Tough Love: How to Say “No” to a Client

10/27/2016 - Jaco van Buren-Schele, CFO of Monocle

We’ve all heard the old adage “the customer is always right”. Anyone who has worked in client services will tell you it’s true – and nobody says “no” to the customer, right? Not so fast…  

If you’re working as a consultant, the idea that “the customer is always right” needs to be understood slightly differently. You’ve been hired to help a company achieve their goals; they wouldn’t have asked for your advisory services if they didn’t need guidance. But, in any arrangement where drastic change is taking place, you’re likely to be asked to do something that isn’t part of the scope of the project. Yes, the objective is to keep your client happy, but at a certain point you have to face the reality; if you were to continue to do what they ask – you’d fail on what you have initially agreed to deliver. The death of any client relationship is over-promising and under-delivering. You have to find a balance between keeping the client happy and keeping the project on track.  

There are many reasons you may have to turn down a request from a client. Maybe you don’t have the resources to see a project successfully to completion – a lack of staff or time. Maybe what is being asked of you is just not within your company’s set of expertise and therefore not in the client’s best interest. Don’t assume that you’ll automatically lose favour with a client simply by turning them down. Remember, by giving them your honest opinion, even if it’s something they may not want to hear, you are doing your job; looking out for their best interests. The following advice may assist you, should you be put in a situation with an over-asking client.  

Firstly, it’s very rare that you’d ever use the actual word “no” when letting a client down. When delivering bad news, a certain amount of tact is required, especially when dealing with valuable clients. Be a little more subtle, thank the client for trusting you with a specific task and then rationally explain the reasons for saying no.  

Secondly, keep it client-centric. Clients simply are not interested in what’s going on in your operation – they want to know what’s going on in theirs. Explain what the consequences would be for their business, if you were to conduct the tasks asked for. Outline the problems or risks for the project. A client will be more likely to maintain a good attitude towards your working relationship if they are assured of your loyalty and commitment to them.  

Lastly, come to the table with solutions, not obstacles. When you turn down a request from a customer, don’t forget that a new problem is being created – and it’s still your job to help solve it. If you leave the meeting without having proposed an alternative solution, you are failing in your duties. Whether it’s coming up with a new plan or suggesting they outsource this particular project to a service provider more suited to it, your client will appreciate your honesty and proactive approach.  

At the end of the day, the customer is still right, even if you need to turn them down every now and then. Knowing when – and how – to say “no” could mean the difference between a mildly displeased king having his requests denied, and a furious monarch who may send you to the gallows for non-delivery on his expectations.

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