How you can turn saying no into a win-win situation with your customer

Saying yes to a customer request often results in an instant meeting of their expectations. “Yes, I’d be happy to do that for you”, is one of the more powerful statements that conveys that your customer has come to the right place. Hearing yes makes them feel how they want to feel, it will make their life easier, it will give them what they want. Naturally, yes is what we want to say when our customers approach us. Customer satisfaction is almost guaranteed after a yes, hopefully without much additional effort. Saying no to a customer is much more difficult, especially when your no was not what they were expecting to hear. No means “a possible problem”, to them at least. Everybody knows that saying no sometimes makes complete sense, it has to be done. “No, we wouldn’t recommend that”, is also a very powerful statement that conveys that your customer has come to the right place, though in this case, they might not appreciate your (expert) service as much.

There’s a lot to be said about saying no to customers. In this post, we’ll explore how you can turn saying no into a win-win situation with your customer.

Why do you need to say no?

Most customers select a service provider based on knowledge and expertise. Money plays a role, but most customers really do care about working with a service provider who has knowledge and expertise. It’s the balance of this perceived expertise in combination with your fees that led them to choose you. This means it’s important to say no to customers when you think that:

  • the request is based on their lack of understanding or knowledge
  • they are asking you to do something which would not be beneficial to them
  • they are asking you to do something that would not be worth the associated costs to the customer
  • you have a better solution to the challenge they are facing

Be prepared for what comes after the no

As a rule of thumb in customer service, not meeting someone’s expectation requires an explanation and the setting of a new expectation. There’s never a need to say “yes, I can do that because it’s a completely normal request within the limits of our contract”, a simple “yes, sure” is enough. When it’s a no, you’ll need to add the why – in a way that your customer can understand it. Spell it out (nicely): The answer is no because of… Depending on your customer, an explanation is much more than a sentence, it can take two or three conversations for someone to understand why no means no.

The last impression that you DON’T want to leave the customer with is ‘they said no because of a bunch of reasons that I don’t understand’, because accumulated impressions of doubt can damage the long-term relationship quite easily. The last impression that you DO want the customer to have is something along the lines of ‘they said no, but I trust them’. To achieve that, you have to adapt every “no” conversation to their level of knowledge, their expectations, their situation, etc.

“It might be uncomfortable for your customer to hear it, but as soon as they get over the initial shock of the no, most customers will appreciate the fact that you’re applying your experience and judgment.”

What happens when people hear no?

Think about how you have reacted when you heard no instead of yes. Depending on the impact, as the recipient of no, we might question the other party’s ability to understand the request (rejection), or verbally express our unhappiness in no uncertain terms (frustration), before we can accept that no means no.

The SARAH model outlines our typical response to bad news in a linear fashion. For example: after expressing shock at hearing no, somebody will experience anger and/or anxiety which can then become resentment and/or rejection. With your support they will then accept the situation and begin to look for solutions which they hope will mitigate the bad news. The SARAH model is more relevant to most business scenarios and provides a simple, linear framework.

S – shock, surprise
  • “I thought this was covered by the contract”
  • “I just don’t understand – this was obviously important to us”
A – anger, anxiety
  • “I’m not happy”
  • “I’m really frustrated”
  • “This isn’t what I would expect from a business partner”
  • “I’m really worried this is going to set us back at least 2 weeks”
R – resentment, rejection
  • “I don’t think you understand the impact this will have on us”
  • “This might not be a big thing for you, but it is for us”
A – acceptance
  • “I suppose we just need to …”
  • “Well if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. I guess we need to …”
H – hope
  • “So what can we do then?”
  • “What kinds of workarounds have other customers used?”

You can use this model to help the customer accept what is happening, by moving them forward during your conversation. Use SARAH to steer the conversation with your customer, now that you know how they typically react to hearing no.

What to do when you need to say no?

When you tell your customer what you think, you’re doing what you’re paid to do – sharing knowledge, expertise and experience. Your expert perspective gives you everything you need to give the customer what they need. The question they asked results from a direct need. Indirectly, your no should address this need. If you successfully uncover their need after your no, you are creating a possible future yes. It can be helpful to see saying no as not just one isolated word but as a six-step process. This process is further explained in our eBook…

1 Prepare them

Indicate you have difficult news. Don’t just drop it on them. “We need to talk about something you won’t want to hear.”

2 Say no

Use clear and straightforward language. Avoid over-softening, hiding. Be aware of cultural differences.

3 Explain why

Inform them why something has happened and, if you don’t understand the reason, be honest (and build credibility). Avoid making excuses.

4 Convey understanding and empathy for their situation

Show that you understand the impact on them (both the business dimension and the human dimension).

5 Explore possible futures

Explore possible impacts. Impacts you’d like to avoid, solutions, workarounds, measures etc.

6 Follow up

Make the effort to follow up with the customer both after you’ve said no and once the solutions or measures have been implemented.

How to say no

You don’t say no to a customer request every day, so make it count. Own your “no”…don’t be fluffy about it by saying things like “well, if it was up to me”, and don’t distance yourself with phrases like “I wish I could but a third party is being difficult”. The message of no has to be clear: “No. I’m very sorry, but that’s just not possible” is the strongest message you can give your customer in their time of need.

Express empathy, apologize if needed but don’t overdo it. If you continue making excuses and apologizing you run the risk of looking indecisive, being open to being convinced otherwise and not owning your no.

In his book “The Power of a Positive No”, William Ury introduced the world of customer service to the “positive no”. The process has 3 basics steps:

Express your yes

There’s a reason you’re saying no, and that’s because you’re actually saying yes to something else (your project plan, your experience, your customers budget limitations). Focus on expressing your commitment to your yes e.g. “We are committed to our system being reliable and secure”.

Add your no in the context of your yes

“We are committed to our system being reliable and secure. This is why we need to say no to the idea of integrating remote access via this 3rd party app. It will be costly, and our experience is that it will create problems neither of us can work with.”

Propose a yes

“We are committed to our system being reliable and secure. This is why we need to say no to the idea of integrating remote access via this 3rd party app. It will be costly, and our experience is that it will create problems neither of us can work with. We can evaluate remote access solutions which will give some of the functionality without the risks. Let’s talk more about what is important to you and how we can help you find the budget.”

Don’t focus on the no

I have done many training sessions on customer service and I never leave the room without saying “if there’s an emotion involved, address it” because it’s the easiest road to customer satisfaction. It’s also, in my experience, one of the most difficult things for people to focus on, when in the midst of a no conversation with a customer. Perhaps it’s comfortable to hide in the business dimension, behind “these are our processes and there’s nothing I can do at this point” and it will help the customer understand your no, sure. However, the impact is much greater if you address the situation in the human dimension with an empathic “You’re frustrated, I can tell”, and give the customer a moment to respond to that.

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