comments or reread your messages to ensure that no negative connotations could be interpreted from them that could hurt your professionalism.

Rejection Reassurance

The next tip for tactfully telling the client 'No' might seem a bit placatory, and for all intents and purposes, it pretty much is, but that does not lessen its importance in this discussion in any way. This tip has to do with rejection reassurance. What we mean by that is that you want to be sure, especially if you wish to possibly work with this client in the future, that you reassure them that this bump in the road is not where you wish things to end. You want to impart to the client that this is simply a matter of bad timing or circumstances, and that perhaps in the future they should call on you again to see if things will be a better fit at that time. Make sure they know that even if you have to reject them now, that you might be a good fit for a future project. Now granted, rejection is rejection, and most of us whether we like to admit it or not, do not take it that great. We should expect the same from our clients. And if you are in the middle of a project and your telling them ‘No’ spells the end of your part of said project, you can expect even more potential fallout from this rejection. But as long as we let the client know honestly why we cannot comply, and that we would like to perhaps try to work with them again in the future on something else, then we have done all that we can to perhaps mend any sores we may have opened in the process. Under these circumstances it is hard to judge how the rejection is going to impact future relations with that client, but if we go ahead and take the proverbial first step towards repairing this breach through this subtle reassurance then hopefully the rejection will not have a lasting reach. In Short:
  • If you wish to work with the client again, then reassure them that you turning them down now is not the end of the road, or at least it is not where you wish things to end.
  • This is about softening the blow that most of us tend to feel whenever we get rejected.
  • We have to understand that no matter how we attempt to sugar coat things, telling the client no might have consequences that we will have to accept.

What Best Serves the Project

The next tip that we have is also one that seems placatory to the client, but it can prove useful for removing some of the edge that telling the client ‘No’ can come with. And that is to always convey to the client that your choices are reflective of what best serves their endgame. After all, that is what they are presumably seeking to begin with. So as long as you let them know that your decision to turn down their request or job is because it is in the best interest of the project, then they are less likely to negatively react to this rejection or non-compliance. Now we said less likely because there are always wild cards, and some clients are not going to take too kindly to hearing ‘No’ regardless of how you dress it up. Especially if that ‘No’ interrupts their progress in any way. But when you are turning them down in the middle of a job, providing alternatives as we already suggested, and you are doing so because you feel that it would be better for the project to take a different approach, then the clients tend to be less resistant to hearing you out. Especially if you can provide them a better way to serve their project in the end, and not delay their deadline by causing them to have to bring in someone else and catch them up to speed, then they might be willing to trust in your expertise. In Short:
  • When we have to tell the client 'No', by making our decisions based on what serves the project best it tends to be easier for the client to take.
  • This may not render the situation salvageable, but it tends to put the client in a more receptive mood for hearing you out.

Do Not Beat Around the Bush

Finally, the last bit of advice that we have to offer on telling a client ‘No’, is to do the professional thing and do not beat around the proverbial bush. If you are going to turn them down or reject an idea, do it directly and clearly. Do not waste their time or yours dancing around the topic trying to avoid the direct confrontation, assuming that they understood you to mean ‘No’. You are unnecessarily prolonging the situation to try and ease out of the discomfort, when really you are causing more distress all around by avoiding the issue. In Short:
  • Do not dance around the issue when telling a client 'No'.
  • Always be clear and make sure that everyone is on the same page, so there is no confusion.

Last Thought

That wraps up the discussion of the ideas on this side, but now, as always, we turn the dialogue over to you. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on ways to tell a client ‘No’ in the comment section below. What ways have you found that work the best? Which, if any, of the ways that we discussed have you used in the past, or do you plan to use in the future? What suggestions do you have for designers and developers who face this work issue?

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Robert Bowen

Robert Bowen is an emerging author, celebrated podcaster and poet, and most recently the co-founder and imaginative co-contributor of the creative design and blogging duo at the Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.


  1. Really, really good article.

    I’ve had to learn how to say no in all sorts of diplomatic ways before. Sometimes saying no is even harder when the request is reasonable, but doesn’t fit the strategy of the job.

    Instead of saying ‘no’ I often point people back to the brief or strategy which normally brings the client back to reality.

  2. The key to dealing with clients is to tell them all of your policies straight up. You may need to go back and revise things in detail. Tell them exactly how many revisions you are willing to do, what you are and aren’t capable of doing with the software, and explain anything else there will be an extra fee that will be charged by the hour.

  3. It’s important to tell you client straight up what you are wiling to do. Go over your policies, how many revisions they are allowed and exactly what that means. Dealing with clients is the most difficult part of the job, especially difficult clients.

  4. If I can just get my tone in check, I would ace every client interaction. I tend to speak in mono-tone so I’ve been told which others say comes across rudely. The kicker is that I don’t even realize I did or am doing it when it happens.

    Honestly you need to be upfront with every client on what will be handed and what is extra.

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