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Saying No To Clients

No in a speech bubble

"No We Can't" - Obama's less successful and well-known presidential campaign.

No doubt I’m a Yes Man, through and through. Either through a desire to please or a fear of confrontation (haven’t gotten that far with the psychiatrist yet), I don’t like saying no to people. Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing and the truth is most people respond to a positive attitude and a ‘yes we can’ spirit. I mean, just look at where it got Barack Obama.

Still, saying yes all of the time isn’t very practical, not in the real world and certainly not for web projects. “Yes, I suppose we can squeeze a blog into your budget.” “Sure, we can throw some more features into the members area.” “Like hot pink and kittens? No problem.” Agreeing to anything and everything isn’t always a great idea and sometimes a danger to a project. I’m not just talking about budgets and timescales either, but also in terms of controlling and maintaining the integrity of a job and making sure the design or functionality doesn’t become compromised due to an opinion or a mere whim.

Personally, I’m a big believer in cutting unreasonable demands off at the pass and preventing them for even occurring by laying a solid, clear and upfront foundation of exactly what work is being undertaken. A lot of suggestions for functionality, one of the main causes of scope creep, come from the fact that the client either has no boundaries as to what is technically realistic or simply has far greater expectations of what they’re getting. Making sure both parties are on the same page as to what the project involves, what’s feasible and what the end product is going to behave like right from the beginning is a big step in reducing the likelihood of new features being requested out of the blue.

Proposals, specs and just plain old good conversations play an important part in increasing this clarity between developer and client but producing full designs for every page or template being developed is also very effective. Being able able to see something is so much more useful at conveying behaviour than simply describing it either in person or in a document. Frankly, it’s hard to beat mocking-up a large chunk of a site in aiding overall clarity.

“Don’t forget, it is OK to say no. In my experience, clients will be grateful and respect you more for it anyway.”

Rob Mills, Think Vitamin

Having said all that though, I also accept that it’s simply impossible to lay out an entire project in stone before you being working on it and believe that a certain degree of flexibility is an absolute necessity as it’s just impractical, and frustrating, to have to try and charge or argue over every little change that a client requests. Flexibility is also important to the quality of a product as a whole because, until you can actual play with a development or prototype version, it’s really impossible to gauge things like usability, speed and general feel. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – agile development is incredibly important.

Inevitably though there comes a point when a client presents an idea that is either just outright infeasible within the budget or simply not appropriate for the project at hand. How do you deal with that? Well, I wish I had the perfect response to give to you but, like I said at the start, I’m a Yes Man. The more our company grows and matures though, the better I think we get at handling these situations and, ultimately, it seems to just come down to having a good relationship with the people you’re working for.

Having a good rapport with clients is something we work very hard at and are we’re very keen on and particular about and it’s becoming apparent to me that regardless of what sector of the service industry you’re in, it’s hugely important to work for people you connect with. If you can comfortably sit with a client and have an honest conversation about a job, knowing that they know you’re both trying to collaboratively achieve what’s best for the project, it’s so much easier to politely disagree with a suggestion or explain that as much as you’d like to do it, it’s just far too complicated or time consuming to be reasonable.

Of course, you still need to have good people skills and be able to articulate yourself in a pleasant manner. Being brash or aggressive is not going to get you anywhere fast, at least not from my experience. Still, the best course of action is to try and work with clients who appreciate that you have their best interests at heart (assuming you do, that is) and then establish a good, strong, long-lasting relationship with them. It’s funny that even in a world as progressive and technologically advanced as ours, everything just still boils down to basic human interaction.

I guess we’re all just apes at heart.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Luke McDowell February 3, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    Nice article Gordon. As a recovering Yes man myself, I feel your pain. One strategy I have found to be effective is to describe a website redesign project with a version number, “We are making great progress with YourWidget.com 2.0!” Then, instead of giving a flat out “no” for requests that really stray outside the scope of the project I suggest we keep track of it for a 2.1 version of the website.

    When I explain to clients that their idea is worth considering but might delay the project they are usually receptive. And in a lot of cases they start presenting new ideas by saying it would be for the 2.1 version.

    The 2.1 concept often gets lost after the project launches. The client gets busy with other things and forgets about it. But sometimes it is pursued, in which case 2.1 is scoped out and budgeted as a whole new project.

    • Gordon February 5, 2012 at 10:46 pm

      Versioning is a good idea and I’ve certainly used the ol’ “maybe we can include it in a later phase” phrase quite a few times. Ultimately though I’d just like to be less timid about discussing money with people – it’s an odd thing really as I think most clients appreciate the premise of paying for goods or services quite well.

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