Avoid responding to client requests with an "I can't" answer. Instead, use every request as an opportunity to discuss what you can do.
Can’t is a bad word.
Just saying it sounds bad. It represents a defeatist attitude, a lack of effort, and even giving up or quitting. Dictionary.com defines can’t (a contraction of cannot) as an an auxiliary verb expressing incapacity, inability, withholding permission.
Will there be times when you can’t do something? Of course. Will a client someday ask you to do something you don’t know how to do? Of course. It’s how you approach these situations as a business owner that makes a difference in the outcome experienced.
Can’t Is Black And White; Business Is Not
Business exists in a murky grey area of legal contracts, balancing client requests, evaluating budgets, clarifying scopes of work, and ultimately, making clients happy by solving their problems and delivering the results they desire.
In a services business, client relationships are the most valuable asset you have. And when they ask you for help, they want you to say, “Yes, I can help with that” and guide them to a solution.
But there will be times when “I can’t” is the first response that comes to mind:
- I can’t do that, I don’t know how.
- I can’t do that because it’s not a good idea.
- I can’t do that in your budget.
- I can’t do that within our current contract.
- I can’t day that in your timeline.
Trust me. I get it.
I have experienced a lot of frustration with web design clients because:
- They asked for things that I didn’t know how to do.
- They asked about what competitors and other people were doing.
- They asked about features that exceeded the agreed-upon budget or caused issues with the project timeline.
- They made requests that were outside the scope of work after the contract was signed.
- They asked for things that I didn’t agree with.
I admit that I blamed my clients for being bad clients, for creating conflict, or for trying to take advantage of me. But it wasn’t actually their fault. The frustrations I had with client relationships were my fault. I wasn’t effectively managing questions and requests.
What I learned is that clients ask questions and make requests because they don’t have the answers and they need help.
They need you, as the expert they hired, to educate them, answer their questions, explain things they don’t understand, present options, guide them to the right decision, and push back when you need to. Clients need you to lead them through the process, even if it means a request is denied or it requires an additional investment.
But sometimes, when you’re burnt out, overworked, and exhausted, clients don’t get you at your best. Instead, their questions and requests create feelings of frustration and you respond with an “I can’t” answer.
Adopt A Can-Do Attitude
The word can’t creates negative feelings. The word can, on the other hand, creates positive feelings, which is why every service-based business owner must adopt a can-do attitude.
By leaning into what you can do for a client instead of what you can’t do, you create positive experiences for clients, open the door to further conversation, and show up as the leader your clients hired you to be.
Here are a few examples of shifting from a can’t-do attitude to a can-do attitude:
I Can’t Do That —> I Can Figure Out A Solution
While it is always in your best interest to be upfront and honest about your skills and capabilities, this is the easiest situation to transform a negative into a positive. Instead of saying you can’t do something, consider the following example responses:
“XYZ is not my expertise, but we CAN definitely help you. I know the perfect person I can bring into the project who specializes in exactly what you’re looking for. Let me reach out to them, confirm they are available, and get back to you with a time we can all connect and discuss this.”
In this response, you’re honest with the client, you’re providing a solution, and you’re collaborating to identify the best next steps.
“Interesting. While I haven’t done that before, I’m sure we can dig in and figure it out. Let’s explore this together, do some discovery, see what we can find out, and make a plan.”
Again, honesty is front and center. In this response, you’re reassuring the client that you’re confident you can provide a solution but that you don’t know what it is just yet. This gives you the opportunity to do some research and see if the request is something you want to try to as a learning investment or if it’s something you need to bring a subcontractor or outsourced partner in to handle. This approach also helps you figure out hidden costs associated with the request.
I Can’t Within This Budget —> I Can With An Additional Fee
Project budgets can be the deal-breaker for many client requests. Often, clients make requests for the sun, moon, and stars, but their budget won’t even get them into space. Again, this is because clients have no idea what things should cost or how much time tasks take, especially when the scope of work is unknown.
Defaulting to a can’t answer dissuades clients from approaching you about other ideas, thoughts, questions, and suggestions in the future. It shuts clients down and makes it all about you getting paid rather than you helping your client.
