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  • Matt Phillips

Knowing When to Say No to a Client



“No.” For creatives, that word is one to be avoided like the plague. Many of us see telling a client no as a self-destructive, relationship-ending move that will severely damage our careers. It’s actually just the opposite. A firm, fair, well-articulated, positive “no” can work wonders for client relationships. Not only does it re-adjust the client’s expectations of what is reasonable, but it also provides you, the creative, with some much-needed control and balance in your professional life. That said, we understand that actually carrying out the act of saying no is incredibly tough. Our Brand Nation team has been there. That’s why we thought it would be a great idea to give you some simple guidelines for knowing when it’s smart to say no, as well as some practical ways to actually go about communicating it to the client!

The project is too far outside of your creative wheelhouse


The first (and probably simplest) way to know when it’s time to say no is that whatever project the client is asking you to complete is too far outside of your creative wheelhouse. As brand builders, many of us have an insatiable drive to constantly learn new things and grow our skills. That can be a wonderful tool, but it can also be a massive pitfall. It can be dangerously easy to say yes to any and every project that gets thrown your way simply because it presents a new and interesting challenge. New challenges are great, but they have to be taken in small, controlled doses in order to stay manageable.


As a rule, it’s a good idea to let your first stab at a brand-new type of project be taken in your free time, not for a client, and in small steps. If it’s for a client and in the midst of dozens of other projects, you will inevitably get overwhelmed, fall behind on other projects, and lose sleep. Why should other projects (ones that would typically be no-brainers for you creatively) suffer because you bit off more than you could chew? Make sure to learn and develop a new skill before you ever try to implement it for a paying client. When you don’t, there’s a good chance that the project either won’t turn out well, will take an ungodly amount of time and effort that stresses you out and deprives you of much-needed sleep, or will end up proving too difficult for you to complete at all. That’s not a good look for you! Trust us, it’s better to say no than to face the consequences of saying yes. Know your limits.

You don't have the time


Chances are, you’re busy. As creatives, we’re constantly running around, getting behind on deadlines, stressing over unfinished projects, and losing sleep to get caught up on work. If your time barely allows you to stay afloat with your current workload, you must be incredibly careful when considering whether to take on new projects. Often, clients will ask for more than you can feasibly produce for them; they don’t know your schedule, how busy you are, or how long certain projects can take! Since it’s not their fault that their requests are not feasible, it is your responsibility to communicate to them when and why you will not be able to meet their requests. It can seem easier to just say yes and put in some extra hours to keep the client happy, but doing this can be extremely detrimental to you (and the client).


Not only are you biting off more than you can chew, but you’re also setting a precedent for yourself. You’re telling the client, “I have time to complete X amount of work,” which then prompts them to begin assigning that much to you. This creates a snowball effect that winds up lumping unhealthy amounts of pressure and stress on you. By communicating with the client and explaining what’s realistic, they can adjust their expectations (and they will—they’re humans too; they’ll work with you) and you can breathe easy knowing that you can expect a reasonable amount of work from now on. If you don’t have the time to complete a project, just say no. It’s that simple.

The project falls outside the mission of your company


Sometimes, clients (or potential clients) can get the wrong idea of what you do. They may see your website, where you’ve marketed yourself clearly, and make assumptions about the type of projects you complete for clients. A good example of this is a client confusing photography and videography. If you’ve advertised yourself as a wedding photographer, some people might assume that you are also capable of filming wedding videos. If you never said you could do wedding videos, then they are asking for something that falls outside the parameters and mission of your business. In that case, it’s not wrong for you to say no; in fact, it’s the best thing you can do.


By saying no to clients who are asking you to cross over the barrier of your line of work, you establish exactly who you are as a creative, and you clearly define what you do and don’t do. You also provide yourself with some much-needed control and establish healthy boundaries for your work. If a project falls outside the parameters of your line of work, say no to it.

Saying no is not rude


Saying no is not rude. In 21st-century American culture, “no” has developed a negative reputation. It’s a word shouted at misbehaving kids by stressed out mothers. Many creatives fall prey to the notion that telling a client “no” is offensive and will damage the relationship, while it can actually do the opposite.


If you think about it, when a client asks you to carry out a project, what they’re actually asking for is an answer. They want you to tell them one of two things: “yes” or “no.” By definition, answering a question satisfies the request of the inquirer. So, regardless of what the answer is, by simply providing an answer, you are satisfying the client’s need. If providing an answer satisfies their need, then saying no is completely acceptable and expected. All you owe to an inquiring client is an answer, whether it’s “yes” or “no;” you aren’t responsible for anything else. So, with that in mind, use the above guidelines to determine when it’s time to say no, and do so with confidence! The client will be satisfied.


Do more than just saying "no"


When you say no, don’t just say “no.” If you determine that a request falls outside of your wheelhouse, is not feasible time-wise, or crosses the border of your mission, we’ve established that you need to say no. We’ve also established that saying no completely satisfies their request, meaning that you can say it with confidence and positivity. But, when you say no, give the client more than one word. Maybe you can’t help them, but you know of someone else who does exactly what they’re asking for. Maybe what they’re asking for isn’t what they really need (you’re the expert in this field – don’t be afraid to act like it) and you can offer them something different.


Either way, work with them! Make sure they feel taken care of and understood. That way, if they find themselves needing something that you can help with at some point in the future, they’ll want to give you their business! Be kind and caring, and whether you end up saying yes or no, clients will reciprocate. Always remember that, as a creative, you’re in control. You get to pick who you work with, how you go about completing your work, what types of projects you are willing to complete, and how much time you put into them.

Hopefully these guidelines and tips have been helpful to you in your quest to find a positive no! For more great ideas and inspiration for brand builders, make sure to check out our weekly podcast and other blog posts! We’re here to make you a better creative, and we know you’ll love the MANY resources we have to offer. #TeamBrandNation

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