How to Say No to Customers in a Positive Way

August 2nd, 2016 | Kevin Gao | Communication | Blog Home
how to say no to customers

This post was originally published on Oct. 23, 2015. We have updated it to make it more in-depth and provide greater value to you.

We’ve all been there: a customer wants you to ship a product in a color that you’ve never even heard of before, or demands a refund for a subscription they’ve been enjoying for seven months already. While you want to help them to the best of your ability, you have to say no to them because you know that fulfilling their demands could run your business into the ground. It’s a difficult situation, because common wisdom dictates that, “the customer is always right.”

This pervasive idea makes it hard to figure out how to say no to a customer. But sometimes a customer demands things you just can’t provide them. What’s a customer service agent to do? Follow the steps below to navigate the messy dilemma of denying a customer’s request.

Know When to Tell a Customer No

Henry Ford famously insisted, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Sometimes the limits you set are actually an asset in simplifying production or perpetuating your brand. It’s okay to say no, as long as it puts your company ahead instead of behind.

Talk to your team about customer service boundaries—clarity goes a long way in keeping support consistent. While it’s not wrong to say no, it is problematic if you don’t know when to say no to a customer.

Tell a customer no when:

  • You can’t honor the same request for all customers. If a customer asks for a perk or discount that you can’t honor for other customers, then it’s best to say no. You don’t want the news getting around that your company practices aren’t fair.
  • The customer threatened your physical or emotional safety. While you may be a pro at dealing with angry customers, it isn’t good to positively respond to any sort of threat as it will reinforce this terrible behavior.
  • They ask for something that goes against company policy. Sometimes customers want discounts or free products that you aren’t licensed to give them. Don’t “break the rules just this once.”

Recommended for you: Refunds, Discounts, and Special Requests: Practical Scenarios Where Saying No Is Your Best Bet

Respond Quickly and Honestly: Shape Customer Expectations Correctly

It can be tempting to put off saying no in order to see if there’s any possible way you can avoid saying the dreaded word. But it’s imperative to deny a request as quickly as possible: keeping a customer waiting for the eventual “no” will only frustrate them further because their expectations won’t be met.

If you need time to figure out the issue at hand, try to implement a temporary or alternative solution. If that’s not an option, keep customer informed that you are working on their problem and give them periodic updates.

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Use the Power of a Positive No

Saying no can be a difficult thing to do. On one hand, you can’t promise something you can’t deliver, but on the other, the word no can feel harsh. And isn’t it your job to give the customer the best possible experience?

Unfortunately, sometimes you might just have to say no. Not saying it can be misleading, and can give customers a much worse experience than you intended. As Carolyn Kopprasch from Buffer explains in this Support Ops Hangout video: “No is really clear.”

While you can’t always avoid saying no, what you can do is build the best Positive No ever. William Ury, in his book The Power of a Positive No, breaks down the process for us:

  • Express your yes. There’s a reason you’re saying no, and that’s because you’re saying yes to something else. Understand your company’s mission statement and express to your customers your commitment to core values. In order to keep our service focused on productivity, we do not offer the SEO widget you requested.
  • Assert your no. Your no is what you simply can’t deliver or promise the customer, no matter how much they want it. We will not be developing any marketing features in the foreseeable future.
  • Propose a yes. You want to maintain your relationship with the customer, and in order to do this it’s best to propose a positive outcome. Are there any existing features you currently need help with? I would be glad to show you how to optimize your service for increased productivity.

For ready-to-use positive customer service phrases which can be used in more scenarios, read our blog post: 40+ Phrases to Create Positive Scripting for Customer Service

Empathize with Your Customers

“Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
– Damon Richards

Customers may go through a range of emotions when faced with a denied request. Ury points to the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of acceptance chart to explain what people may go through when you deny their request. While this chart is used to explain the stages of acceptance for catastrophic life events, a no can lead to a loss in the receiver’s mind, and as a result may cause a similar range of emotions.

acceptance curve

Image Source: The Power of a Positive No

By studying the chart you can prepare yourself for an onslaught of distraught messages from your customer, like:

I can’t believe you would treat your customers this way! (Denial)
You are absolutely the worst company I have ever worked with. (Anger)
If I don’t get X, how can I face my boss tomorrow? (Anxiety)
You can give me what I want, or I’ll go to the competition. (Bargaining)

Cultivate a sense of empathy, and understand that these phrases are expressing a number of feelings that need to be expressed before they can find acceptance. Stay calm, and allow them to pass through each phase.

Recommended for you: 30 Empathy Statements and Phrases That Show Customers You Care

Create a Win-Win Situation

Everyone wants her piece of the metaphorical pie. When your customer reacts negatively to a denied request, it’s because she’s feeling cheated out of her share. But according to Herb Cohen, the author of the best-selling classic, You Can Negotiate Anything, this kind of thinking misses the greater point. Instead of convincing your customer her slice is large enough, why not focus on making the pie bigger? With this kind of thinking, everyone gets a bigger slice.

Imagine that your customer is still upset she doesn’t get to have her SEO widget. While you had no choice but to say no, you do have a choice to make a win-win out of the situation. If you identify her true need is to increase her marketing presence, you could show her how to maximize her use of existing features to drive more traffic to her website. Or if that’s not an option, you could refer her to a popular SEO newsletter or industry expert. It will only take a small effort on your part, and you stand to gain the promise of a win-win situation.

Customer win– Increased awareness of marketing tools and current product.

Company win– Retain customer, boosts satisfaction rates.

Look for Relationship-Building Opportunities

Saying no to a customer has the potential to do long-term damage, and as a result you must do extra work to make sure that you can retain her. In order to build a meaningful relationship, focus on providing continued support.

  • Solicit feedback. This shows a customer that you still value what they have to say, even if it might not be what you want to hear. Consider their feedback seriously, and always thank them for their time.
  • Send thoughtful resources. You may feel that you’re too busy to remain in contact with every customer you have ever denied a request to. But if you organize email addresses based off of customers and their respective industries, you can send out relevant articles and resources that you come across.
  • Ask customers to contact you. It’s important that you let customers know you’re a dedicated support specialist even if you said no to their requests. If possible, you should be the one to continue to provide them support in the future; this allows you to continue to build upon an established relationship. Give customers your name and support email address, and ask them to reach out should they ever need help for any reason.

Recommended for you: How to Say No to a Customer Without Ruining Your Relationship

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Kevin Gao is the founder and CEO of Comm100. With over 10 years' hands-on experience as an entrepreneur, he's always ambitious to revolutionize the way of online customer service and communication. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.

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