How to Nicely Say “No” to Clients

June 17, 2022

A guest post by Ashley Uhl

Table of Contents

The other day I just wasn’t in the mood for cooking. After a long day of baby cries and toddler tantrums, and fitting in bursts of “focused” work that lasted about, oh 3 minutes, the last thing I wanted to do was cook any sort of meal. So I decided to call up our old stand by when there’s just no energy left in the house, a local smokehouse market. Their menu is long, pretty primo, and shockingly reasonable. So, call I did, just as they had instructed me to do so before as we’re such frequent patrons, “You can of course order in person, but it’s easier if you just call us before.” Got it, will do.

Now when I went ahead and followed the directions, however, the reaction was not at all in line with what I expected. In fact, when the call was picked up on the other side of the line and I said that I’d like to place an order, I expected the reply to be “Ok, what can we get for you?” but what transpired instead was:

Market: “You know we close at 6:00 and it’s 5:30.”

Me: “Oh, well we’re just 10 minutes down the road. We can be there right away.”

Market: “Ok but it’s 5:30 and we close at 6. I just want you to know that. That we close in 30 minutes. I just wanted to make sure that you knew that we close soon.”

Me: Taken a bit aback by his reply and trying to also interpret what he seemed to be saying, “Ok….. do you not want me to order then?”

Market: Realizing how he must have sounded, “Oh no, I just wanted to make sure you knew when we closed so you would be able to pick up your order in time. I apologize.”

Hmm, ok. Well, if that’s the case, then what you said was definitely not the way to go about it.

Don't Leave Your Replies Up for Interpretation

Now why was it not the way to go about it, and what were the consequences of doing so? Well, let’s find out.

So the call began with me letting him know that I’d like to place a take out order, which is probably what you’d expect to hear when you pick up the line at a restaurant, especially right now. However rather than hearing the expected reply of “Great, what can I get for you?” Or even, “Great! Will you be able to make it here by about 5:45 as we close at 6?” instead he replied with, “Ok but it’s 5:30 and we close at 6. I just want you to know that. That we close in 30 minutes. I just wanted to make sure you knew that we close soon.”

Now the problem with the response was not only that it was obviously unfriendly and unwelcoming, but that it was also long, drawn out, and left open to a lot of interpretation. I didn’t know what he was trying to tell me. That’s why my initial reply was “Ok, well we’re just 10 minutes down the road” as I figured he was concerned that I wouldn’t be there to pick it up in time. But then he kept going. He kept hammering me on the time.

So then I had to internally interpret it further, “Ok, so maybe his concern isn’t that I can’t pick it up, but that it’s too late for me to be ordering?” So that’s why my second reply was a bit of a question, but direct and straightforward, aiming to find out if that’s really what he was trying to indirectly say.

His reply then, was again, confusing, but also turned apologetic as he realized the error in his ways. And regardless of his apology and the seeming miscommunication, the whole interaction left me with a bad taste in my mouth, feeling guilty for calling to order with 30 minutes left even though to me that seemed like a reasonable time for me to call, and just plain weird.

Don’t Become Confusing Just to Avoid Saying “No”

But how do sandwiches relate to interior design and how do you appropriately handle saying “no” to a client request? Well, let’s talk about it.

Let’s say a client calls you up and says, “Hey, could you come out to the house today and look at the tile that’s been laid. It doesn’t look quite right to me.” And you, trying to be nice, but also keeping in mind that you don’t have time today, reply with, “Well, it wasn’t on my agenda for today. I wasn’t planning on stopping by to see the tile as it wasn’t supposed to be completed until tomorrow.” hoping that they’ll get the gist of what you’re saying – that you don’t have time.

But what do you think your client is going to say in response to that? Well, who knows. You know what you want them to say, “Oh no problem, tomorrow is totally fine.” but you don’t know if that’s what you’ll actually get. And why? Well, because your response to their question was pretty confusing, unclear, and left up for interpretation.

The kind of client whose a bit unaware of what you may or may not be insinuating may just move forward with, “Ok, well can you put it on your agenda then as it was completed today?” and you’re left again having to struggle for a response. You either have to concede and rearrange your schedule in order to please the client and again avoid saying “no,” or you have to now figure out a way to say “no” after you seemingly didn’t say “no” the first time. Which really just confuses things even more.

Whereas if you have a client whose aware of the seeming undertones of your words may now feel guilty for asking you to stop by (and making a client feel guilty for something is an absolute no-no) and respond with, “Ok… so… maybe tomorrow then?” And you’re left with thankfully not having to go today, but also a client who now feels strange about the interaction. They feel a bit off and uncomfortable with how the whole thing played out. They don’t know quite what they did wrong, or in fact if they did do something wrong, as the reply they got wasn’t clear. What they do know though is that the next time they need something, they’ll reconsider reaching out as they don’t want to seem like/feel like a burden.

