How to push back (politely) against demanding clients

Sam McKeith

It’s always good to go the extra mile for clients. But there is a point where you go from being flexible, to being a sucker.

Problem is, it can be tough to figure out how to say no to a client, especially when they’re a valuable and longstanding source of revenue.

Cian McLoughlin, founder and CEO of sales consulting and advisory firm, Trinity Perspectives, shares some tips on the art of the pushback.

Do your homework

McLoughlin’s first piece of advice – understand the issue.

“You need to get to the heart of what they are making noise about. It could be a pricing issue, a functionality or service issue,” he says.

“If they are an existing customer, it’s quite often a personnel issue. Before you do anything else, you need to get very clear on what is causing the problem, so you can isolate and deal with it.”

Diffuse the situation

What you don’t want is escalation. That means decompressing and removing anger and frustration from your mindset, if you’re worked up about what’s going on.

“Ideally you need to diffuse the emotion in the situation,” McLoughlin explains, noting that the key way to do this is to stay open and communicative.

In practical terms, he says that means “displaying empathy, asking open-ended intelligent questions and displaying active listening techniques can all help your cause”.

“Sometimes a simple apology can be enough to diffuse a negative or angry situation,” he says.

Get Smart

If the client asks for something outrageous McLoughlin says it can sometimes pay off to deflect with something equally as impossible. It’s an old negotiation trick, he says, but a good one to keep up the sleeve.

McLoughlin explains: “for example, you are interested in engaging with my company but you want a 25 per cent discount on my standard prices. Instead of saying ‘no’, I could counter with ‘well, if you're willing to make a 12 month commitment, paid in advance, plus speak at two of my events this year and refer me to three of your clients, then I might be in a position to look at a discount in this order of magnitude’.

“What I have done there is effectively said no, by matching your ask with my ask, but also given myself a chance to turn a bad piece of business into a good piece if you agree to my terms.

If that fails, McLoughlin says there’s always “actually saying no”.

“If possible, I'd make an introduction to this third party, thereby lessening the blow,” he says.

Trust your gut

The Sydney-based sales expert is also a big believer in instinct. He says if a client “doesn’t feel right” at the start of a relationship, the vibe will probably only get worse.

“So do yourself and your prospective client a favour and part at the beginning where there is no real commitment on either side.”

Sam McKeith

Sam McKeith is Sydney-based media professional. He has contributed to many leading publications including The Huffington Post, The Australian Financial Review, The Australian and BRW Magazine. He was previously a senior reporter at the Australian Associated Press where he covered national affairs.