saying no to customers

When and Why Saying No to Customers Can Save the Day

Lola BarbierLast updated on February 22, 2023
9 min

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If you work in customer service, your prime directive is likely to be “yes, and…”. This improv rule-of-thumb serves to foster positive communication by having each interlocutor build upon what was previously said. However, sometimes you’ll find it necessary to stop a train in its tracks and actually come to terms with saying no to customers.

Saying no to customers isn’t easy. It conjures up the possibility of offending the customer and losing their business, or just of getting chewed out. It’s never pleasant to be the bearer of bad news, especially since irate customers have a tendency to shoot the messenger.

saying no to customers

But it doesn’t need to be this difficult. Not only is saying no to customers an unavoidable part of customer service, but it also doesn’t need to be such a greek tragedy of a production.

When should you be saying a firm no to customers?

Appropriately and effectively saying no to customers is a very valuable skill for any customer service worker. But first, you need to be able to identify the circumstances in which you should exercise your powers of “no”.

When the customer asks you to go against company policy

Some people will always try to take a mile when you give them an inch. Unfortunately, at least a fraction of your customers are those people, and they will try to obtain special favors or discounts. Your instinct to satisfy the customer, especially if they are reaching out with a complaint, might compel you to give in to unreasonable demands.

However, going against company policy to placate a customer will work against you in the long run. It might lead to disciplinary measures, and will encourage the customer to strong-arm you again in the future.

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go out of your way to delight a customer. Part of a solid customer satisfaction strategy is trusting individual agents to use their judgement to go the extra mile for a customer. Two good rules of thumb to consider when wondering whether to indulge a customer or say no:

  • Does your employer allow it? This is a no-brainer.

  • Can you honor this same request for other customers? If not, then you run the risk of giving your whole brand a reputation for unfairness.

When the customer’s desires aren’t realistic

After a change in direction or design of your product, certain customers might be upset and disoriented. You will probably be met with requests to “go back to the old look” or to “change it back”.

Unfortunately, these demands aren’t realistic. Changes happen because they are necessary, or because they will prove justified in the long run. Customers might not see past the short-term implication of having to adapt to change. Your business cannot backpedal or stagnate and hope to endure, and progress might happen at the cost of some bumps in the road.

The customer isn’t always right. Saying no to customers when they demand unrealistic actions is necessary when it will lead to success for everyone further down the line.

When you need to exercise self-preservation

Your time as a customer service rep is finite, and so is your energy. Devoting more that their fair share of your time and energy for a customer is justified when you need an extra push to solve an issue and make a customer happy. The customer’s gratitude makes it worth it.

But at times, you should be setting boundaries and saying no to customers in order to stay sane. Working customer service is a marathon effort every day. Therefore, if you don’t pick your battles and judiciously apportion your efforts, you could run the risk of burning out. Obliging an unreasonable, lengthy demand from a customer might take up time and expend effort you could have used to help other customers and make a broader and more positive impact overall.

Moreover, if the customer is being abusive or threatening, you need to be strong enough to disengage. Sometimes it’s okay to break up with abusive customers.

For the customers you do want to keep, saying no in the right way can actually help save a business relationship. And sometimes, that right way is to reframe the “no” into a much better solution.

saying no to customers

Saying no to customers and not ruining everything

Saying no to customers doesn’t come naturally to any service representative. The reluctance to stand up to a customer on behalf of your employer is understandable. Luckily, there are ways to defuse a situation and avoid a firm “no”.

Have the right attitude

Bedside manner is incredibly important when you’re saying no to customers. It’s only natural to stiffen up when faced with an uncomfortable customer service situation. But when you’re delivering bad news to a customer, you need to set the tone and remain in charge. Nothing will be more infuriating for a customer than to be faced with trite excuses like “we apologize for the inconvenience”.

Hiding behind corporate just-add-water phrases is a rational reflex when you’re uncomfortable, but customers will respond better if you’re honest and direct instead. It’s easy to be personable and warm when everything is going as planned, but it’s specifically in tense situations that you need to make the extra effort to be personable. Being firm but empathetic will channel and appease the customer.

No matter what, be honest with the customer. If their demand cannot be satisfied, say so. Promising the customer that you’ll check and get back to them will only set them up to be even more disappointed later. Rip the bandaid off, and move on to finding an alternate way to salvage the interaction.

