Saying No and Why it Matters

A few years ago I gave a short talk at a RIBA London Festival of Architecture event about how to establish boundaries with clients. Public speaking is not one of my strong points, but despite the quivery voice waffling in that microphone, the importance of boundaries within the business is still a message that we at Cloudfields continue to push our own clients to adopt. We believe learning to say ‘no’ can change everything about the relationship.

The understanding of how important boundaries are in the client/creative relationship comes after a great deal of trial and error; no one is immune to that little niggle of trying to please clients at all costs. When a creative business removes its loftier associations, it is like any other commercial venture: a business that provides a product or service for a customer in exchange for money. Enter the creative component — the very essence of what makes that business stand out — and we have something that clients keep coming back for. The key is to ensure that they’re coming back for the right things (e.g. the amazing creative output the business provides, obviously). If they’re coming to the business because it says yes to their every whim at no cost to them, there is a power imbalance that will ultimately hurt the creative and her business. Without establishing some boundaries with clients at the outset, that precious creativity is offered at the expense of the creative and the business’s well-being.

Everyone who has ever been engaged in a client relationship has felt this feeling. Intuition pleads for us to offer a little pushback when those clients keep asking for and taking more. If we listen hard enough, we hear the begging bellowing at us from deep within, asking us what the hell are we doing and why on earth did we think this was a good idea. Torn between the desire to please clients and please ourselves, we don’t know what to do; we choose what feels safest which is the person holding the money. It feels like our needs should come secondary when faced with the prospect of losing out on some cash.

Experience has brought us to the conclusion that there is a difference between service and servitude. Name it, we’ve seen it: clients ghosting us without paying after receiving work. Requests for multiple redraws when top-level decision-making was impossible. Expectations to draw to pre-tender level for iterative concept drawings, leading to so much abortive work that it would have been cheaper to pay the client not to do the work. We always said yes. Always. And usually for no additional fee. Clients will push to make their demands happen, because they know if they keep asking us, we will all eventually deliver them. And worse, it perpetuates the cycle. Always saying ‘yes’ when knowing the answer is ‘no’ lodges us in servitude to our clients; a relationship that cheapens our abilities and our value.

To be very clear, clients are not to blame for this. Why wouldn’t they push for more when they’re always going to get it? They are well within their rights to ask for what they want. It is we creatives that are the issue. We can’t say no. Or when we do, it is done through gritted teeth. Why do we choose ‘yes’, to silently endure such demands without saying anything? We prefer to quietly resent the relationship on which we’re totally reliant, angered by the lack of power we have within it. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Our role is to provide services that benefit both clients and our businesses.

Learning the best way to say ‘No’ was taught to us by Sir Paul Smith (yes, that Paul Smith), who said that saying ‘No’ is one of the most important things he’s had to learn. Not sales, not marketing, not even fashion design. He said that saying ‘No’ had to be done proactively, presented positively, and said in a way that avoids shutting down the conversation or opportunity to find a compromise.

“No, that doesn’t work for me/my team/my current resourcing, but I can do (fill in the blank)” encourages collaboration first, and second, establishes that you are an active participant in this arrangement. Clients are not in charge, their arrangement with you should be a partnership to which both of you want positive outcomes that are mutually beneficial. This response instantly informs your client of what you are capable of doing within your capacity, and that the yes doesn’t come simply because they’ve asked for it. By taking this small step, by evaluating their proposal in terms of your own values, mission and goals to see what could work, the creative can provide a brilliant service for the client: a service based on mutual respect and boundaries and one that works for both of you. One for which you’ll both be happy they keep coming back.

Post by Lindsay Faller