The Art Of Saying No And Keeping A Client Happy

The Art Of Saying No And Keeping A Client Happy

Finding clients is a challenge all by itself so when we are fortunate enough to have some in our corner it is a natural reaction for us to go above and beyond the call of duty to keep them happy. While this is admirable from a customer service point of view it is not always feasible to say yes to every request. Here is how I have learned to overcome my fear of saying “no” to a client.

It has always been hard for me to say no to people, not just in business, but in my personal life as well. In my younger years I took some pride in going out of my way to help those around me. I would gladly give up my time and plans to help another human being out and it rarely mattered what the request was. Perhaps it was my youthful stupor, the fact that I had too much time on my hands, or maybe because I would have preferred to do just about anything other than studying for my classes.

As I transitioned into the working world this part of my personality followed along and became quite detrimental to my success. I have always been a really big believer in good customer service and it was hard for me to come to terms with the idea that I might have to say no to someone and leave them without help. Saying no to a person was perceived by me as a failure to deliver good customer service.

As a result I made it a policy to say “yes” just about EVERY time, but instead of being rewarded for it, it seemed as though I was being punished. The more my clients heard “yes”, the more they demanded, and the more chaotic my life became. It was quickly apparent that I was being perceived by clients as a pushover and they were there to take advantage. Who can blame them really? I had devalued myself due to my own fears.

So what are the fears that drove me to be a pushover?

  • Fear of losing a client
  • Fear of a bad reputation
  • Fear of hurting feelings

I wanted my clients to like me. I wanted their referrals. I wanted them to believe that I could do anything. Soon I ran into a problem that I could not have foreseen.

The Problem Of Over Commitment

The more things I said yes to, the more I had on my plate. I was busy, very busy in fact, but it was not the right kind of busy. I was stretching myself thin making promises all over the board. I would cave to client requests and soon I found myself falling short on a lot of my promises.

I said yes to free creative shoots that ate into paid commercial work. I spent hours answering emails from inquiring minds. I entertained client’s indecision by allowing them to go back and forth on project details. I filled my time with so many things that I was soon over committed to everyone. I could not fulfill my tasks in the time frames I had promised nor could I deliver the kind of results I truly wanted.

Learn To Identify A Reasonable Request

It is important to be able to identify a reasonable request as opposed to something that is a waste of time. If your client comes to you because of an error YOU made, you better fix it, and pronto! If a client comes to you because they need clarification about the details of a project, you should take some time to explain it to them thoroughly, and avoid future headaches.

There are MANY things you should say yes to, but if you have a gut feeling that what you are being asked to do is beyond reasonable, it might be time to pull out the “no” card.

No Is Not Bad Customer Service

Good customer service is made from a rather simple recipe:

  • Solid communication
  • Showing some compassion
  • Willingness to problem solve
  • Putting a plan to action

Your clients have to be able to communicate with you in a clear and efficient manner. They want to be heard and understood. They want to know that as a business you are listening to them and internalizing what they have said, but they also want you to solve or fulfill whatever request they have come with. Though they may come to you with a solution or request that they came up with, they will always be open and eager to hear your take on the matter. Above all, once you have come up with a solution that works for all parties involved, they want you to put that plan into action!

Notice how saying yes is not part of the equation? If you simply say yes to everything you are putting at risk the last step, which is to put your plans into action, and if you can’t come through on all your promises then by default you have delivered bad customer service. Thus, saying no is NOT bad customer service.

Good customer service relies on solving problems, even if the solution is not what the client has offered, and sometimes no matter how hard you try you just can't help a client. There is nothing wrong with that.

Soften The Blow With A Counter Offer

The best method I have found for easing a client into a "no" scenario is by offering them a counter offer to their demands.

For example last year I had a client that I invoiced for a project and they asked for a discount. Their reasoning was that the project was off to a slow start and their sales were not what they had projected. Though I felt bad for my client, and I did not want to lose them, I also did not immediately cave to their request. Instead I spoke to them about it and made a counter offer. I suggested that perhaps we can put them on a payment plan that would see the cost of the project split up over the course of 6 months. They loved the idea, were extremely grateful, and I have since had more work come from them.

I could have easily chosen to simply say no to my client and explain to them that I cannot afford to further slash my rates as they are already competitive. However, by being a little bit creative, I can still solve the problem at hand and say no to the original offer made by the client in a way that keeps them happy. Making counter offers that put your best interests in a different light can be the best way to say no to a client and have them accept your rejection with a smile.

In the event that the client does not like your counter offer, you are still left in a superior position. You can now more confidently and easily give them a "no" because you already offered a solution which they rejected. You gave the client an option which they could have chosen thus putting the power in their hands. By not agreeing to your terms they are basically saying no to themselves.

Peter House's picture

Peter House is a commercial fashion photographer from Toronto, Canada. He shoots over 10,000 pieces of clothing every year for a variety of lookbooks. Clients range from small local boutiques to international brands such as Target, Winners, and Sears. In addition to that Peter runs one of the most popular rental studio's in the Toronto area.

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"I made it a policy to say “yes” just about EVERY time, but instead of being rewarded for it, it seemed as though I was being punished. The more my clients heard “yes”, the more they demanded, and the more chaotic my life became."

Truer words have never been spoken. It doesn't matter what business you run, clients are always like this. I find businesses easier to deal with than the consumer market just because there are fewer of them. I don't believe most people actively try to take advantage as much as some people just ask for everything as a policy. However, when you have someone who is always asking coupled with someone who tries to go the extra mile, it can seem like a demand and you do feel that obligation. And either way, it leaves you disorganized and exhausted. And I don't know if this is true for anyone else but for me when I bend over backwards and stress myself out for someone, I always end up with less money rather than extra.

Excellent article and this is definitely NOT unique to photography but relevant in any walk of professional life where you are continually asked to deliver. The bottom line is that you're only one resource that can do so much and when you overburden yourself you run the risk of being able to deliver period....regardless of whether the request was reasonable or not.

Stop delivering and your reputation is now at risk; something much harder to repair.

It is possible to say yes, however it's important to add the cost factor for carrying out the task. The old saying of "time costs money" a lot of problems come from not charging the right fee from the beginning. If you're a one man show and things start to get busy, you're going to need help and if you don't factor in the cost to have someone else to carry out the task for you, then you're going to run into problems.

Great article, what's more - I think that it's also important to get closer look on using positive language. Each time you say no to a client you’re sending a message: you don’t want to help. Even if something can’t be done, there’s always a positive way to communicate it. Recently my workmate also cover the topic related to 'how to say no to customers without making them angry'. You can find it here: 
Keep the awesome work, cheers!

Thank you for the excellent post! I found this information, especially the tips on how to "counter-offer", very helpful.