Is there a Good Way to Say No to a Client?

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I often make the joke, that project managers are unable to spell the word ‘NO’. Very often it is yes and how much can we do for you but there is an art and strategy with declining the advances of others. Complicate this further with the client to a project who is paying the bill and demanding more from the project. This is ultimately the crux of the problem, not just saying NO, but saying NO to a paying client. Telling clients, we can’t (or won’t) help them is uncomfortable, and goes against everything a project manager is taught. We want to be accepted, want to be recognised for the good work we do, and, to an extent, want to please. And in particular we want to please those that can either make or break our project and in some cases our career.

One of the biggest problem with saying no is that it taps into the deep-seated fear we all have of not being accepted. It makes sense, as project managers we have a survival tactic. You want to say yes and please the client and in turn please the organisation and in turn have a relatively stress-free existence but there are times (and many of them) when NO is a necessity for a project manager. Saying NO can often times be a sign of strength, understanding and in many cases a sign of power from the project manager. Let me explain this statement, the word NO can represent that a project manager knows and understands the situation and is unwilling to let go. This must be respected.

So, how do you say no? Before you decide whether or not it is a good idea to say no, you need an idea of what it will take to finish it. You need to plan it out, you need to have an alternative and backup. It’s not hard to get the basic workings of a plan here. From beginning to end, list all the tasks that need to be completed in order for the item to be finished or the alternative to come into place. So, based on having some level of an alternative here are some guidelines but remember that NO is a complete sentence. You have permission to say no to anything you don’t feel comfortable with. However, when saying NO to a client have a reason to why and an alternative. Based on this, try the following:

  • Saying NO is actually honest and kind – Think to it as you are doing the client a favour. Be honest and kind in the delivery of the message and alternative that go with it. Don’t feel as if this is underhand and in the long-term this is some
    thing that will benefit both you and the client.
  • Treat the client the way you’d want to be treated – No matter how right it is, it’s still hard saying no. But turn it around for a second. Think about how much more you respect people that play it straight with you. So be upfront and tell the person no. Just be sure to emphasis how you not doing the project is actually the best option. Let the message be clear and concise and again be sure to have the alternatives in place. Saying NO is not an end point, it is a start point to something else.
  • Have an open conversation emphasising the options – This is a general way that you can say no, either over email or in person. You’re being honest about the outcome, but still offering a great alternative. Don’t be afraid to commit to alternatives and options, attempt to sell the benefit of these and work on points of ambiguity on these options with the client

As project managers, we hate disappointing people, so saying NO used to be very hard. I ended up agreeing to stuff I felt I should do, but not that was the best for me, the project or the long-term. I worried that if I said no, people would get upset with me, or think I couldn’t handle the work. By not taking on work that doesn’t fit in with my needs, I’m actually helping myself and in turn the client with what they need. It is not a case that I don’t want to do it but it is a case that there is a better alternative and understanding this is what saying NO is really about. The first time you say no to a potential client will be hard but remember it is for everybody’s well-being.

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