Getting to No

by Greg Hoy

38 Reader Comments

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  1. It’s obvious that you’re pitching at far more involved projects with far bigger budgets that I am, however I’ve also found in my experience that saying “no” to a client is a great way to gain the client’s respect. It shows that you care about what you’re doing and reminds them that they’ve engaged the services of a professional who can afford to risk losing a project rather than go down a route they know to be wrong. At that point the reaction of the client tends to be “huh, maybe I’d best listen to what I’m being told” and the relationship magically changes for the better.

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  2. Your tips and overall view could not be more on-target. Nicely done. We practice many (if not all… yeah, probably “all”) of your tips on a regular basis. In cases where we just are not yet certain about a client, we are trying something new: Taking the client for a test-drive. We do this with a proposal to complete a small bit of work – the very first steps in a project – for a modest fee and relatively quick schedule. The result of this small bit of work is a comprehensive “design document” that details the needs, goals, expectations and visual aesthetic for the project. This provides an opportunity for us to learn how the client will respond and collaborate prior to making a long-term commitment. This has provided us with value in two significant ways:
    1) If the client balks at the idea of this preliminary step, we say good-bye.
    2) At the completion of this work, we know what to expect from the client. THEN we can vote “yay” or “nay” on a long-term relationship.

    This practice also provides the client with value – they get to learn if they like the way YOU work, too. The best projects come with few surprises, and this is a nice way to avoid biggies.

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  3. How does 5-6 months break down? Are we talking sites like the NYT? I can believe it there, but it seems excessive for anything but the largest corporate clients.

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  4. From my 15 years of experience in the IT sector as freelancer and small company owner I happily agree with your 5-signs.
    But to sum it up: Be sure that your counterpart is “professional”. If not, be sure they have a big budget to compensate for their beginner mistakes.

    Offer additional services like project management or quality assurance if necessary. And if you can agree upon partial payments every customer will become a good customer over time.

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  5. Agreed on all points. Time frame wise 5-6 months is nice to have but may be too much for most projects. I would usually break down projects in 2-4 month periods, depending on complexity, technology and so forth. Guess I need bigger clients who play in the larger ballpark.

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  6. grayrest: A redesign of the NYT could take a year. Our experience is that Project Definition takes about a month, IA about 2 months, Visual Design about a month and a half, Templates about a month, and CMS can easily add another 2-3 months. All for a ‘typical’ gig.

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  7. Eddie Sutton: Great point about taking prospects for a test drive. Much like when considering full-time employees by contracting with them first on a few gigs.

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  8. Greg:

    What a superb article! Thank you for sharing your advice and experiences.

    You had me at the title: “Getting to No” is the perfect description of what finding good web work is actually like. Repeatedly saying no to jam tomorrow, too-good-to-be-true offers, and patiently waiting for the good stuff to find you.

    Of the five red flags, project duration seems the most difficult to reconcile: I often encounter people who have no idea that you could spend even three months on a web design project. And as you say, successful projects tend to take closer to six.

    Agencies themselves are partially to blame here, by setting ridiculous client expectations. Thank you (Greg, Zeldman, Happy Cog) for continuing to set a good example, and for making the effort to spread the word about sustainable business practices.

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  9. I have just started in this industry, and am already finding this out. This month, I had an inquiry wanting some rework on his website by month’s end. I told the customer I’m booked through January, but if it was very small, I might be able to help him out. I sent him my questionnaire, and his response showed that he was actually looking for a complete redesign and the addition of e-commerce capabilities—in 17 days!! I politely told him I could not accommodate him, and that I agreed with the other several designers he’d already talked to that said they could not do this task.

    Dodged a bullet…

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  10. Great article..the quesitonnaire is a great idea. One red flag that I ignored was a new propsect who blamed every designer he had ever had in the past. If you are talking with a prospect who shoots down all of his/her previous designers, BEWARE..it’s the client who is the common denominator. Get up and walk out. I didn’t do this. It was a very negative relationship and I finally “fired” the client go to save my sanity.

