How to say “No” And Keep Your Client

Yesterday, I posted five situations in which you’d have to tell a client “No.” In the comments, Nancy said that she uses qualifiers with clients, and Pete noted that he often passed work on to other freelancers. This made him a problem solver and generous both, and brought him more clients. Dawn said she asked for more time and when the client was in a tight spot, often got the time she asked for.

The miller's daughter could spin stray into gold, but only with the magical help of Rumpelstiltskin.

Today, I’d like to offer three ways to say “No” without feeling like you are deserting your client. Even more important, this “No” will leave you feeling like you’ve done your best without succumbing to the people-pleasing trap that loads up your desk with Rumpelstiltskin-like impossible tasks.

1. Say “No,” followed by something you can do. This may be part of the job or the whole job in your time limit. You could say, “The Acme project needs to be done by tomorrow? I’m sorry, I can’t take it on as an overnight job, but I can take it on and finish it in 10 days. Would that work for you?  This is a mix of Nancy and Dawn’s suggestion, and it works well. You offer to help, but not in the way that makes you feel pressured or manipulated.

Don't get buried by taking on too much. "the Awakening" a statue once buried at Hains Point, D.C. and now in Oxon Hill, MD.

2. Say “No” to the job, but offer to do something that fits into your schedule or budget. “Marge, I really can’t take on the whole Acme project, but I can take on the other project that’s piling up on your desk. Would that help you?” Many clients that are trying to put out one fire don’t notice the second smouldering on their desk. I you listen carefully to your clients, you can hear both what is urgent and what is important to them.

3. Say “No,” but offer to help find someone else to do the job. This is Pete’s idea with a twist. You can offer to manage the job and sub-contract it out to a freelancer you know and can work with. This allows you to keep the job in your view and have someone else work on it. As a project manager, you will not be doing the process work for free.

You can also introduce your client to a freelance colleague and let them work directly. This depends entirely on your level of trust with your colleague.

You can see that each of these techniques has three steps:

  • Be plain and clear about saying “Yes” or “No”
  • Say what you are willing to do, and name the timeline that you can work with.
  • Offer to manage the solution in a way that works for you (take on another project or suggest someone else)

You’ll feel better about being clear and feel relieved not to take on a project out of guilt. Offering what you can do instead of what you can’t puts you in a position of strength, and that’s a good place to be with any client.

Quinn McDonald’s left brain develops, writes and teaches training programs in writing and communicating.