How to Successfully Say “No” to Your Customer
Every project will encounter a situation where you will need to say no to your customer in order to maintain the scope integrity of your project. Depending on how these situations are handled can lead to potentially troubling situations in terms of your relationship with the customer. This post will go through a few tips and tricks on how to say “no” to your customer and still maintain your positive relationship.
Know your Scope
The first step in protecting the scope of your project is knowing the scope of your project and knowing it thoroughly. Understand exactly what you are to deliver and how you are to deliver it. It’s not enough to know just your major deliverables, but having a collective understanding of the methods and procedures by which you are to deliver is key. This arms you with the information needed to take complex requests from your customer and understand if it is truly in scope or extra scope, requiring to go through the change control process of your project (which hopefully has been outlined to your customer at the kick off). Understand your scope, because your customer will.
Leverage Your Relationship
Having a good working relationship with your customer is invaluable. It affords you the ability to slip up (to an extent) and still maintain good momentum and cooperation moving forward. The same can be said when it comes to difficult scope discussions. When a customer is asking you for something that you know is clearly out of scope, having a good relationship with that customer will make that difficult conversation a lot easier and minimize the risk of any escalation and further difficult conversations. This does not excuse you from being able to present a case of the request being out of scope and why it cannot be accommodated without proper change control measures but it does afford you a certain degree of agreeability with your customer that will likely close the topic off (unless moving forward with change control).
Know Which Hill to Die On
What I’m about to write goes against rigid project management protocol but it is also something that is part of the 51% of project management being “art” (the other 49% being “science”). When a customer asks you for something that you know you are ok refusing, it’s important to do a self-check to ask yourself (or your team), “is this really worth saying no to?”. For example, if a customer is paying $2 million for an 18-month long project, is it worth pushing back on a change that is worth $400? While it’s always crucial to make the customer aware that the change is out of scope, sometimes it’s better for the relationship to relent and include the request for the sake of keeping the customer happy and on your side (see above point). While some can argue that this may set a precedent with the customer, I would counter that you are using this as an opportunity to build your relationship with the customer which is going to pay off more dividends for you down the road as the project continues.
Saying no to your customer can always pose a risk. However, the bigger risk is saying “yes” when the parameters of your project won’t allow you too and the instant gratification of saying yes to the delight of your customer will be far outweighed by the future (or immediate) blowback you will have to deal with when trying to deliver on a commitment that you should not have made in the first place. By making sure you and your team are confident in knowing when and how to say no to your customer, you are taking a huge step in protecting the integrity of your project.