I Talked My Way Out of Making $50,000. Here's Why It Was a Good Business Decision

How to say "no" to your clients and earn their trust in the process.

We are a decision-fatigued society. The stress and anxiety many face during the day leaves them too drained to even make decisions about what to watch on TV after work, which Netflix recognized with the recent launch of the Play Something shuffle feature.

The problem extends well beyond TV. Business leaders in many industries must think strategically about how decision fatigue impacts their clients and how they can help. Having your clients' best interests in mind today means remembering that many of their choices are the result of tired minds. Sometimes, saying "no" is the best service you can offer. Now more than ever, agencies, consultants and other client-facing roles need to get comfortable pushing back to ensure only the best ideas make it past the drawing board.

We have a saying with clients at my company: "I'll fight you twice, and then I'll take your money." I work in custom software development, and this flies in the face of the prevailing attitude that the customer is always right. In this business, it's common to find "software consultants" who are really just order takers. But in my experience, working in your clients' best interest goes a lot further in earning their trust than being a yes-man, no matter what industry you're in.

Here's how to build trust with your customers by saying "no" with grace:

1. Set clear expectations on day one

The first step to saying "no" is to nix this notion that the customer is always right. The customer is frequently wrong and sometimes very wrong. Your expertise is why they hired you, after all.

It's important to set clear expectations from the beginning on how a partnership will work. We find we work best with clients who are there to listen to our ideas. If clients aren't willing to deviate from their ideas no matter what the research says, they're not a good fit for the type of collaborative relationship we're trying to establish.

One way to set expectations early on is to agree to always let the data decide in times of disagreement. As famed statistician and managerial consultant W. Edwards Deming, who was responsible for turning around a failing Ford Motor Co. in the 1980s, said: "Without data, you're just another person with an opinion." In other words, you can only truly know that which you can prove. The client isn't always right, but you won't always be right, either.

You both might think your instincts are spot-on, but you won't know until you talk to potential customers. When you collect feedback, you might discover that the truth is somewhere between what you thought and what the client thought. A data-driven approach removes uncertainty and allows you to help your clients make more educated decisions.

2. Dig deeper for the real "why" behind requests

Oftentimes, clients feel pressure to innovate, so they'll throw a new idea at the wall just to see whether it sticks. This is completely backward, and ultimately, it's unlikely to deliver the results they want.

One way you can drive value for your clients is by digging deeper to understand their true needs. When you ask your clients why they want to do something, their first response might only be a symptom of a larger issue. By asking more questions, you might find they're trying to solve an entirely different problem than the one they hired you for.

Using an exercise like "the five whys" can help you identify the root of the problem. This strategy originated with Toyota, as manufacturers began problem-solving by repeatedly asking "why" to get to the root of the issue. When a client makes a request, start probing deeper with questions such as, "Why is that important to you?" Continue asking "why" in different ways (Why do you think that? Why is that a problem?) until you feel you've arrived at the heart of the matter.

3. Show how your recommendations optimize their budget

It can be difficult to look clients in the eye and say their idea is awful. (Pro tip: Don't do that.) You have to be diplomatic but still get your point across, which is why establishing trust is key. The way you build that trust is by showing that your priority is their success.

Your clients are infinitely more likely to succeed if they can avoid potential pitfalls, such as falling prey to "shiny object syndrome." Part of your job is talking them out of ideas that might be distractions at best — and disastrous at worst.

One way to make your case is by explaining how a different approach will deliver a better ROI. Clients should never need to question whether your motive is money. If there is a more cost-effective way for them to achieve their desired results, they should hear it from you first.

Once, we had a client in the mortgage business. We had built a suite of loan approval and pre-qualification software for them, and the client expressed interest in building a live-chat tool so that they would "own the code." We knew that live chat was a major undertaking and way outside the client's wheelhouse. We told them they could invest tens of thousands of dollars in building it or use a well-loved SaaS tool for $40 per month.

It might seem crazy to talk a client out of spending $50,000, but trust is paramount in any long-term partnership. By pushing them not to build the live-chat tool, we freed up the budget for efforts that would move the client's needle more. By pouring our energy into their core products, we could improve the customer experience in the ways that mattered. Of course, pushing back against a client's ideas isn't always easy — even when it's in their best interest.

Saying "no" to a client might seem counterintuitive, but when someone comes to you for your expertise, it's your duty to act in his or her best interest. Sometimes, this might mean turning down easy money or losing a client when you don't see eye-to-eye. In the long run, though, you'll deliver more value and earn their repeat business.

Chris Cardinal
Chris Cardinal
Chris Cardinal is a founding principal of Synapse Studios. His primary focus is on business development but enjoys helping architect software solutions for clients.

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