Client Demands That Are Tough or Impossible to Meet

    February 17, 2004

In spite of your best efforts to meet client expectations, requests, and demands, there are times when you can’t deliver exactly what the client wants and/or exactly when he or she wants it. When you can’t meet a client demand, meet a time line, or deliver in spite of your best efforts, how you handle the situation can make a tremendous difference in how the client feels about it.

1. Check out the relationship issues and political climate (topic for another Cyber Sales Tip), assuming the relationship is not in jeopardy (i.e., a tough demand can be a code for a relationship issue).

2. Make sure you understand what your client really needs and why.

  • The demand may be, “I need X by Y date,” or “I need more flexibility in how I use your product.” By acknowledging your commitment to the relationship and reinforcing your objective to meet the need, and then questioning to really understand the need behind the demand, you will gain information that can allow you to creatively, fully, or partially meet the demand if not the underlying need. For example, the client may say he/she needs a report by X, but by questioning the need you may find out he/she only needs certain parts of a report or shipment by that time. It’s very easy to take the demand at face value and completely miss the need that, if you actually knew it, you could meet fully or in part.

3. Before you tell the client you can’t meet the need, make sure you really cannot meet the need and make an extra effort and reinforce that your goal is to be responsive. If it is something you can do, but would rather not do, weigh the impact on the relationship, importance to your organization, competitive environment (i.e., will a competitor do it?).

  • Most importantly, especially in this environment, be creative in trying to meet the need so you don’t have to decline to meet the client’s request. When possible, find a viable alternative(s) and plan how you will position it. “We can do X. While we cannot do … I can arrange for ” Make sure the alternative is viable. For example, if budget is the issue, don’t suggest an alternative that once fully explored will be even more expensive.

4. Keep the client posted. As you work on trying to meet the need, keep the client posted and, at each posting, give the status and describe your effort. End on a specific next step and date.

5. When declining is absolutely necessary:

  • Even if you are fairly sure you cannot meet the request, in most situations don’t immediately say no. It is a balancing act. While an immediate no is not usually appropriate when you anticipate a problem in meeting the demand, assure the client that you will do all that is possible to meet the need, and at the same time, plant the seed that there may be obstacles.
  • Don’t procrastinate once you look into it in getting back to the client because there can be a temptation to put off facing the decision. An unnecessary delay can preclude your client from finding an alternative. Long delays will only exacerbate the situation because the client will feel you are unresponsive on top of everything else. It takes courage to say what you don’t want to say and your client or prospect does not want to hear. Be empathetic and be sure not to procrastinate. Don’t hold out false hope.
  • Position the effort(s) you have made to meet the demand or find alternatives. Be concise but specific in telling the client the steps you have taken and what they mean.
  • Express regret. Apologize and show concern. Show empathy to relate and connect.
  • Don’t be defensive and don’t blame the client or your organization.
  • Have a strategy. Decide who will and when to deliver the message. Should you involve senior support? (Should you have involved a senior earlier?) Face-to-face or over the phone (not e-mail or voice mail unless there is absolutely no other choice)?
  • Decide how you will position the information. Avoid the “no” word. If there is any good news, position it first – “We can While in spite of we can’t we are able to because I ” For example, if you really cannot deliver by the 20th of April but can get the order there by the 26th, say “I know that the 20th was very important for _______. While the 20th was not possible, I was able to move it up significantly from the 26th to the 23rd. As you know, I have to get it sooner. How does this work?”
  • Focus on the client’s needs. Show you care/empathize. Position why. Be confident, clear, but concise. Don’t be defensive. Avoid using the word “policy” until all other rationales have been exhausted. If at all possible, find a benefit to the client, such as to ensure quality, confidentiality, or impact. Tie your rationale to what is important to the client where possible. Clients want to feel they are (and should be) the exception and/or they are different.
  • Don’t over-talk. Don’t make excuses. Don’t tell the client what he or she wants is unreasonable. Don’t blame the client. Don’t blame your organization. While you must give a reason (the market, the timing, a client benefit if possible ), don’t be defensive.
  • Remain highly client-focused. Clearly, but sensitively, position what you can do and what you can’t do.

When you can’t meet the demand, if you really have tried and communicated effectively, most clients, even the most demanding ones, realize that 100 percent isn’t always possible. Showing genuine empathy, concern, effort, resourcefulness, creativity, senior and technical involvement, and using effective communication skills, turn what could potentially erode a relationship into something that strengthens it. Even with the clients who are truly adversarial and make threats, while you can’t meet the demand, you can often use your skill and strategy to control the situation and maintain the relationship.

But remember, if all your work pays off and you can “move the mountain” and meet the need, take advantage of it by positively positioning how important it was to you to meet the need. Get paid or at least get credit!

Linda Richardson: President and CEO of Richardson, training consultants to corporations, banks, and investment banks globally. Richardson has 110 professionals, 15 regional offices in the United States, and presence in London, Australia, Singapore, Latin America, and Asia. Clients of Richardson include KPMG, Federal Express, General Mills, Tiffany & Co., Dell Computer, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Citibank, Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, and Kinko’s. Visit

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