How to Say ‘No’ at Work

You have one major client on your list, and for years you’ve gone out of your way to please the firm. In fact, you actually count on all-nighters when designing this company’s catalogues because they routinely give you the final copy at 6 p.m. the day before you go to print. It’s a scenario you find inefficient—not to mention draining—and would like to change, but how do you accomplish this without alienating a customer who has come to rely on your last-minute availability?

For many of us, it’s easier to give in to unreasonable requests than risk losing clients. But the truth is, being overly accommodating isn’t going to help you build business. It may even cause your clients to lose respect for you. If you’re available on command, your time appears less valuable—not exactly the impression you want to make if you charge by the hour.

So, how can you say "no" to excessive demands when the word is not in your vocabulary? The key is to act with confidence and set reasonable boundaries. Following are some tips to help you do so:

Understand that we’re all procrastinators at heart. If clients know they can call on you to design a brochure over the weekend, they will. On the other hand, if you tell them you’re not available when they make these last-minute requests, they’ll learn they need to give you more realistic time frames for projects. If you’ve been too accommodating in the past, the new year is a perfect time to establish deadlines or reiterate existing policies. Explain that it’s important to stick to these guidelines so you can deliver the highest-quality work. Emphasize that as your business grows and changes, careful planning is needed to ensure the best possible product. It’s OK to mention that you and your team are striving to achieve an appropriate work/life balance, too—especially if you can do so in a light-hearted way. Schedule meetings with key clients to discuss schedules and procedures moving forward, and put all policies in writing so you and your clients can refer to them later. Undoubtedly, some people will test your limits, and it’s important to stand by your procedures. While certain occasions call for flexibility, they should be the exception and not the rule.

Maintain your composure. Does the tone of your voice escalate a decibel or two when speaking with certain clients? Do you hesitate or seem uncertain when a question is asked? If so, you may be sending subtle signals that undermine your authority. Speak with confidence. Peoples’ voices tend to become high-pitched when they’re communicating with those more powerful than themselves, so keep your tone moderate and assured. Don’t hem and haw when someone asks for an unreasonable favor; instead politely, yet firmly, decline. If you act with conviction, you’ll find people approach you with special requests far less frequently.

Give them options. You may find it easier to say "no" if you can offer your clients other resources or ideas. So, have some alternatives in mind for common scenarios. For example, if a client frequently asks you to drive across town to his office to pick up files, you might say, "Unfortunately, I’m unable to get out of the office these days. I do have a messenger service I can send over at a reasonable cost."

Keep a healthy distance. Perhaps you’ve become good friends with one of your clients and you’re the one this person turns to when he or she is overwhelmed. While your contact doesn’t directly ask you to help, you always end up offering, succumbing to indirect pleas even when your own plate is more than full. You’re worried that if you turn down this person’s requests you’ll feel guilty about not helping out a client/friend or damage your relationship. While these are reasonable concerns, they aren’t useful when you’re running a business, which is exactly what your client is doing as well. It’s time to listen more and act less. It is enough to lend an ear and offer encouragement without jumping into action. Keep in mind that we teach others how to treat us: If this customer knows you’ll always take action in a pinch, he or she will come to rely on you. You can change this dynamic by showing empathy but not taking on the problem yourself. By doing so, your client will learn that you aren’t the only resource when difficulties arise.

Saying "no" isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been programmed to be "nice." But if you give in too often, you’ll find that your work—and your sanity—suffer, which isn’t good for you, your clients or your business. In all of your interactions, keep in mind that you’re the expert on running your firm. Whether you’re setting boundaries or lending an empathetic ear, all of your dealings center around respect: If you respect yourself and the quality of your work enough to be realistic, but not too accommodating, your clients will respect both your professionalism and your time—a nice change for everyone.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.