How to say ‘no’ to your clients

Gareth Finch shares his four steps to maximising time, minimising stress and getting the most from his job and team.

When you boil everything down, as consultants our most precious commodity is time. Yet it’s something we frequently give away. Not just ‘for free’. But sometimes even without challenge or negotiation.

Or because we think someone else’s time is more valuable than our own. In the years I’ve led teams I’ve come to value time as the single most important aspect of my role and responsibility.

Gareth Finch, Vice President – Head of Healthcare - Weber Shandwick

I see it as precious. I see people trying to take it from me. So I guard it. I make a living selling my time and the time of my colleagues. Every 15-minute chunk counts. It’s my responsibility to make it count. For others and myself.

In case you’re jumping the gun, I’m not here to offer wisdom on ‘managing your time more efficiently’ (tip: use action lists and lots and lots of Post-Its). I’m here to offer some personal insights for guarding your time with clients. I’ll focus on one major aspect for now: how to say ‘no’.

Now I can’t 100% guarantee this will work for every one of you. But you should try these four everyday tips, little by little, until they feel comfortable.

I’m confident most of you will benefit with a profitable professional life and a happy work-life balance.

Don’t give 100% guarantees

PR’s can’t always predict the next 30 minutes, let alone the future. Priorities frequently change in an instant. By giving absolute guarantees on actions or timelines you are instantly putting pressure on yourself and what you need to deliver by when.

If it’s unrealistic, or you instinctively feel something is wrong, say you need to work this out with the team and come back to the client. You don’t always need to commit to something on the spot.

stop !

Refer back to the approved scope/statement of work

Adding value or providing the occasional little favour is the cornerstone of building a successful client relationship and project. But avoid ‘scope creep’.

Agreeing to do activities that are out of scope will lead to you and your team being overworked, burned-out and with little or no benefit to business, or clients.

Personally, I think it’s our people that matter most in this scenario. No people means no team. If activities are not in the agreed scope then there is no budget to cover time and resourcing.

Point this out to clients. But make sure it’s early in the process, rather than last minute. Then discuss ways priorities and resourcing can be re-allocated from the agreed budget. Or offer to provide a cost estimate for the additional work.

Portrait of a real estate agent consulting a mature couple at office

Build and maintain your role as a trusted consultant

Clients hire us because they want our professional opinion and expertise in managing projects effectively and efficiently. Your experiences are the best reason for advising a client against doing something.

If the client doesn’t need to develop a document or host a public event, then advise them not to. Nobody wants to waste their time and money on activities that will not deliver return on investment.

Be brave. Speak up. Challenge.

Let the client know your thoughts, support it with your experience and suggest that the budget and resourcing might be used elsewhere more effectively, or for a future campaign.


Be honest about what you can’t do

This builds on the previous point. We all learn on the job. But when you know that you don’t have the expertise to deliver something for the client, don’t gamble. Bite your lip. Don’t offer it.

Not knowing how to deliver a campaign, trying to pull-in experts on the run and trying to up-skill yourself will devour your time. And you probably wouldn’t have budgeted for it.

Cue major stress. An exhausted team. Other projects suffering from lack of attention. And a very disappointed client if it all falls apart. Focus your time on projects you can do and projects where you can pull-in expertise.

Be honest with your client about it to build and maintain your role as their trusted adviser. Saying ‘no’ isn’t easy. But it does come with practice. It also has a range of benefits. Yes, it improves efficiency and productivity by protecting time.

It also helps you gain the respect of clients and colleagues when they see you are in control and not afraid to get the most out of time that’s available.

So, good luck. I’d love to hear any of your stories, feedback or questions. But for now I’ll leave you with this quote:

 “What you don’t do determines what you can do.” – Tim Ferriss, author


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