6 ways to say ‘no’ to a client

Darren WoolleyHow can agencies in Asia say ‘no’ to clients in these trialling economic times? In this guest article, Darren Woolley has six pieces of advice.

We all want to be liked. It is human nature to crave acceptance and feel we belong. It is possible that some disciplines such as advertising and marketing attract a more socially focused personality type than others. So when it comes to saying ‘No’ to a client request, it can be an incredibly difficult task. It leaves you feeling dejected and guilty.

But there are times when it is important for the health and well-being of the relationship and your own self-esteem that you are able to master the ability to say ‘no’ without causing offence or ending up wallowing in guilt and self-loathing.

1. Remind the client of all of the things you have said ‘yes’ to when you say ‘no’

This is ideal if you have some warning, so you can reflect back on the many times you have accommodated the client’s requests in the past, highlighting the times it may have been at your detriment. Like the time they called you on at the end of the day on Friday to request that you have the strategy document they have been sitting on all week ready for the presentation first thing on Monday morning. There is another weekend gone. Even better if they are the type of client that negotiates and cajoles you with promises to make it up to you, as this is the perfect time to call those promises back.

2. Explain why you are unable to do it

Often clients will try and bully you into making the commitment immediately. But a great strategy is to get all of the details of what is required and by when. Even better is to ask the client to confirm the details in an email. Then naturally, as a true professional, you will need to check with the team to ensure it is possible to deliver depending on the scope, timeline or any number of variables that could impact the ability of the agency to deliver. Then, following a review of the client’s request with the relevant people in the agency, you can go back to the client and explain in detail why you are saying ‘no’ at this time and possibly negotiate what would need to change for you to be able to say ‘yes’.

3. Provide alternatives

There is more than one way to skin a cat. There are many ways to deliver the specific outcome the client is requesting. Here it is important to explain to the client the options available to them and the consequences of each option. Most clients can tell you what they want, and often do. But the agency should be the expert in the various ways to do it. Therefore you can offer alternatives in a way that makes the more acceptable option for you more attractive to the client, because it has the least risk of failure, or represents the best value or delivers the highest quality. Having options reinforces your expertise and makes you look more flexible rather then simply being oppositional.

4. Stand up to the bully

Of course there are times where the client will literally try to bully the agency into complying with their demands. This is particularly common where the act is unethical, if not unlawful, and is required to get the client out of trouble or a sticky situation. The more risk for the client, the more likely they are to bully the agency as so much is at stake.

An example of this was a client demanding the agency provide an invoice to receive funds to pay a third party supplier it turned out had a financial arrangement with the client. In these cases where the demands are unreasonable, you need to make a stand. In this case, the agency asked the client to put the request in writing to effectively absolve the agency of being complicit in the action. Of course the client was unwilling to do this as it would directly implicate them and therefore without the written request the agency was able to politely say ‘no’ to the request.

5. Say ‘no’ and say you’re sorry – but don’t over-apologise

One of the classic mistakes in saying ‘no’ to a client is to allow yourself to apologise too much as this looks indecisive, suggests you are open to being convinced and sends a message you are weak. A simple “I’m sorry, but no, we are unable to do that” is enough.

To go on and on making excuses and apologising for the decision undermines the message you are delivering. Likewise you need to own the decision on behalf of the agency. To make it seem that the agency is forcing you to say ‘no’ is also a position of weakness and undermines your position and the agency’s credibility. But the agency must also be willing to support you and your decisions too.

6. The Sir Humphrey Appleby Strategy

If all else fails there is always the Sir Humphrey Strategy from the television program Yes, Minister. Played brilliantly by Nigel Hawthorne, his character was the wily Permanent Secretary for the Department of Administrative Affairs. Whenever his Minister would make a decision that Sir Humphrey disagreed with he would firstly try to convince the Minister of his alternative point of view. But if this failed and the Minister was insistent on his decision then his killer response was “That is a very courageous decision Minister”.

Planting a seed of doubt in the client’s mind that perhaps they have overlooked a potential risk or some unseen hazard. It is a brilliant tactic to unnerve even the most bullish client bully. In effect you are manipulating the client into potentially saying ‘no’ to themselves while allowing you to be agreeable. But you must use it sparingly as its effectiveness will wear thin with repetitive use.

Of course if none of these work for you, I suggest some additional reading in the best-seller “When I say no I feel guilty” by Manuel J Smith, PhD, which is available here on Amazon.

Darren Woolley is the founder and CEO of TrinityP3


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