Let Them Down Easy: The Art of Saying “No” by Saying “Yes”

yes or no check box

In our 15 years as a Charlotte-based MEP design firm, we’ve come to learn and appreciate how truly critical flexibility is to our success.  It’s why we go out of our way to accommodate changes in a project’s scope, budget and timeline, even if that means shaving our fees, working late or rolling that extra conference room into our design. We always place our clients first—our objective to leave them with the best possible design, no matter if it’s a small restaurant or a LEED-designed multi-family high-rise.

There are times, however, when no matter how much we want to accommodate our client, no matter how much we want to deliver, it becomes impossible to meet their expectations.  When I’m placed in these situations, I’m faced with the potential of doing the one thing I hate doing — telling a client “No.” “No, I can’t meet that deadline”; “No, I can’t reduce our fee”; “No, I can’t design that.”  I loathe saying “No,” because “No” is a definite, in-your-face word of rejection which immediately creates an atmosphere of contention.  In the professional services industry, if you tell a client “No” often enough, they’ll find someone who will tell them “Yes.”

So, what do you do in a situation where circumstances dictate the only answer can be “No”?  For me, it’s simple. I say “No” by saying “Yes.”  This sounds as if I’m contradicting myself, but I assure you I’m not.  It’s all in the semantics.

Exactly how then does one disagree by agreeing?  You say “No” by saying “Yes” when you tell a client what you can do instead of what you can’t.  For example, a client calls to discuss project scope for a new senior living facility.  Eventually, the conversation turns to due dates and deliverables.  The client asks for plans on a date you can’t possibly meet and they’re waiting for you to respond.  If you tell them, “I can’t get you plans on Wednesday,” it will be interpreted much differently than if you tell them, “I can get you plans on Friday by noon.”   In the first statement, you blatantly tell the client they can’t have what they want, while in the second statement, you bypass that negativity by stating when you can deliver.  You come across as being agreeable and a team player.  You say “No” by saying “Yes.”  It’s a small linguistic difference, but it’s perceived very differently, and as they say, perception is reality no matter if you’re in MEP design or not.