How to Say No Without Losing Your Client or Reputation

How to Say No Without Losing Your Client or Reputation
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Working With a Demanding Client: The Art of Communicating

Sometimes you don’t have a choice whether or nor to deal with a demanding client, but there are some things you can do to make the situation less stressful by developing an effective communication plan. When faced with a demanding client, a project manager’s first reaction may be one of anger and frustration. These reactions are normal in response to being forced to step into the shoes of pacifier or firefighter to extinguish the never-ending fires ignited by the client’s demands.

The first step in dealing with a demanding client is to get these negative emotions under control before they escalate and destroy any chance of a future working relationship. An emotionally charged “No” will always result in the worst possible outcome. One way of dealing with a demanding client, is to try this four-step approach:

1. Assess the situation – why is the client being so demanding?

2. Determine the risks involved in saying no to the client.

3. Utilize project management strategies to say no without having to say the word no.

4. Prepare to say no from a position of strength by using project management tools to back up your position.

Dealing With the Mountain Climber Client

While some demands can challenge you to raise your level of performance and climb beyond the client’s and your highest expectations, other demands can become an avalanche barreling down on your efforts to keep the project on budget and protect your employees from burnout.

How does a project manager deal with a demanding client who wants you to move mountains with Herculean effort? The first step is to figure out what is the motivation behind the demands. Does the client not understand the constraints of your business or does the client want to micromanage the project?

If your client has no idea how your business is run, how can you expect him or her to understand the constraints you face in meeting the client’s demands whether reasonable or unreasonable. If the lack of understanding is the problem then the simple solution is to teach the client about your business through utilizing the project charter. If the client is calling you at all hours of the day and night, an effective status report may satisfy the client’s need for involvement.

When the client’s demands originate from pressures of a third-party demand, try to form an alliance with your client through a brainstorming session. Defuse the initial tension of the situation by opening the conversation with a metaphor to build a connection. Start by saying: “I feel like we are being asked to move mountains with a shovel. Where can we find our bulldozer?” By asking the client for advice, you have opened the doors of communication which will allow you to offer your recommendations on how to keep the project on schedule and within budget estimates.

Dealing With the Flip-Flop or Indecisive Client

Question face

Another type of demanding client is the flip flopper or indecisive client who constantly wants to change the design or scope of the project. To manage the problem of scope creep, you will first need to find out what is the reason for the client’s indecisiveness. Is your client’s wavering attributable to the lack of trust in your judgment to make decisions or does the client need more attention and focus?

If the problem is one of the lack of trust, then you need to work on the affiliation part of your relationship with your client. Increase your face to face time in order to build up the trust level and give the client some agreed upon time to voice constructively his or her concerns.

Start the conversation by saying “I know you are on board with this approach, but it still sounds like you have some frustration with the decision.” Understanding the client’s objectives and setting forth how to meet them is essential to defining the future success of the project.

Building a position of strength to tell the client no later involves getting these commitments in writing. The agreement should cover the scope of the project services, set a project schedule, and provide realistic budget estimates. Try involving your client in writing a scope statement and be sure to have follow-up documentation for any of client’s change request orders. Using these project management tools will give you the backup documentation in the future to learn how to say no without losing your client under an avoidable legal loophole.

Saying the Word No


If the client understands the business, but still holds tight to the “just do it” attitude or continues to see-saw back and forth on decision-making, you may be forced to give the client an irrefutable no as your response.

However, before you say the dreaded word no, conduct a stakeholder analysis to determine the importance and influence of the client in the project. After determining the client’s relative stake in the project, you will be in a better position to determine the impact of saying no to your reputation and the bottom line of your business.

Image Credits

Mountain Climber on Pagoda Ridge, Coire Daingean Face: Wikimedia Commons/alasdair gordon

Question Face: Open Clip Art Library/nicubunu

No Demand Sign drawn by Ginny Edwards