A Great Way to Say “No”

Here’s the thing though. Sometimes we have to say “no”. But sometimes, in our effort to avoid saying “no”, we actually create a bigger problem. We don’t want to say “no,” so we don’t say “no,” but we kind of say “no,” and hope that the client gets what we’re trying to say, without saying it. Real clear, huh?

However, what actually happens is that the client is left feeling confused, often a little bad and guilty, and unsure of where they stand with you. And it all could have been avoided by simply being clear about what you can and can’t do, or what you will and won’t do.

So, when a client asks you for something and your answer has to be “no”, that’s ok. But there’s definitely a way to go about it so that no one ends up with hurt or confused feelings. And it all starts with a few elements.

Here’s what you need when “no” has to be the answer:

  1. Apologize and use the word “unfortunately”
  2. Put policies in place for frequent requests that you often have to say “no” to.
  3. For infrequent asks, be nice, but clear, with what can’t happen.
  4. When possible, focus instead on what you can do, rather than what you can’t do.
  5. When possible, give the client choices in regards to what you can do.

Now let’s go over what this all really means and looks like. 

Let’s take number 1, “apologize and use the word “unfortunately.”” So no matter how ridiculous the request, it’s important to first show respect to your clients and what they want. You want to reply to every request that can’t be fulfilled with an apology and the word “unfortunately.” 

It softens the blow of what’s to come, and eases your client’s ears when they hear that you aren’t able to do what they asked. It’s like saying, “I hear you, I respect you, and I wish I could, even if I can’t.” It’s a preventative measure to let your client know that you’ve considered it and would like to fulfill their request, you just sadly aren’t able to. 

Now what about number 2,”Put policies in place for frequent requests?” What does that mean exactly? Well let’s say your clients often ask if they can bypass the receiving warehouse and just have items delivered piece by piece to their home. Well, that’s not just possible as using a receiving warehouse is the way you do business. 

So, you need to decide that this is an actual policy, and that you need to have a standardized response to support that policy. It could sound something like this, “I’m sorry but unfortunately we’re unable to do that as the receiving warehouse is a crucial part of our quality control process. It’s one of the ways that we’re really able to ensure that each and every piece delivered is in mint condition, of the highest quality, and to the exact specifications that you wanted.” It’s an easy way to say “no” as you’re essentially placing the blame on the policy rather than yourself. And when you can give them a reason why the policy benefits them, such as we want to make sure the deliveries are in mint condition for you, well, all the better. 

Now what about number 3, “for infrequent asks be nice, but clear, with what can’t happen?” Well, like we talked about before, your response needs to be extremely clear, but also friendly. Let’s say you have a client who wants you to come over right now to clean up a mess that a tradesmen made. Your response would be, “I’m so very sorry to hear that the tile layer left a trail of mud through your home. That’s absolutely not acceptable and certainly doesn’t meet our standards of client care. Unfortunately I’m not able to come over right now.” 

And then you also bring in numbers 4 and 5 as well, with “focus on what you can do”, and when possible give the client choices. so you say “but I could come at the end of the day around 4:30, or I could send my assistant Stephanie over right now to assess the damage and see what we’ll need to do to get it out. Which would you prefer?” And then they let you know. And unless the client is extremely unreasonable, they’ll choose from what you provided them with. They won’t come back and say ” No, I need YOU to come over now” as you didn’t give them that option.

Leaders Say “No”

See, saying “no” to your clients doesn’t have to be a form of torture. No, in fact it’s crucial to your livelihood, and your business’s livelihood. Unless you’re running a firm where your clients are CEOS and celebrities, saying “no” is going to have to be part of your life. It just can’t be avoided as sometimes clients genuinely don’t know what is and isn’t possible, and sometimes clients are honestly well, just a bit difficult. They sometimes want more than what’s reasonable. They sometimes want what’s even borderline ridiculous. 

So don’t avoid saying “no” like you avoid looking at pictures of yourself in the awkward stage. Instead take the requests and the “no” replies head on. Just make sure you do it in a way that’s friendly, that you have policies in place for, that focuses on what you can do, and that gives the client the opportunity to choose what’s best for them. 

And when you do, well, you become a leader. You become a leader that clients can depend on to guide them, to direct them, and to do what’s best for them. You become the kind of leader that clients know, that clients trust, and that clients adore. And well, there’s few greater things in business, then to have achieve that.

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Written by Ashley UHL

Ashley Uhl is the principal owner of Ashley Uhl Consulting, and the only client experience consultant exclusively focused on working with interior designers. Through her work she teaches designers a step by step approach to delivering an exceptional client experience, one that results in higher fees, increased efficiency, and turning clients into raving fans. You can learn more about the exceptional client experience by visiting her weekly blog at ashleyuhlconsulting.com.

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