When you have to tell a client “no”

Clients are humans too. There. I said it. We all know it’s true but sometimes when they ask us to do the impossible and devolve into demanding demons… or really-scary-deadline-demanding-jerks-who-don’t-realize-you-are-not-a-robot. In light of this, I would ask you to remember something. Ladies and gentlemen… please remember you can push back. If a client wants a deadline that’s unreasonable, for heaven’s sake just SAY so. Don’t destroy yourself with an all-nighter, or give up on what you had already planned! That will make your life miserable and eventually it’ll breed resentment. Truth be told, the client has no idea why one graphic may take 10 minutes but another takes you 10 hours. Saying a **version** of “no” to a client almost never means you’ve lost that client for good, but designers are afraid to put that foot down. If you can save the client every now and again with an 11-hour Hail-Mary pass then that’s awesome, but even when you pull that off you need to be clear that you can’t do that every time – but you’ll happily accept their praise for rockin’ it this time. 🙂

Now when you respond to let them know it will take you longer be sure to say WHY and don’t be cryptic. And dear God don’t just ignore the request until later. Whether they buy your “oh it went to my junk folder!” excuse or not, if they start to believe you’re not present they will find another designer – eventually. (Hey everyone’s lazy.) The point is to realize that your clients are people too, and as much grief as they can shell out, only you can manage it by pushing back. You still should deliver what and when you promise, but if something is out of your hands just throw yourself on the mercy of their court, or choose to stand firm by letting them know as early as possible and as personally (i.e. phone call) as you can. It makes a huge difference.

Perfect example, let’s say I have a client who I usually do banners for and their boss just dropped a bomb on them that they have to launch a new project early next week – and it’s Friday at 5 o’clock. “We need 5 new banners by tonight so we can get them to the print house by Monday!!” Calling, not writing, my client I would say “Hey I just got your e-mail. Now tell me exactly what’s going on.” (They’ll be happy to recount the tragedy!) “OK so here’s the deal. I’ve got my daughter’s little league game at 6 tonight, and I can’t do the banners right now. I **can** have them to you by COB on Monday, and we can likely expedite the order with the print house – but that means we’ll get their rush fee. That’s the best I can do – is that going to work?” So, what did I do there? I related to the client by letting them vent and putting myself on their side. Then I said what my constraints were and gave them options – and that’s the key, always give options. It does two things, 1) sets expectations, and 2) gives them something to go back to the boss with for an update. Those two things are usually enough to squash most crisis-driven tasks. Now you better make sure you deliver on Monday, but it creates a give and take that pays itself forward with future projects. They’ll stick with you because you’re their go-to-guy/gal, but they will also remember next time that you too have priorities.


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