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  11. Gregory,

    I couldn’t agree more with your introduction. Creators: choose your clients carefully. I’m sad to say I’ve had about one of each of these problem clients over the years.

    I think this post could be expanded into a more long-form companion to Ellen Shapiro’s awesome The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients.

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  12. If CMS takes up that much of your time, do I have a surprise for you? I don’t hold a doctorate in programming (if there is such a thing) but I do use a CMS that allows me to build very quickly – it’s professional, supported and includes training for the client.

    This is a brilliant article! I like the questionnaire too. I just may include that in my next project. I have to admit that every time someone uses numbers with lots of zeros or talks of decades of experience, my defences go up. I’ve been burned badly by this rhetoric, and always find that there’s nothing but a large hereford on the other end of the claims, delivering them all with fluid efficiency. So now I look for ways to say no, and try not to appear too hungry. This has become my mantra, in fact – don’t appear too hungry.

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  13. This article is a must read for everyone in the industry (and I hope potential clients get to read it too). Thanks for putting it down so nicely Greg!
    “proxiss”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/getting-to-no//#4 above hinted at another sign I’d like to point out: say no when a client rejects partial payments and only wants to pay at the end of a project. It is essential that the client demonstrates his/her commitment to the project, also on a financial level. You shouldn’t take up all the financial risk yourself, or your project can easily turn into spec work.
    I try to use a scheme that includes a deposit that completely covers the first big chunk of work that results in meaningful output for the client (usually requirements analysis and/or first stages of design) and then pace the payments so that they match the amount of effort put into the project at each stage.
    Your mileage may vary, you may opt for other schemes depending on what the client is willing to accept or on the specific risks involved in a project.

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  14. George Terezakis: Your payment structure advice is excellent. One should never work in good faith through a project for a single payment at the end. Another trick I’ve learned along these lines is to actually front-load the project payments. Take a third up front and then structure the remaining payments such that your last one is the smallest one. It will create a much better cashflow situation. Clients will agree to this.

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  15. It would be very interesting if you could share a mockup, template of your questionnaire. Or if specific to each projects you are creating, at least, the type of questions in the questionnaire.

    On the side of the No No for projects, setting a deadline for delivery of the projects or even a step without having all the materials which guarantee the delivery date.

    We have to be very careful when committing to dates, to also set the right expectations of the client. Too often, in a project, it is possible to say, let’s release this section at this date YYYY-MM-DD, the materials will be given to you in the next two weeks. Red flag. It is often better to say, once given this list of items (deliveryDate), we will be releasing this section at “deliveryDate + 10 business days”.

    In middle size agencies, there is also an issue of resources management. There is more than one project in parallel. Explaining to the client that if he/she misses a particular window, the project will be delayed.

    Keep written records of every discussions you had, put down the RESOLUTION and the ACTION. After each meeting, send your meeting minutes to the project participants and the client. It is often better to have a scribe. If you get phone calls from the clients (which is fine), send a summary of the discussion just after.

    If you are using a project management system (be mail, sharepoint, basecamp, etc. anything), if the client says “It is not the way I work”, rise a red flag again.

    Be careful also of the “just this time” or “just for once” on a exceptional work issue, because if you authorize it once, the client will keep the foot in the door, to reuse it again.

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  16. I’m new to this field and could have done with reading this a while back – especially the comment about avoiding the blamers!

    My first client was an absolute nightmare – would give me content to add to the site, I would basically copy and paste any text as she was VERY explicit in her instructions, then I’d get a text/ email/ phonecall saying I’d made a mistake, could we meet up again to discuss it a few other changes she’d like to make – and no matter how many times I told her something was impossible for me to do, she’d still ask for the SAME thing at every meeting! shakes head I so undercharged for that site!

