Drawing the Line—Because the Customer Isn’t Always Right

When should you refuse an unreasonable client request?
December 12, 2014

I've always done pretty much anything to please customers, but lately I’ve been tempted to refuse some outrageous demands. When should I?

➽ Remember Kenny Rogers’ line from “The Gambler”: You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em…. It’s saying every situation is unique, so use your instincts.

If you sense your adversary is a bully, that’s actually good news. Bullies’ drama and yelling are mostly bluster. In my experience, they usually give in if you stand your ground.

More difficult are situations in which you can’t suss out the motivation behind unreasonable demands.

This might be because your adversary is the one with the problem, says Dana Lynch, a mobile app specialist in Atlanta (and a lawyer). One client, insisting on a refund for the app Lynch had developed for her, said Lynch had not followed her instructions exactly. Lynch responded that she had, but had added a few extras.

In emails and phone calls, Lynch explained that “it’s easier for our clients to see everything, then pare back” as desired, and that deleting is easier than mocking up additional pages. She also offered to rework the demo exactly as the client wished, but nothing short of a full refund would do. “She had no interest in allowing us to make it right. She said she would sue me…. I mentioned that I was confident I had fully performed the contract and was still offering to rework things to make her happy. I didn’t want her to waste her money attempting to sue me with a baseless claim. That’s when she went quiet.”

Confidence kept Lynch from refunding a penny, and she wasn’t sorry to lose the difficult client.

Another common scenario is the customer who suddenly balks at a cost or makes extra demands after the price is settled, says Ali Craig, a Phoenix area-based luxury branding expert. “When and how to stand up to your clients depends on your ability to truly know who your customer is and where they’re coming from,” Craig says. “If you do, you can overcome any opposition.”

Craig cites this example: A client was about to sign a contract but suddenly wanted a price cut without a reduction in service. During a follow-up call, Craig learned that the client’s real concern was “about being able to deliver on her side of her business once my work was complete.” The exchange taught her that customers’ emotions, such as insecurity, come into play in business transactions, and that “a hesitation is more about them than about me.” This knowledge stops Craig from dropping rates simply to land a project, something she would later regret.

Knowing your costs and schedules is crucial for evaluating when to refuse a client’s request. Web designer Jen Puckett won’t work with people who have unrealistic budgets and time frames. “They’re coming to me for my expertise, but they think they know best. I will do everything possible to educate them. In the end, if they’re unwilling or unable to learn, I would rather walk away.” Her philosophy: “An unreasonable client who walks in your door is worse than needing to pound the pavement to find one who truly values what you offer.”

Finally, pause instead of immediately buckling to the fear someone will bad-mouth you (such as in online reviews). Most people who want freebies or similar concessions know what they’re up to, and they know you have the truth on your side. So fallout isn’t too likely. Be brave.

Learn how to defend your boundaries after someone asks too much of you.

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