How Do You Tell the Project Customer No?

It is way more fun to tell the project customer “Yes, we can do that.” No questions, no explanations...just very positive and ready to move forward. Whether you’re a project manager working as a direct employee leading projects for external customers of your company, or you’re a consulting project manager leading projects for YOUR client, you usually want to be putting yourself in a favorable light with them. You want to be agreeable, you want to be ‘on their side’, you want the entire working relationship to be favorable. Right? Happy customer = the possibility of more work and more money.

Consider this scenario....your project customer is proposing a project that you know is not in their best interest? What if they are asking you to perform some long-term work that they don’t need? What if they need less…or nothing at all…in your best professional opinion? 

Saying “no” to the work. If you really want their confidence and respect, you need to be honest with the project client. If you want that long-term relationship with the client, you must be up front with your opinions. They may still want you to perform the work they’ve asked you to do – even though you feel it’s not what they need or what will benefit them the most - but if that’s the case at least you’ve done your part. 

How do you do this? Do it in writing – it’s always your best approach. Put together a nice position paper – it shouldn’t have to be too long. One or two pages of a high-level explanation should suffice. You can include a draft project schedule that shows what you think they really need – again at a fairly high level…no need to fully break down all the tasks at this point. Estimate the costs based on the hours you’ve estimated in your project schedule and provide your client with what you feel they really need. In reality you’re not so much saying ‘no’ to them as you are saying ‘not so much.’ 

They may ignore you and want what they want anyway. They may toss your project plan and require that you put a new project schedule together that reflects their original requirements. If that’s the case, and if you’ve presented your views favorably, they’ll appreciate that you were actually trying to save them money and will hopefully recognize that you took some risks to do so. And if the project sponsor completely agrees with you, then they’ll likely be overjoyed with the amount of money and time you’ll be saving them…although you’ve just likely added on some extra planning time to the new direction the project must now take. 

Your organization may say “yes”. What if you’re in the employee situation mentioned at the beginning of this article and you know this is not what your customer really needs and yet your senior management still wants you to push forward with the requested work? What then? 

This can place you in the toughest position you may ever be in during your professional career. Here’s my take. When I sign up for a project – whether I’m an employee serving my organization’s customer or I’m a consultant serving my client – then I work in the best interest of the project customer. That may not be doing what my employer wants, but it always involves doing what is best for the ‘project customer.’ I realize this can put a project manager in a difficult situation with their employer – it has for me in the past. However, by taking the strong stance for the project client, the satisfaction of the customer that results from you ‘doing the right thing’ will almost always have a positive impact on you and your situation either as a consultant or as an employee. 

Summary / call for input

Saying no is never easy. And it's always best when you're coming to the table with a “no” that you also have some positive alternatives to offer. has this happened to you? How do you tell the customer that their project request is not in their best long term interest? Please share and discuss.



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