The Art of Pushing Back - Learning How to Say No

Pushing back is a critical skill in an industry where saying Yes to your client is often the expected response.

Saying No for Beginners


Like any digital agency, we have to earn our client's business and trust. There will always be negotiations, there will often be compromises, but there should rarely be a need for personal sacrifice for the good of the company. Client engagements can be very demanding, but establishing a culture of pushing back when necessary can help create long-term success for both your agency and your client.

For us, knowing how and when to say No is not about posturing - it is about defending a principle. We don't take the word lightly and apply it only when necessary. When we are faced with a situation in which we're expected to say Yes when we want to say No, it is imperative to take a step back to examine what is happening. Is the client under pressure? Are they expressing frustration? Are they trying to gain the upper hand? Has someone set an unattainable stakeholder expectation?

It takes a clear head to see through this panic, so your first task is letting go of the emotion. We tend to make bad decisions when we're emotional, like agreeing to something when we know we shouldn't.


Should I stay or should I go?

First, let's look at the impact of not pushing back (add your favorite cave-in behaviors here):

  • Working nights or weekends to catch-up or to meet a deadline
  • Performing an off-peak deployment
  • Taking calls or meetings outside of contracted business hours
  • Taking on more work than originally committed - scope creep, rogue features, etc.

No matter what the reason, it's often easy to be coerced into saying Yes to something if you were really committed to the project, or if you really value future business from us, or even because if I'm working late, you're working late. There are countless ways to be pressured into taking on too much work. People under stress tend to place higher value on short-term gains than long-term success. Always consider your response carefully - the implications may not be apparent until it's too late.

Setting Unhealthy Precedents

Givers have to learn to set limits because takers don’t have any.
~Unknown

Everyone wants more - it's human nature. In a provider-client engagement, clients are seeking to maximize value while providers are looking to maximize customer satisfaction and revenue. However, once you start down a path of working beyond what was committed, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a way back to a sustainable, reasonable pace.

This behavior can also impact future engagements with the same client as it becomes challenging to negotiate fees for something that you've previously given away for free.

Saying No leaves room for negotiation - there's not much hope of renegotiating a Yes. Don't let the short-term gain - either your client's or your own - cloud your judgement. If saying No feels uncomfortable and you're not ready to defend it with a solid argument, you can ask for some time to consider it with your team, boss, company, etc. rather than just giving in with a Yes.

Understand that what you agree to now sets the expectation throughout the current engagement and influences future opportunities. Down the road you may not remember the exact details of why you agreed, but rest assured that your client will remember that you said Yes and hold you to it.

Taking a Voluntary Pay Cut

Often there are material consequences when you agree to work outside your hourly commitment or contract - you are effectively reducing your worth. This is simple math - your monthly salary divided by your working hours equals your hourly rate. The more hours you work, the more your hourly rate decreases. Typically, your monthly salary is fixed, based on an set number of working hours. If your wages are not fixed or you're paid overtime, you must still be aware of what that entails.

There are heaps of research supporting that working longer hours does not increase productivity or provide better outcomes - it's more the opposite instead. In addition to the obvious - the incremental expense to your company or the voluntary reduction in your own hourly wage - there are other tangible effects:

  • Stress and its impact to your physical and emotional health
  • Time and its impact to your personal work-life balance
  • Decrease in the quality of your effort

You are doing yourself, your company, and your client a disservice by working under extreme duress. Employees who agree to taking on too much work or responsibility are usually less healthy, less happy, less motivated, and ultimately less productive. 

Saying, "No. I'll get to that task first thing tomorrow." is much easier to justify along with, "I'm not authorized to take on work outside of the contract terms." or "we have a strict policy on working hours."

Undermining Commercial Opportunity

Through your desire to create high customer satisfaction, you might be tempted to agree to extra work to keep your client happy. However, one of the side effects is that you're potentially robbing your employer of a financial opportunity. 

Consider the following scenario. You're working on a software application and you're in the development phase. The product has not yet been released to the public, but the stakeholders want to expand testing to a global internal audience and desire your immediate response to their feedback from different time zones. As you want both to gather this critical input as well as keep your customer happy, it may seem harmless to check emails in the wee hours of the morning to prepare for the next day. However, the hidden cost of your personal sacrifice is that your company could have been earning extra income by setting up an SLA (Service Level Agreement) that covers after-hours support for an additional fee.

