Shifting the client conversation from can’t to can

11 min read
Jennifer Bourn

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. defines can't (a contraction of cannot) as an auxiliary verb expressing incapacity, inability, withholding permission.

Yes, there will be times when you truly can't do something, but how you approach these situations as a designer or developer makes all the difference in the type of outcome you experience — especially when interacting with clients.

Can't is a black-and-white word; business is not.

Business exists in this murky grey area of toeing the line, balancing requests, evaluating budgets, clarifying scopes of work, and ultimately making your client happy by delivering a solution to their problem that creates the results they want. As a freelancer or an agency, client relationships are the most valuable asset you have. Your clients don't want to hear the word can't. They want to hear that you can help them, that you are willing to figure it out, that you want to guide them to a solution.

There are times when I can't is the first response that comes to mind. You might want to tell a client:

  • nohandI can't do that, I don't know how.
  • I can't do that in your budget.
  • I can't under our current contract.
  • I can't deliver in your timeline.

Trust me. I get it.

I founded Bourn Creative and began freelancing in mid-2005 with no clue what I was doing when it came to running a business. But over the years I figured it out. Then when we made the shift from freelancer to agency in 2009, I needed to get even better at the business stuff.

I made a lot of mistakes as I was learning to navigate the waters of creating successful, long-term client relationships, especially when it came to contracts and pricing. I also experienced A LOT of frustration with clients.

I was frustrated because:

  • They asked for things that I didn't know how to do.
  • They asked for things that were outside the budget they gave me (after the contract was signed).
  • They wanted to keep adding to the scope of work after we decided on the scope, provided an estimate, and started the work.
  • They wanted things done in ridiculous timelines.
  • They didn't seem to respect my work or my time.

But guess what? While I was getting frustrated and silently blaming my clients for being bad clients or taking advantage of me, it wasn't their fault. I see this often on social media today, and I want to reach through my monitor and scream, it isn't their fault.

My client frustrations were completely my fault.


Clients come to the table with a different background and different set of experiences than we do. They come with a different level of knowledge and comfort. They often have no idea how much or little time a task takes, how much a new idea might cost, or what the implications of their requests are.

They are asking you because they don't know and they need education. They hired you and trust you to answer their questions, to educate them when they need it, and to help them navigate the process — even it means their request isn't going to happen.

This is where the word can't comes into play. Maybe you're tired, overworked, it's been a long day, you just finished a challenging meeting, your neighbor's dog is barking and driving you nuts — whatever the case may be, you get frustrated and respond with a can't answer.

Often a can't answer could be a can answer with just a slight shift in perspective and approach.

Turn that can’t on its head

While can't  is a negative word, can is a positive word. By shifting your answers to can, you're creating a positive feeling and experience for your clients, you're opening doors to additional opportunities, and you're being the leader your clients hired you to be.


Here are a few examples of how you can make the shift from can't to can:

I can't do that (I don't know how).

While it is ALWAYS in your best interest to be upfront and honest about your skills and abilities, this is the easiest situation to transform a negative into a positive. Instead of saying you can't, here a couple alternate answers:

"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 case, you're being honest with your client, you're providing them a solution, and you're working with them to explore the 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."

In this example, you're also being honest, but letting them know you believe you can get it done or find the best solution. You're offering to dig in, learn more, and present a plan. This gives you the opportunity to do some digging on your own to see if it is something you feel comfortable to tackling to expand your skill set, or if it is something you need to bring in an expert to do. This also helps you really figure out the hidden costs associated with the request.

I can't do it in this budget.


Budget can be the deal breaker for many conversations. Often clients make requests for the sun, moon, and stars to be done in budgets that are a fraction of the total cost — and again, it's often because they have no idea what things should cost or how much time tasks really take.

Defaulting immediately to a can't answer here dissuades clients from approaching you with other ideas, thoughts, questions, and suggestions along the way. It shuts them down and makes it all about the money, which isn't enjoyable for anyone. Instead, focus on what you can do with these sample responses:

"Sure! We can do anything you want, but 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."

In this situation, you're acknowledging your client and their request. You're showing them that you are listening and that you care not only about their input, but about staying in budget so there are no surprises during billing. This response communicates your desire to help your client understand the full implications of the request, both positive and negative, so you can make the best decision together.

"That's an interesting idea/request. While we may not be able to do to all of that in your budget, we can do ABC now, and then implement XYZ in a phase two/after the launch."

With these responses, you're again validating their idea and input and demonstrating your willingness to jump in and help. You communicate right away that there may be a budget issue, but move past it to focus on how you can help the client achieve what they want and what the next steps are.

I can't do it under our current contract.

It's inevitable that once a client hires you for one thing (like a new website), they are going to ask you to do many more things (like setting up their email). There is also a good chance that once you get started on a new project with a client, especially one that involves deep digging into their business like a website design/redesign, they are going to discover what is possible and have even more ideas.

I've found that the longer a project drags out, the more prevalent the additional requests become. Clients read blogs, see new technologies, learn new things, attend an event and see a speaker pitch something specific, and they come to you to ask about it. 

Often designers and developers get frustrated with clients when they ask these questions, assuming they are trying to get more work out you for the original fee. But in many cases, this is the farthest thing from the client's mind. They just want to make sure they're not missing anything. They ask because they want you to share your opinion.

Maybe you're already doing it, maybe they don't need it, maybe it's not a best practice — or maybe it's a great idea that could improve the project — you won't know until you talk about it together.

Instead of immediately jumping to can't, consider one of these options:

"That's an interesting idea. Based on ABC, we had decided to do XYZ for your site and this is a different strategy. If you want to move forward and change up what we're doing, we can definitely discuss that. We're happy to support you and work with you to ensure the final site is exactly what you need, but this change in direction will add to your original budget. Let's jump on the phone to discuss this further and see what the best next steps are."

"We would love to take care of that for you. However, our original flat rate agreement was based of a very specific scope of work. Let me put together a change order for you to review that maps out the new feature and it's impact to the project budget and/or timeline. Then we can review it together, I can answer any questions you have, and we can move forward from there."

"Sure! We can add anything to the project but we should flesh this out first to ensure it makes sense for your desired objectives. Often clients just like you begin working with us and in the process get new ideas they didn't know were possible before. We are more than happy to revisit the scope of work and adjust it. Let's talk to discuss the impact this will have on the project, so you can make the best decision."

In each of these scenarios you're listening to the client, validating their ideas and input, standing firm as the expert they hired, and guiding them to the solution that best serves the project, the desired results, and their budget. You're also maintaining your boundaries and protecting your time.

The key is taking the time to find out where the request is coming from and why they feel it is important, then looking closer at the strategy you agreed to in the beginning of the project to see if you're already addressing their concerns in another way, or if this request is something you might have missed.

Positivity will always win

Not every client request is going to be a great one. Some are going to be downright terrible and others will make you want to bang your head against a wall. But understand that they are asking you because they care about what you have to say. They hired you because they trust you and your opinions.

Use every client interaction and request and an opportunity to create a positive experience.

Yes, you need to have frank and honest conversations with your clients, but these are the perfect times to provide a little extra education about what you know to be best for them, their budget, and their desired objectives.