Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"No" - In So Many Words

Update January 26, 2014: Jared Spool conveys my thoughts much more clearly in his Beans and Noses post.

Update April 24, 2008: I've been revising this post regularly over the past month. I think that it expresses how I feel about saying "No" to a client, but I reserve the right to modify this post, and my opinion, in the future. Also, I do think that it can be appropriate to tell our clients "No" on occasion, but those scenarios are a topic for another day.

As an IT software engineer, and even as a newbie technology consultant, I didn't realize that my relationships with my clients required a relatively high degree of finesse. I had become accustomed to having very candid conversations with other technical people about what was technologically feasible for a given project. We regularly used the word "No" in these conversations. And we regularly used the word "No" when talking with the business about their requests. Looking back though leads me to believe that telling the business "No" probably hurt my teams' reputation - saying "No" to each other was probably counter-productive in some cases as well.

I've worked with clients whose project goals were to improve customer satisfaction, or to reduce operating expenses, or even to introduce new product lines. At the core, all of these project goals boil down to a desire to improve the business. Our job as technology experts is to provide the business with the tools that they need to accomplish their goals. And just in the way that a carpenter wouldn't like using a hammer that refused to pound nails, our business clients don't like technology experts that refuse to help improve the business by saying "No".

I have learned that it can be much more effective to be indirect and to guide the client to the conclusion that they don't really want to implement their request. Some of my favorite ways of doing this are:
  • "How important is this request compared to the others that we've identified?"
  • "Can you tell me more about why you want to do X?"
  • "That's a great idea, we can do that - have you considered how it will impact Y?"
  • "We can do that, but it will probably increase our timeline/cost." (optional: "Are you willing to accept that?")
  • "That makes a lot of sense, we can definitely do that, but we will probably have to cut out another feature." (optional: Which feature can we remove?")
Customers can request crazy, even impossible, things sometimes, but I've found that my relationships are much more productive if I can think of creative ways to get the customer to consider their request in a different light. The customer may not always be right, but that doesn't mean that we have to tell them that they're wrong.

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