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  17. Gleaned from 38 years as a graphic designer (a 6 years as a web designer):

    *Someone who says, “I’ll take care of you.” They won’t.

    *Someone who says, “I’ll trust your judgment.” They won’t. That is the “E” ticket to your extra-special, gone-over-with-a-fine-tooth-comb-by-a-lawyer contract. You ARE working with a contract, right? Or are you just trusting that everything’s gonna work out okay, they’ll love everything you do, and nothing will go wrong.

    *In the case of websites, someone in their 80s who doesn’t even know what a search engine is, and who barely knows what Internet Explorer is, but who wants a website that, by the way, is required by Federal Law to be accessible, because it’s an education site that will be government funded in some way. And your every attempt to explain any of this is met with befuddlement.

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  18. While the 5 points are all exceedingly well taken, you might add one more ‘umbrella’ caution: any large state agency. I didn’t bid the project, but had responsibility for it and what should have taken no more than 3 months ended up consuming 18! The cost overrun was more than 400% and although the agency was able and willing to cover it, the project was forever after known as “The Nightmare!”

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  19. Greg,
    Great article – I found myself doing a lot of head nodding in agreement as I was reading.

    However, in sales the ultimate objective is options.  You are able to say NO to a lot of unqualified leads because you’ve rightfully earned a reputation. What I see often is web shops having far too much psychological investment in too few projects due to a lack of lead generation and marketing.  For example, they have all their proverbial eggs in one basket (e.g. a major RFP).  If they don’t land the RFP they are then forced to take what works come at them.

    In addition, when they reach max capacity they stop selling – IMHO, this is a big mistake.  While managing a production schedule is a balancing act the ability to say NO can only happen when you have multiple projects to choose from.

    Cheers,
    Dave
    Mediacurrent

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  20. Great Article!  I’ve found this is the hardest part of freelancing.  When someone is offering you money for work it’s hard to turn it down.  It’s just vital to keep in mind how much work you will end up doing for that money.  I’d rather have one good client than 3 bad ones any day.

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  21. I must say this is an excellent article, I started my company about a year ago and at this very moment we are pitching a prospect who could get us lots of work, because she is completely connected in the her field but the client worksheet is vague and so I’ve set up face to face and i will use the suggestions from greg hoy ! thanks you so much , !

    Adam

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  22. I second what has been said previously: 5-6 months at the LEAST seems an awful long time for a project. Sure, a larger project would take that amount of time, but most projects wouldn’t taken any more than a month if you’re working full-time on it. By this I’m talking about the projects that one does for nurseries and photographers, for example, because with these you can only do a certain amount of information architecture, search engine optimisation and research.

    Other than that I completely agree with what you’ve written and I’m sick of getting clients who think they can walk all over me. Unfortunately people don’t see this faceless person behind an email as anything more than a drone sometimes, so they think they can treat us poorly, then when or if we snap, they’re the ones that run off with their tails in between their legs, crying. Rest assured, I’ve never snapped but have been very close – it’s always better to bite your tongue and leave it.

    There are plenty of articles like this around the web and my advice to anyone reading it is to seek those out too, on places like FreelanceFolder or FreelanceShack, that way you’ll get a better insight!

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  23. karlcow: Our project planner is readily available for download on the “Happy Cog”:http://www.happycog.com/contact/ site. Take a look.

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  24. Dave T: I agree. However, if you’re a smaller shop, I’d suggest steering clear of the RFPs if you can. A small firm’s chances with an RFP are slim. Even Happy Cog’s chances with an RFP are slim, despite our reputation.

    So then comes the magic question – how do you get work?

    My only advice here is to do good work for good people. Build the portfolio. Word will spread. Boring, I know, but that’s the best I can sum it up.

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  25. Great job on the article Greg. Reading through it made images of several clients I have worked with in the past flash into my head. The article gave me quite a bit to think about.

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  26. With my 11 years of web design / development, I couldn’t agree more with Greg’s list. I even added 3 more warning signs and 3 positives signs of prospects you should die for.

