When to Say No to a Client

image:  James Hughes
image: James Hughes

I’m going to be painfully honest with you- I am very good at making prospective clients angry. It’s a skill I have developed over the years of countless consultations. At first it bothered me, making me question my people skills and client relations. But as time passed I came to realize that in actuality the quality of my clients was rising significantly, and my relationship with those clients was stronger and more fruitful. The basis for this ‘skill’ was in my learning to utilize the word ‘No.’ It’s like magic. I consider it one of the best tools I possess in the professional toolbox. So if you don’t mind, I would like to take a few minutes of your time discussing what I believe is the most positive word in a designer’s lexicon – No.

When I first broke out on my own I took every job and commission that came my way. Back then, it was quite literally a matter of sink or swim and every dollar counted. Many of those early projects were challenging. More than a few of them were less than profitable, yet all of them were valuable lessons and opportunities for me to grow professionally and establish my reputation. I’m also not ashamed to admit (now) that some of those early projects never made it into my portfolio. At the time, I had a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. If Mrs. Smith wanted a Greek column in the garden at her Tudor home, who was I to question? And if Mrs. Smith felt my time was only worth so much, as long as it put a few more dollars in the family checking account, I was (begrudgingly) ok with it. Those were the days of survival. That being said, I’m going to skip past the great recession days, where most of us had to take whatever we could get and fast forward to talk about the here and now.

image:  James Hughes
image: James Hughes

There’s not any denying that we live in a now culture. Most anything we could want is within reach. Companies advertise their products as what you want, when you want it, and how you want it. From music to movies or clothing to food, it’s all about instant and affordable. Media outlets air programs portraying major construction projects as ‘crashes,’ where the finished product is built within mere days and budgets are not mentioned. This culture of now has steadily transformed products and services that were once done by craftsman and skilled tradesmen into simple commodities, to be price-shopped like common paper products. In my experience, the designing of residential landscape spaces cannot and should not be viewed as a simple commodity – and to give some pushback to this growing facet of our culture and to protect the integrity of the profession, the word ‘no’ is the simplest and most reliable tool.

No is a boundary. It protects us as professionals. No says that something is not a good idea; whether it be dangerous, foolishness, or a poor investment, the word no helps us steer the client and project in the right direction by avoiding costly errors. It protects our reputation as well. By having the ability to tell a prospective or existing client no, we are able to avoid situations that may compromise our professional integrity. We charge what we charge because we know what it takes to responsibly design a project, so no, we can’t do it at a discount and cut corners. We understand what materials will perform well in given applications, so no, we can’t specify a cheaper alternative. We understand various aesthetic principles and styles, so no, we won’t put a Greek column in a Tudor garden.

Image:  James Hughes
Image: James Hughes

The word no is liberating. It helps us weed out potential problem clients. If during an initial consultation, we say no to the prospective client’s wish on something, their reaction can likely determine the type of client they will become. If we tell them no to a potentially hazardous concept or a general bad idea, we are wiping the slate clean in a way. We’re forcing the conversation to continue down a path that, as professionals, we know to be one that is safe and sound. If they choose to follow us down the new ‘post-no’ path of conversation, the relationship is much more likely to be a productive one. We will be free to guide the project in a direction that we are comfortable with, all while serving the client and protecting our business, reputation, and the field of design.

As I mentioned previously, I’ve become very skilled at angering prospective clients. I’m not afraid to tell them no – some of them actually do get quite angry, too. But that’s ok, because at the end of the day I know that I’ve protected not only myself, but the client as well. In my opinion, that’s the responsible way to practice.

image:  James Hughes
image: James Hughes

Note:  While working on this piece about saying no, I was wasting some time on Facebook (surprise) and came across the work of author Kevin Ashton and his book How To Fly A Horse . One of the key points Kevin makes in the book is that creative people, truly creative people, say no regularly. They protect their time and energy to focus on their tasks. His premise is another take on utilizing the word no that I encourage you to explore.

by James Hughes, Affiliate ASLA, Residential Landscape Architecture PPN Co-Chair

6 thoughts on “When to Say No to a Client

  1. chris langham May 12, 2015 / 9:22 pm

    Of course the success of this concept is found in the years of practical experience of navigating the nuances and tact in how you tell a client “no”, and in providing the reasoning – after the initial shock of clients who aren’t accustomed to hearing “no”.

  2. Susan Young May 13, 2015 / 12:21 am

    Sometimes it needs to be said.

    • Bill Fires May 13, 2015 / 4:32 pm

      Every LA should be able to slap 1 client every year…

  3. Jodie Cook May 22, 2015 / 5:44 am

    Great article, James! I was recently faced with the need to say no to two projects referred to me by a valued collaborator, an architect who I work with a lot. It was tricky to figure out how to say no to his clients because the projects weren’t right for me – while still protecting my good relationship with him. This type of predicament is truly a challenge to our EQ (emotional quotient.). How do we navigate situations like this? Your article reminded me that above all we need to stay unshakably true to our own North Star and when we do this it is best for our clients as well.

  4. wallflowerstudio July 19, 2016 / 1:11 pm

    I’ve found most clients respect the word ‘no’. With a few exceptions, they care about the money they’re spending, so an emphatic ‘no’ (especially here in zone 3 USDA) is usually attached to: ‘the plant you want will not survive our winter so you’d be throwing your money away’. Most prospective clients appreciate that honesty. After all, they’re paying for our knowledge, too!

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