To further illustrate the downstream impacts, a key component of our yearly bonus program here is overall revenue. Each time my co-workers and I do something for free, we chip away at the revenue opportunity of our company and subsequently reduce our own opportunity as well.

Enabling Pushing Back


At the Employee Level

At this level, you need to set personal boundaries. A lot the pain of being coerced into one-sided activities is self-inflicted. We can say No, but for some reason, we don't. Often it's because we're simply caught off-guard. A client might take advantage of seeing you send an after hours email, or a channel message to your team, or you might possibly be betrayed by something as simple as reading a message with read-receipts turned on.

The first line of defense is avoiding the traps. There are many things you can easily do. Here are a few examples of my own tricks, for starters:

  • In my communications app (Slack, in most cases), I have a scheduled DND (Do Not Disturb) status - my clients don't see me online outside of published work hours
  • I create exceptions to who can contact me after hours (my CEO and CTO for example, and my direct project team members should there be an escalation)
  • I don't enter into private conversations online with my clients (unless of course it is a matter of privacy or security, such as communicating sensitive information)
  • I don’t give out my personal contact information other than my work email
  • Finally, I do my very best to physically and mentally detach from work outside of business hours

At the Project Team Level

At this level, there are also many supporting activities that we leverage to keep us out of unwarranted submission to overwork ourselves. For each new project kickoff, we do a client onboarding session to communicate the "standard operating procedures" we'll use throughout the project. It stems from the contract, but includes clear objectives such as establishing our working hours, our escalation procedures, communication process, our terminology, and clear delineation of project roles.

We encourage our clients to assign a single point of contact who represents the needs of all the project stakeholders. Expectations are much easier to manage when flowing between designated contact points (for us, the project manager and the client product owner) - at least you're committing No (or sometimes Yes) to a single person. Regardless, we are in constant communication with each other.

The teams are also in agreement on topics such as keeping project conversations public in the sense that coercion often starts innocently enough in private conversations, away from the safety of the team and the project manager. My teammates know to redirect private messages back into the public project forum so that everyone is informed about what transpires.

We work closely with our clients to schedule deployments or launches at reasonable times so that we minimize risk, stay within supportable working hour windows, and ensure that the team is well-rested and highly-capable of addressing any critical issues that might arise.

At the Company Level

At this level, we depend on executive support to enable us to say No when warranted. We are encouraged to escalate if conversations about out-of-contract work become uncomfortable or heated. We have the confidence that our actions are backed by company policy that echo the message of restricting work to business hours.

We have a dedicated PMO team that collectively monitors project-client interactions in a bottom-up fashion. The PMO inspects any occurrences of over-commitment from teammates or solicitation of unplanned work and intervenes or escalates as needed. We look for root causes and try to address them. For example, we see higher incidents of this behavior when client or project team players change - they may not have been through the onboarding process, or given pointers to project operational guidance.

We have a clear, documented procedure for after-hours emergencies and escalations. Clients without support contracts can expect a response during regular business hours, while clients with support can expect responses based on their SLAs.

Get It In Writing

In our company, sources of truth are paramount to our success. Everyone knows where to find them, and they're readily available online when needed. Internally we have a living document, our company playbook, which is regularly referenced, reviewed and updated as needed. Our working policies as well as how we should respond to clients who ask for out-of-hours or out-of-scope work are well-documented there.

On the client side of course, a carefully-written contract forms the basis of all our client engagements. It is always clear as to both what will and won't be done for a given project. We make sure any gray areas are specifically covered - the exceptions, assumptions, stipulations and exclusions.


Understanding and agreement

Say Yes to No!!

With practice, it's not all that difficult to say No. It's even easier when the entire company is behind it, giving its people the policies, tools, and processes to support it. Clients may not like to hear No from us, but the temporary sting usually brings about an opportunity to discuss why we’re being asked to put in extra work. It opens the doors to better planning, tailored processes, faster resolution to issues, and most importantly, higher customer satisfaction in the end.

As much as we'd love to always say Yes, we know all too well the negative impacts to individuals, teams, and the company. When people are stretched to the limits trying to accommodate every favor, request or just this one little thing over the weekend, a strategically-placed No is ultimately the best response when our collective success is on the line.

Does this seem like a policy you could embrace? Let us know - we're hiring!

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Jeff Flynn
Jeff Flynn is an Agile PM at OOZOU in Bangkok, Thailand - AWS and Google Cloud certified.
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