    3 more warning signs

    1. Wannabe web millionaire with no commitment
    2. Mountain of molehill’er
    3. The Window Shopper

    3 positive signs to die for

    1. The Lake Water Guy
    2. Suggestions Welcomed type
    3. Been There, Done That, But Not Boasting It

    “Read full entry on my blog here”:http://www.mehtanirav.com/2009/11/01/avoid-these-customers-five-warning-signs-to-say-no-to-customers-plus-three-signs-to-die-for

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  27. Greg – great post.  It really does take years of horrible client experiences to get it right and even then, you still make the wrong call for the wrong reasons. 

    Here’s our Fit Pitch process:

    1. Gut check – 9 of 10 times, we knew what we were in for and closed the deal anyway – bad idea. Typically you can listen to your gut and tell if there is a potential fit within the first few conversations based on the elements you brought up in your post.
    2. Are they are good fit for us?  Does their company line up with our vision?  Are they open to working with us over time to refine the design or is it just a project? Can we get passionate about the project?
    3. Are we a good fit for them? Do our services, style and people fit with theirs needs and expectations? 

    It provides for a nice, quick yes or no and in most cases you are making the decision, not the client.

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  28. Greg,

    Great post – agreed on all points. We have learned these lessons the hard way as I am sure you have. It is amazing when a project (and yes, they tend to span 5-6 months) drags on for an extra 3-4 months, the amount of time our project managers have to continuously spend just to keep the project alive – that is time we never anticipated in our proposals, and it is often lost hours that are hard to recoup. We include some info in our contracts now that allows us to extend PM costs if the client causes projects to delay for long periods of time, but in reality – that is difficult to recoup, even if your contract has verbiage to support you.

    While the current economy has seen us waiting longer than ever for clients to “pull the trigger”, we are still cautious to avoid the ones that seem “toxic” from the onset. I have to say, trusting my gut is my best tool, as well as really sitting down and asking myself, is this a good match for Fastspot, and can Fastspot really deliver on what the client needs or wants?

    I think the even harder part in this process is once you have already gotten a “yes” and THEN the client reveals their unhealthy ways. While education and guidance can sometimes get them back on track, it’s a time suck for our team, and often results in projects running over budget just from the hand holding necessary. The pre-qual questionnaire is a great tool to weed out the people who would otherwise just waste your time with an unnecessary phone call, and thank you for sharing yours with the community.

    I would also add that those clients we should have passed on but didn’t – they rarely turn into good referrals or references, which to me is the ultimate long term value in a client. Like Happy Cog, our business comes from word of mouth much more than RFP responses.

    All of this makes the good clients that much sweeter, and we take extra good care of them, in hopes that they continue to work with us as well as send us all their good client friends.

    Great post – thanks for sharing!

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  29. Your comments are awesome, everyone. Keep them coming.

    I’ll throw out one more. This is tempting. It’s the prospect with tons of money, but you know they are going to be a ‘challenge’. You take the gig anyway.

    Often, a prospect with tons of money will expect you not only to design their website, but to make them coffee, come to their office every day, and build their Powerpoints for them. I may sound a bit sarcastic here, but I’m actually not too far off.

    The thought of a lucrative deal may be tempting, and sometimes you my need to suck it up and take it for the cash. But, know going in that the expectation will be that they will be expect the world of you. This is especially important if you’re a small shop. They will call unannounced many times a day and expect you to be available for them. They can hyper-scrutinize every detail. They will demand specific people work on the gig. They will want timelines reduced, and they will even offer to pay you even more to throw more people at the project. The list goes on.

    If you’re okay with that, take the job. Just see it coming.

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  30. Hi, Greg—Just found your fabulous article via a LinkedIn post by Julie McKown. Thought you might like to see the comment I added somewhat belatedly to the discussion:

    Terrific article—thanks for posting!

    I’d add that these points apply to any creative business, not just building Web sites.

