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how to say no to customers

How to Say No to Customers in a Positive Way

Note: This blog post was originally published on Aug. 2, 2016, and as it is one of our most popular posts, we have updated it to include the latest research, up-to-date statistics and best practices in this topic.

We’ve all been there: a customer wants you to ship a product in a color that you’ve never even heard of, 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 (A.) what they are asking is not available or possible, or (B.) you know that fulfilling their demands could run your business into the ground.

The pervasive idea that “the customer is always right” makes it hard to figure out how to say no to a customer. But when a customer demands something you just can’t provide them, what’s a customer service agent to do?

The following steps will help you navigate the messy dilemma of denying a customer’s request.

Know Why You’re Saying No

Henry Ford famously insisted, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

It’s okay to say no, as long as it puts your company ahead instead of behind.

Remember why you are saying no, and stick to it (you do, after all, have a reason for saying no, and it’s not just to make your customer suffer). If you run a small business and are frequently approached by customers asking for discounts, you can stand strong in your no by remembering that at the end of the day you need to make a profit. Having conviction in your no will help you get a positive – not timid – “no” across.

If you find yourself giving in to customer demands against your better judgement and kicking yourself for it later, remind yourself as often as you need to why you must say no.

And, be clear with your customer about why you must say no. If a customer wants to negotiate on something that’s non-negotiable, be forthcoming about why you are denying their request. Explain what your limits are and why. For example, if a customer wants you to lower the price on a product, explain why it can’t be done (who gets paid? Where does the money go? Has the price already been lowered? What administrative blocks won’t let you lower the price?).

When you know why you are saying no and effectively inform and educate your customers on your reasons, many of them will respect that, and may even find added value in your product based on the information you have given them.

Know When to Tell a Customer No

Knowing when to tell a customer no is just as important as knowing why you’re doing it. 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 in the end their expectations won’t be met.

If you ask a customer to call back later or return to the store at a later date to avoid being the one to deliver the unpleasant no, you are ultimately misleading them, which will result in a much worse experience than you intended. As Carolyn Kopprasch from Buffer explains in this Support Ops Hangout video: “‘No’ is really clear.”

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 the customer informed that you are working on their problem and give them periodic updates.

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?

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. Make sure that they know that, so that you don’t have to listen to any painful insisting on their end. 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 this 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)
If I don’t get X, how can I face my boss tomorrow? (Anxiety)
You are absolutely the worst company I have ever worked with. (Anger)
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 their piece of the pie. Customers react negatively to a denied request because they feel cheated out of their 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 they don’t get to have their 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 their true need is to increase their marketing presence, you could show them how to maximize their use of existing features to drive more traffic to their website. Or if that’s not an option, you could refer them 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 them. 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.
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About Kevin Gao

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.