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Saying "no" is never easy

Saying "no" is hard for anyone, but for customer service reps, it’s a million times harder—not to mention, complicated—when your job depends on satisfying customers.

So how do you say “no” to your customers, when that’s probably the last thing they want to hear? And more importantly for your job security, how do you do it without turning them off you (or your company) completely?

Do you really need to say it?

Before we delve into the how, let’s talk about why you might find yourself in the unenviable position of having to

Your company doesn’t offer what the customer wants. Sometimes your company just won’t have the product, service, or feature that a customer’s looking for.

It might be tempting to smooth over the issue, telling a customer that the feature is in development, or that you’re in the process of stocking an item as you speak—but if that’s not actually true, you end up hurting the relationship more in the long run when, down the road, they see no progress on what was promised.

It might be tempting to smooth over the issue, telling them that the feature is in development, or that you’re in the process of stocking an item as you speak...

Their demands are unreasonable or against company policy. Customers may often come to you with requests that are unreasonable, or against your company policy—like, a customer that’s extremely insistent on using a promotion code that expired two years ago.

You would obviously try to accommodate a customer as far as you can, but if it’s against your company policy and directives, and an exception isn’t warranted, there’s only so much you can do.

You’re not the most suitable person to handle the issue. A customer may come to you with an issue that’s best handled by another agent or team. If it’s an email, this is solved by a quick forward to the appropriate team member, but with more immediate channels like phone and live chat, redirecting the customer to another team might look like you’re palming off a problem you don’t want to deal with.

In this case, you’re not saying, "No, I’m not going to help you,” but “No, I’m not the right person to help you.” To an irate customer, however, those two sentences sound exactly the same.

You’re not saying, "No, I’m not going to help you,” but “No, I’m not the right person to help you.” To an irate customer, however, those two sentences sound exactly the same.

So, how should you say “no?”

Investigate beyond the initial complaint. When a customer approaches you, try to dig beyond the initial complaint, and drill into what it is that the customer is trying to accomplish. Sometimes, you find that the underlying reason behind the complaint can be solved in a way the customer may not have known or thought to ask.

Say a customer is angry about the shared folders feature being removed after a product update.

Don’t just say: “I’m sorry, but the company has decided to discontinue that feature going forward.”

Instead, say: “Oh no, I’m sorry to hear that our latest update has affected you. Would you mind telling me about the issues you’re facing since the feature has been discontinued?”

In the best-case scenario, you discover that their issue can be solved using one of the other features of your product. In our example, this might mean that the customer wants an option to share drafts with teammates—something that your product can do through other means...

If not, the mere act of asking for more information makes your customers feel You’ll smooth those ruffled feathers the more you show value to a customer, even when you have to say “no.”

Provide the closest alternative. If you can’t provide the customer with what they want, the next step should be to find the best alternative.

If a customer is upset because the headphones they want are out of stock, offering them an apology and an alternative solution makes it easier for them to accept the situation: “I’m so sorry but we’ve run out of that particular model of headphones, and there are no plans to get new stock in the future. Would you consider model XYZ instead? It has all the same features, plus a few more, at just $10.00 more.” (This is also a great time for agent empowerment; go ahead and knock off that $10.00 upcharge.)

Even if the customer doesn’t end up taking you up on your suggestion, you’ve earned goodwill by taking the time and effort to think about their issue, rather than just dismissing it straight away.

Make your customer feel heard and valued. Customers are just like the rest of us; we like to be acknowledged and understood.

Use empathetic language like “I understand why you would feel that way,” or “I’m sorry this has happened to you.” Make them feel valued, with little touches like referring to them by name.

Let’s take the example of a customer trying to use an extremely expired coupon. If your company policy doesn’t allow for this, then there’s really no option for you but to say “no”—but the difference lies in how you say it.

Don’t say: “I’m so sorry but since the coupon has expired, our company policy strictly prohibits us from accepting it.”

But say this instead: “Jake, I understand why you feel that this situation is unfair. I’ve spoken to my supervisor about your issue, and although we can’t honor this particular promotion, we do have another offer that may appeal to you.”

The latter response shows far more sensitivity and understanding. You’ve used empathetic language, you’ve referred to the customer by name, and by taking the time to consult on the issue—without being prompted by the customer—you show that you value the customer’s complaint, and take it seriously.

Be positive! Even though you might be disappointing your customer, try to couch the overall message in a positive tone. This doesn’t mean taking glee in your customer’s misfortune; it's more an effort to end the interaction on a positive note.

Providing the customer with a close alternative (as we discussed above), is a great example of this—you’re not giving them exactly what they want; you’ve offered them a viable alternative.

But it can also be more subtle. For example, try steering your customer towards a solution, rather than focusing on the problem.

Say a customer is using your company’s basic account but wants to access a feature from the premium service. Instead of saying: “I’m sorry, that’s only available to our premium users.”

You can say: “Sure, that feature is currently available to our premium account users. I notice that you’re presently using our basic account. Would you be interested in upgrading?”

With the latter, you’ve successfully avoided the “no,” and focused instead on the “what we can do.”

You may not be able to say “yes” to every customer request. But with these tips, you’ll be able to cushion the blow of the “no,” and build greater customer trust and stronger relationships.

Zareen Islam is a San Francisco-based freelance writer, copy editor, and consultant. When she’s not writing for others, she can usually be found cuddling shelter puppies, and pinning salad recipes while eating pizza. Find her on Twitter: @trifleandjam.