    In particular: “The Vanishing Boss:” Amen. Try to ensure that the person with ultimate decision-making capability will be at the first meeting. Nothing can halt or slow progress as much as presenting to people who lack the authority to give a final OK.

    Greg is absolutely right: You can bet that there will be problems down the road if the key decision-maker isn’t there at the outset and kept in the loop.

    Other great advice in your article that I didn’t point to in the post: Spending a bit of time to produce something especially for the final decision-maker—even if he or she isn’t present—will pay enormous dividends.

    Thanks, Greg!

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  31. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter.  I’ve just started a new web design company.  Aside from having two great clients I’ve also done freelance site programming for another designer in town.  Not only did they refuse to work with anything other than simple table based layouts, but they also removed my ‘Site programming by’ line from the job I had just completed for them.  Of course I had a look at the code, and low and behold, it was mine line-for-line.  Another red flag was that this person only wanted to communicate via email.  It’s very hard to effectively communicate that way and especially so when trying to review a project.  As a result after just two jobs I decided to look for work elsewhere.  In the end it simply wasn’t worth the headache and aggravation.

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  32. dealing with a client now that didn’t have a clear visionof what she wanted, didn’t fill out the questionaires, brought in her partner that didn’t like the first draft, changed several templates halfway through, and expects her site to be done in one month.

    lot’s of lessons learned.

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  33. Well written and very true.

    Sadly, even when you have been in the selling game for awhile (I’m in for 5 years), you find that with all your best efforts and methodology in place, a bad seed falls through the cracks and becomes the thorn in your side that you compare others to for some time to come. I’ve learned that sometimes it just isn’t worth it to continue a bad relationship with a client. While I have not had to walk away during a redesign/design project, there are a few that I would not work with again. The drain on time, resources, and our mental health is not worth it in the long run.

    Thanks!

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  34. …and I think a pre-project questionnaire is a good idea.  But I have to say that I think it should be delivered in person so that you can adequately explore any answers that surprise you.  I also think that it’s a mistake to make this pre-project exploration too problem-focused.  In my experience, many, many problems with web development projects come from problem areas that just would not be unearthed from a project-focussed review.  In this article, I make a list of six areas that I think it’s worth exploring with a client before the start of a project – “Six things you really need to know about your customer”:http://www.agile-lab.co.uk/2009/06/six-things-you-really-need-to-know.html .

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  35. Small clients tend to be more flexible on accepting a “no” from the Project Manager for the sole reason is that usually they’re not sure of what they want, and they’re looking for advice.

    On the other hand, large clients (usually) have a pretty good idea of what they want, and asking for more things along the road is very normal as their internal requirements change. Although these “changes should be controlled”:http://www.pmhut.com/how-to-control-change-requests , failing to control change requests will result in a scope creep.

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  36. I have people asking me why it takes 6 months (sometimes longer) to complete a website. I tell them that this is normal, because I am usually awaiting client feedback on a proof or other information. This can take a day to a week for a client response to come in. The person I talk with usually understands.

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  37. We need to think about our projects as game-like situations. What do I have to bring in – so that I can deal with the challenges of the project? Do I need help, and if I do, does it makes sense to ask for advice and support, given the actual time and budget limitations? How do I need to prepare myself for it? A realistic evaluation of your own resources helps: it makes you understand if the benefits of getting involved in a project balance out the eventual investititon required from your side and your client’s. If there is a balance that you are both happy with, or – then Yes or “getting to Yes” is the best option.
    Otherwise “No” should be the permanent or temporary resolution to it. In the end, we all need to figure out how and why we should contribute to or work on something, and “No” is part of that process too.

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  38. Could not agree more with the second point. You know when you’re reading something and you’re instantly reminded of a quote? “A camel is a horse designed by a committee” – which then led me to: “too many cooks spoil the broth”. I think most people would agree that the fewer the number of people who need to be involved in a project, the better.

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