Ask for clarification

When locked in a confrontation with a customer, you should always try to understand why they are upset as precisely as possible. If their complaint is vague and you probe them for specifics, perhaps you can reframe the discussion and avoid a “no” altogether.

If a customer tells you:

“This new design is terrible, change it back!”

Ask them questions to clarify the reason behind their displeasure. It might lead you to a more qualified complaint:

“This new design is confusing and I can’t access my (important information) quickly enough.”

That’s a precise idea of the customer’s bugbear, and now you’re cooking with gas. Now you can try to encourage a customer to change their mind without saying “no” by offering a satisfying explanation.

Give an explanation

An explanation of the reasoning behind the situation or change that displeased the customer might defuse a conflict. First, it is reassuring for the customer to hear that something is an intentional decision rather than a mistake. Second, explaining the change might justify it in the customer’s eyes. Giving context to a decision might help the customer make peace with their situation.

“We changed our design to accommodate (new features).” will show the customer that you know what you’re doing.

Often, reluctance to change can be remedied by improving onboarding to encourage adoption. Taking the extra time to encourage the customer to grasp the reasoning behind your decisions can change their mind entirely.

“Right now, we’re focused on making our design lighter, so that’s why you can no longer use the older version. Let me walk you through how to get a hang of the new design and access your data.”

Don’t forget to explain what will happen next. When a customer’s feedback is reasonable, useful, and actionable, let them know what the process will be to fix their issue. Even if the process takes a while, they will be delighted to know they had an impact.

The worst thing you can do is leave customer input unqualified, since you’ll have no option but to say “no”. If you manage to pinpoint the crux of a customer’s demand, you can try to find a compromise to suit their specific needs.

Meet them halfway

If the customer’s request cannot be honored exactly the way they’d like, you can try to turn a flat “no” into a compromise. Once you’ve qualified the customer’s precise issue, you can focus on the resolution rather than on saying “no” to their demand. For instance, appeal to their business sense and establish a link between the change in question and their own success.

“Our new improved design makes it easier to (perform action relevant to the customer’s activity).”

Include the customer in the search for the win-win outcome. “How does that sound to you?” or “Would that work for you?” makes problem-solving a collaborative effort rather than one party imposing their will on the other. You won’t need to say “no” to customers if you provide them with a workaround which solves their root problem without needing to compromise your own decisions.

Provide alternatives

If no compromise can be reached, you might suggest an alternative process rather than saying no to customers.

The closest possible solution is sometimes obvious. In that case, you can easily instruct the customer and send them on their way. But when there isn’t a perfect alternative, you’ll need to be creative. Say a customer is calling in asking you to complete a task which would result in a loss of time and energy, and take you away from more important tasks.

In this situation, simply saying no to customers would make them feel poorly cared for. But saying yes will set you back and put you in hot water. The way to satisfy the customer while saving the both of you effort is to direct them to customer self-service instead.

Don’t just pawn them off, though. It’s a sure sign of bad customer service to refuse to take ownership of a customer’s issue, even if you’re not the one to solve it in the end. If you point a customer to your knowledge base, go the extra mile and direct them to the precise page or paragraph. Customers will save time and effort as well, and gain a deeper understanding of your product by performing support themselves.

Make them feel heard

Sometimes, you’ll be staring down the barrel of a customer service conundrum to which there is no solution. Unpleasant things just happen, and at times, one party will simply have to live with disappointment.

In the case of such a situation, the best you can do is the make the customer feel heard and respected. Don’t promise the moon, don’t tell them that a solution is being worked on, just listen with empathy. Little personal touches such as saying, “I understand why you feel that way” or using the customer’s name will go a long way.

As long as the customer is being civil and respectful themselves, give them a chance to vent. No opportunity to hear a customer’s opinion firsthand is ever a waste; feedback is invaluable to the growth of your business. Your well-intentioned compassion might fall on deaf ears, the customer might leave, but at least you will have accompanied a customer the whole way to the best of your ability.

Even if you cannot please the customer, you can still do your best to have them walk away from the discussion with a positive impression of your service, if not a solution to their problem.

Published on February 3, 2017.

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