Managing Client Expectations: When to Say No

Photo. Blank planner for managing client expectations.

Do you never tell your clients “no”? Do you say “yes” to every request? While pleasing the client is always a goal, it’s not the only goal. In fact, accepting every request isn’t in your or their best interest. There is unfortunately no “one size fits all” design to solve every business need. Client management is tricky business. Therefore managing client expectations is a crucial task of growing the designer-client relationship.

However, tailoring the message and design to a particular client might reveal a poor fit. That’s not a bad thing! Bad fits don’t always result in terminated relationships. Managing client expectations and leading with open communication strengthens the designer-client relationship and boosts the confidence in each other.

Surprisingly, navigating a “no” successfully can even bolster the designer-client relationship by demonstrating a deep understanding of the client’s pain points and how your particular strengths can alleviate them. Client expectations might be too high or too low. Nevertheless, the design expert’s job is to lead the client through a process that works and delivers the best product possible.

On the other hand, always saying “yes” can hurt the designer-client relationship too. The practice might result in alienating the client from their own brand, poor quality work, rushed or short-term fixes, and frustration from both sides. As a result, refusing to manage client expectations ends relationships.

Therefore, one important task of managing client expectations is navigating the “yes” and “no” situations.

Setting Client Expectations Too High: Always Saying Yes Can Strip Away Client Autonomy

Saying “no” can empower clients and give them autonomy over their own material and brand. Sometimes saying “no” to a request can actually empower clients.

Small edits and maintenance requests may not require a design expert. This allows the client to learn how to take charge of their creative material. Copywriting, photography, web page edits, and other tasks can be easy to learn how to do, change, and manage. Updates can be faster and produce what the client expects.

Additionally, empowering the client in this way allows you to act on priority projects as well. Furthermore, allowing clients to perform a few routine tasks also acquaints them with their clientele. They’ll start to develop hard skills from managing the product. They’ll also develop intuition based on the user patterns they observe.

Finally, empowering the client allows the client to be more involved in their own brand development rather than “outsourcing” it all away. Coach clients on how to maintain and manage their basic material and remind them you’re available to help with the challenges they encounter.

Setting Client Expectations Too Low: Always Saying Yes Can Negate Your Expertise

Similar to how always saying “yes” can strip away client autonomy, always saying “yes” might also strip away your autonomy to execute creative decisions.

Agreeing to every client request and edit can even negative your creative expertise. Most clients don’t have the same education, years of experience, familiarity with tools of the trade or the industry that enable you to create unique, specialized designs.

Of course, listen to your clients to understand and appreciate their wants and needs. However, a client might have a limited understanding of the problem.

For example, a client might request a trendy design. They like it because it looks cool, but you know it won’t look original and can quickly date their brand. Another common situation is when a client requests a design that resonates with them personally, but the same design might resonate with the target audience and users less so.

Basically, listen to clients explain their business problems and then steer them towards the best creative solutions. Like any management role, client management also entails monitoring the performances of the project and its contributors. If performance is less than expected, either adjust expectations or take control with better fitting solutions. Allow your expertise to show in a way that best benefits the client.

Not Managing Client Expectations at All: Always Saying Yes Can Force a Bad Fit

Sometimes a client request might result in a project beyond the ideal.

A large and consuming project might demand creative services beyond your business focus. Accepting a project like this can create problems later. Common problems may emerge that have easy solutions, but only easy to people already well-experienced in a particular service. Resources might be constrained, or the project encounters frequent delays.

Another situation is a client project that demands skills beyond your core capabilities. A frequent example is when clients request the designer to supply copywriting for the projects the designer creates, even though copywriting and design are very different skill sets. The end result can be low-quality, which frustrates the client and creates a negative experience with your brand.

Not Managing Client Expectations at All: Always Saying Yes Can Result in Perpetually Unfinished Work

Yet another downside of always saying “yes” is perpetually unfinished work.

Multiple rounds of revisions and minor edits can overtake a project. Change is no longer meaningful. Change might also be drastic and outside the original scope of the project. This results in tested patience, strained resources, and unhappy clients. Worse case scenario: a perception might grow that you’re “cheap” might overshadow any branding that you’re high-quality.

Many junior designers feel that declining a client edit or request makes them unhappy and results in a bad product. However, the most clients understand the service that design provides and the business problems it resolves. It is the clients without this strong understanding that may try to dominate the designer-client relationship.

While the never-ending “final” versions of creative projects is a running joke within the design industry, don’t allow the client’s fear of commitment to become the norm. If client needs seem to have changed from the initial client debrief, re-open the discussion. Consider committing to finishing the project at a fixed date. Another option is expanding the scope of the project with an addendum agreement that tackles the new needs in particular with fresh timelines, resources, and tailored design.

Thinking about working for free?

Learn about the risks in “The Dangers of Spec Work.”

Not Managing Client Expectations at All: Always Saying Yes Can Curtail the Client Relationship

A bad fit frustrates the client. This frustration can create tensions and delays in the creative process that might result in a project that unfinished, poor quality, or more costly than expected. That bad experience might also result in the client seeking creative services elsewhere. The designer-client relationship ends…sometimes permanently. Just like clients make cost-benefits analyses to best position their businesses for success, designers should do the same.

The Importance of Managing Client Expectations

The habit of never saying “no” can appear admirable but backfire in practice. Evaluate business opportunities and relationships for the best fit. A “no” doesn’t have to be permanent or far reaching. Saying “no” might be simply:

  • declining an unreasonable edit,
  • honoring an original agreement,
  • passing on one particular project, or
  • delegating a task to another expert.

Sometimes, the best fit means referring the client to another designer or agency that better fits their needs. As a helpful resource, Brent Galloway at offers a polite letter which addresses mutual interest, or lack thereof, in “When and How to Turn Down a Project That’s Not For You.”

Nonetheless, now the client has a deeper understanding of your business and confidence in your primary creative services. Leaving a positive, lasting impression with a client allows for a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship.

In conclusion, client management requires navigating the daily “yes” and “no” to client requests. Nonetheless, “no” doesn’t always result in a negative experience. Manage client expectations and guide them towards the best fit.