Instead, focus on what you can do with these sample responses:
“I can do anything you want, but the project budget does play a role. Let’s look at this closer, nail down the full scope of work, and look at how this impacts the project budget and timeline. Then we can make an educated decision together about the best next steps.”
This response acknowledges your client and their request. It shows that you listened and that you care — not only about their request but about staying within budget so there are no surprises on their invoices. It ensures the client understands the implications of their request, both positive and negative, so you can make the best next-step decision together.
“That’s an interesting idea/request. While we can’t do all of what you’re asking for within the defined budget, we can do ABC now, and then implement XYZ in a phase two project after the launch. Or, we can execute a change order for an additional fee and tackle it all.”
This response validates the client’s request, demonstrates your willingness to help, and provides options to keep the scope of work within the original budget or increase the budget to accommodate the full request.
I Can’t Within This Contract —> I Can Provide A Change Order
After a client hires you for one project and has a great experience, chances are high that they’ll bring more ideas, tasks, and projects to the table, and want to expand the relationship. There’s also a high probability that as clients learn more about what you can do and what’s possible, they’ll start to make additional requests.
The longer a project takes, the more prevalent those requests become.
Clients read blog posts, watch videos, listen to podcasts, check out tutorials, discover new technologies, learn new things, or attend an event and see a speaker pitch something specific.
And what do they do? They come to you to ask about it.
The unfortunate thing is that their questions are often met with disdain because of an assumption that clients are asking because they expect you to do more work (often without paying more). And the response is, “No, that’s not in scope,” or “No that doesn’t matter,” or “No that’s not a good idea.”
In reality, clients are running something by you to:
- Get your opinion and see what you think.
- Figure out if it may be relevant for their project or applicable to their goals.
- Confirm that you’ve already thought of or considered this.
- Get more insight into the work you’re doing.
Instead of focusing on what can’t be done, consider one of the following responses that focus on what you can do:
“That’s an interesting idea. Based on ABC, we decided on XYZ for your site. This, however, follows a different approach. If you want to change up what we’re doing and shift directions, I’m more than happy to discuss it with you and walk through the implications a change like this will have on the scope of work, budget, and timeline.
Let’s get a meeting on the calendar to discuss options and determine the best next steps. I want to make sure you feel great about the decision you’re making and that the final site meets your goals.”
“We would love to take care of that for you. Because the original flat-rate agreement was based on a very specific scope of work, I’ll speak with my team and put together a change order for you to review. It will outline the new feature, the adjusted scope of work, and its impact on the project budget and/or timeline. Then we can review it together, I can answer your questions, and we can move forward from there.”
The secret to the success of these responses is pausing for a moment to find out what triggered the client request and why they feel it’s important. Then talking openly and honestly about the potential ramifications.
The conversation mitigates scope creep (additions to the scope that are unpaid) by guiding clients to the solution that best serves the project, the desired results, and the budget — a solution that also honors boundaries, project schedules, budgets, and profitability.
A Can-Do Attitude Wins With Clients
Not every client request is going to be a great one. Some requests will be downright terrible and others will have you banging your head against a wall.
The important thing to remember is that the client is making a request, not a demand.
When that happens, lean into what you can do:
- You can do research, look into it, consult with your team, identify options, talk to a few partners, and get back to the client.
- You can discuss the request with the client, walk through the pros and cons, explain your thinking, and help them make a smart decision.
- You can answer questions, share opinions, and point out problematic ideas and requests.
- You can confidently talk about money, budgets, and fees with clients.
- You can draft a change order that outlines the changes to the scope of work and the impact on the project budget and timeline.
You can use every client interaction and request as an opportunity to avoid scope creep and create a positive client experience. Sometimes it’s just a matter of providing a little extra education and support, owning your role as the expert guide, and keeping all communication firm, fair, and friendly.
If you liked the mini scripts included in this post, you’ll love the complete client service email templates and scripts included in Confident Comebacks! It includes all of my best answers and responses to awkward client requests and sticky client situations.
This is an updated, improved version of a post written for GoDaddy.