Mastering the Art of Self-Critique
The Virtues of Great Creative Managers

On Saying No

The only major failure you should face in the business of design? The failure to recognize that a client project is something you should decline.

Why is saying no always so difficult?

Because you aren't that busy. It's just a quick little project in an area that you don't specialize in, but you might as well take it so when the next big project arrives, you'll have an even stronger client relationship.

Often, we end up in these situations as designers because we've not properly communicated what we want out of our clients. There need to proper boundaries, and if they aren't described or enforced, then the client often doesn't understand who you are and what services you offer.

These kinds of situations often occur with our clients:

The client thinks you want it, no matter what. This is the beauty of having strong client relationships -- they trust you with their life, their brand, and every project that could benefit from your magic touch. They like working with you. They genuinely care about your success. They just don't realize that what they're throwing your way is not the best fit. This happens often in seeking new clients: right client, wrong project. It's a subtle art to decline a client and still keep the door open for future business.

The client knows you need it. Yes, the studio has been quiet. The client's been aware of your increased focus and attention their business, throwing in bells and whistles whenever possible. The risk of this type of overdelivering is that clients begin to expect more for their money. They also expect that you'll drop anything to help. Smart and savvy businesspeople know this is when they can negotiate hardest on their own behalf.

The client doesn't know that you lack competency in an area. "Yes, I designed your logo and business papers, and I'll be happy to talk with you about building a database for your website." Designers don't like to admit weakness in a specific area, but you'll actually gain respect by bringing in the right professional or agency to support you and/or wholly take on a project you don't have a competency in.

The client wants you to do work that's part of their job role. Most often, designers are hired to do things that are outside the core expertise of their clients. But sometimes jobs come along that are part of a client's everyday work responsibilities, and you don't recognize it until it's too late. The risk with these kinds of projects is that you usually don't get to follow your standard agency process and have to work through the same politics as your client to have work approved. This can be a burn on your time and resources and make your project unprofitable.

The client feels entitled to your help. If you say no, there are plenty of other agencies yearning to get started on this project. And this threat is always halfway true. But if a client threatens to take the work to another agency, they're taking this tack because they want something from you: your participation, your investment, your attention. They know you'll do it better than that other agency. It actually proves that you have more leverage than you think and should talk more deeply with them about their needs.

Often, it's not up to the client. It's a problem that you're dealing with on your end that bleeds into your working client relationships:

You really do need the money. Yes, you need to pay rent. Yes, this work is not beneath you. Yes, the work will hopefully lead to better things. Yes, the Print Regional Annual doesn't accept PowerPoint templates as a category. Sorry. You have staff you need to keep busy. It'll be over quick and then you'll be on to better things. It is a fundamental truth that projects stroll through the studio that are purely money-makers and never peek their head up in your portfolio. But if word gets around that you're really, really good at the things you don't want to specialize in, you'll risk landing those projects over and over again. Like the old adage says, "Be careful what you're good at." Can you afford to promote yourself as an expert in one area and end up spending your time working in another?

And lastly, the most dangerous reason that you don't decline work:

You don't realize what they're really asking for and plan to figure it out while you work on the project. Disaster comes in many flavors, and this is one you never want to inflict on a paying client. Example: You design their identity. They're offering you some motion graphics work to animate it for a video. You've never used AfterEffects or Flash. Now isn't the time to crack the manual and dive in. Too high a risk of failure. Bring in a specialist. Mark up their time. Get it right.

Today's designers are business partners with their clients -- real strategists -- and you're continually thrown opportunities you don't really need or have the depth of knowledge to fulfill well. Be sure to let your clients know upfront what kinds of work you really want. The work that's really going to shine.

If that's not what a client has to offer for you, then be prepared to walk away gracefully. Make a reference to someone in your network who can fulfill their needs and return the referral in the future.


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