How to say no to client requests without hurting your career

How do you decline or say no to client requests without offending them or hurting your career?

Saying “yes” to everything can seem like the best route to progress professionally. But what it actually does is that it piles even more onto your already full plate. Furthermore, it eats into your productivity, and it affects your sanity and ability to deliver work at the level that you want. All things of which don’t help with your career progression. If you want to climb the ladder to partner in your firm (or other firms), you’ll have to learn how to say “no” to client requests. Here’s how to do that without hurting your career in the process.

First, do not respond immediately

When we are distracted, tired or stressed out, we don’t tend to make the best decisions. So when a client requests something new of you, the first thing you should do is stop. Then, ask yourself, “Am I in the best state to respond to them right now?” 

If you’re not, then don’t respond right away or let them know that you will think about the best approach and will get back to them soon. By doing something as simple as this, you can protect yourself against making an emotional decision that may affect your career negatively.

Then, identify whether it is a reasonable request

In the moment where you stop to think through the client’s request, identify whether it is a valuable use of your time first. For example, if a client is requesting for you to fix an error that you made then you better fix it quick. However, if they are coming to you for something that is not in the contract, then this request may not be reasonable.

When thinking about whether a request is reasonable for you, think about:

  1. Your priorities. What are your top priorities? Does this request relate to them? 
  2. Capabilities. Does this request fit with your skills and expertise or those that you would like to develop?
  3. Resources. Can you complete the work more efficiently with your available tools? Is there someone in your team who may benefit from taking on this work?
  4. The long-term benefit. Will this work have an impact on you and the firm in the long term? Will it open up further opportunities?
  5. Scope. What 20% of the work in this request will produce 80% of the value? Can you just do these parts for the client?
  6. Timing. When does this work need to be completed? Can you take something else off your plate to take this on if the work is more valuable?

Lastly, say “no” the right way

Saying “no” to client requests without hurting your career can be difficult to do. This is whether it’s an unreasonable request or you just don’t want to do it. However, it is possible. In fact, many clients will respect you for it (if you do it in the right way!).

When thinking about how to say no to client requests, you need to be doing these 3 key things:

  1. Explain your “why”

    Clients will be understanding if you are honest and explain why you are declining their request. Maybe you want to learn X skill really well and don’t want to take on anything that could prevent you from reaching that goal? Perhaps you want to delegate the work and supervise someone else instead? Whatever your preference or reason, tell them, they will respect you for it.

  2. Be very helpful

    The more helpful you can be, the more positive you can make this encounter. After all, you don’t want your client leaving and shutting the door on all future opportunities, that would be extremely bad for your career! By giving them new ideas or resources or offering alternative solutions, you can turn what could have been a negative encounter into one that makes your client happy and one that paints you in a very positive and caring light.

  3. Always try to stay involved

    If a client feels like you don’t want to help them, they won’t skip a beat when deciding to go elsewhere. This is why you need to have a hand in with them at all times. If you can’t help take on a certain request completely, try and help in another way such as reviewing a document rather than writing it. If you refer them to someone, follow up and check in regularly with them. If you don’t have the solution, offer brainstorming sessions, or if you simply can’t take on the work right now, tell them when you will be able to help them with what they need. 

You can say “no” and still progress up the career ladder!

It is possible not to damage your career by declining work, you just have to know how to say no to client requests the right way. Just remember to take your time, think it through and if you need to turn it down, be as helpful as you possibly can.

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