Do we ever say no to clients? Yes. Here’s why.

By Mike Turner | June 22, 2016

The headline might have brought to mind a familiar scenario.

Client: Shouldn’t the email blast have our logo in it somewhere?

Designer: Your logo is in it. Down there in the corner. Get closer to the screen.

Client: I guess I see it. Could we maybe . . . embiggen it a smidgen?

Designer: No. Next question.

Maybe it’s never happened exactly like that but, most of us in marketing have witnessed exchanges along those lines. The designer in that scenario has taken her advisor role to its extreme, where advice has transmogrified into unyielding command.

We don’t do that here. (If you don’t believe me, here’s what you should do: Become our client. Then you’ll see. I stand ready to receive your call at 336-676-6822.)

But we do say “no” sometimes. And when I tell you about a recent example, your first reaction might be something like “What kind of naïve imbecile would do that?”

There are times when I am a naïve imbecile, but this was not one of those times. What happened was, a client called and said “I’ve got some money here and I’d like to give it to you folks. Please take it and use it to redesign our sales kit.”

So yeah, here’s the part where you go “Did you really say no to that?” And then your next question is “Can I have the phone number of that client please?” (Now I’m saying “No” to you.)

Of course there is more to the story. I didn’t just decline the funds and wish my client a good day. I reviewed her sales kit and agreed that it could stand some grooming. However, I knew that the basket of money she was waving in my face was all she had in her marketing budget for the rest of the fiscal year. Some serious prioritization was in order.

Now, this client wasn’t asking me for financial advice. She wanted design advice. So I was indeed risking a scenario in which she picked up her basket of money and stormed out.

It was a risk worth taking. In our experience, good clients welcome all kinds of advice, even when it is counter to their original request. In a job long ago, in a galaxy far away, I had a client who had built an astonishingly successful logistics company. He was a really smart guy—smart enough to welcome challenges. I once attended a meeting in his company’s stately conference room; also in attendance was my trusted account director, Mike. At a certain point in the meeting, the client held up an ad he had torn out of a magazine. It featured a scantily clad model draped over an outboard engine. My client asked “Why aren’t we doing stuff like this?”

The room got very quiet.

Mike (my hero) blurted “Because that would be the stupidest thing you could possibly do.”

The client smiled. He still liked the scantily clad model but he liked frank advice even more. (Mike and I expanded on that first comment, and the client saw our reasoning.)

Okay, back to my client with the request for a sales kit redesign. When I put the brakes on that idea, she was disappointed. She even kind of whined and begged a bit. (She was half-joking.) But when I told her that there were better uses for her remaining budget—uses more likely to trigger sales—she graciously accepted my advice.

Maybe we’ll get to redesigning the sales kit next year. Meanwhile, our client knows that if we always said “yes” to her suggestions it would only feel good for a while. The occasional “no” may be briefly annoying, but it can be more rewarding for the client in the long run.