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When “no” is the right thing to say to a customer

As someone in customer service, I want to build relationships, provide solutions, and make people smile. In a perfect world, I’d say "yes" to every customer every time. But, as someone in customer service, I also know that in the real world there are limits to what a service and support team can do. And sometimes, "yes" is not the right answer.

It can be scary saying "no" to a customer, And “no” can be delivered in a way that is helpful and empathetic. After all, one of the worst service experiences is believing something will work, and then finding out later that it isn't possible. Feeling deceived can be very damaging to a relationship.

The key is understanding why you are telling a customer "no", and knowing when and how to deliver the "no" in a way that treats them with respect. You want to keep the customer on the path forward to satisfaction. Introducing the three R's: Research, Reason, and Redirect.

Research

Be sure that "no" is the right answer. Just as saying "yes" when it isn't true erodes trust, saying "no" when something is possible leaves customers with the impression you don’t want to help. Remember, saying "no" isn't a strategy to get rid of a customer. If there’s a solution for their needs within your service or product, you absolutely want to provide that solution.

Remember, saying "no" isn't a strategy to get rid of a customer.

The first step is to be clear on what the customer wants or is trying to do. You can't evaluate whether their request is possible without understanding their need. Ask follow-up questions, get on a call, or describe in your own words what you think the customer is asking. Once you are both on the same page, you can determine whether you can provide what they want.

"It sounds like you want to..."

Next, determine if what they want is possible. Check with your colleagues, review relevant documentation, search for previous tickets, and post the question in group chats. If you still aren't sure if something is possible, ask your manager to help you find the right resource in your company. Be thorough in your search. If you do need to tell the customer "no" you’ll be confident that you’re providing the best support. When you are certain, inform the customer by saying something like:

"I have discussed this with the team, and it is currently not a feature."

    Pro Tip: It is often best to do this over a phone call. That makes it more supportive and personal, and allows you to address the customer’s concerns directly. Before getting on the call, be sure to prepare the next two steps.

Reason

After doing the appropriate research, be able to give the reason why you can’t deliver the customer’s requested solution. This demonstrates that you do understand and want to help with their request, but there are considerations or limitations that prevent you from doing so. You are also proactively heading off a response of "why not?" by giving a justification from the start.

"This is because..."

Whatever reason you are giving, be honest but positive. Never degrade another team like your developers or product management when telling a customer "no." For example, say something like:

"That feature is on our roadmap, but we are focusing on some very important initiatives relating to access and usability—so it may not be ready for a while."

And not something like:

"The developers don't have time to deal with this now so I can't say when we might get to it."

Redirect

Other than being right in the first place, this is the most important part. Generally, even if the answer is "no," it's usually, "no, but..." Meaning, that the answer to the customer's specific question could be "no", but, there’s still a way to achieve the goal they are trying to address.

"That isn't an option, but I'd like to take a step back and ask what are you trying to achieve with this? I may be able to provide an alternative solution."

Consider what other options exist. No out-of-the-box solution? What about an integration, a 3rd-party product, or a partner resource? Alternatives to the customer's specific request will likely come up when you are performing the initial research, or else do a bit more research to find them now.

"Rather than..."

By providing alternatives, you give the customer a path forward. This is also your opportunity to truly lead the customer—recommending solutions that are in-line with your product or service and will work well over the long haul.

If nothing else, give them the opportunity to submit feedback for future consideration. This lets them know that you do care about their needs and will look into making changes. If possible, do both. Give them an opportunity to request a change to your product for the future, and provide alternative solutions for today.

Sometimes, you have to say no to your customers. But there’s a huge difference between “No, I won’t help you” and “No, because, unfortunately, we’ve exhausted all our options.” Answer these prompts through the three Rs—Research, Reason, and Redirect—before broaching bad news.

Download the prompts »

No does not mean defeat

It isn't about lazily admitting defeat and hoping they go away. Saying "no" should be done to establish the boundaries of your product and services, and prevent customers from investing time, energy, and money that leads nowhere. It is the honest and responsible thing to do when faced with a specific request that is not possible.

Saying "no" should be done to establish the boundaries of your product and services, and prevent customers from investing time, energy, and money that leads nowhere.

And it is only the start of the conversation. When you properly research, give clear reasoning, and provide alternative solutions with a path to success, "no" is an opportunity to build a strong and meaningful relationship with your customers.

Read the original Zendesk version of this article or more Tough Talk conversations here on Relate—The “I’m leaving my job” email that won’t burn bridges or make eyes roll, Women, ask for what you’re worth, and Writing condolences for a coworker.

Bob Novak is a service incident duty manager, (who doesn't delight in telling a customer "no"), and Team Lead for Zendesk Customer Support. He loves helping with and being helped by technology. See what keeps him busy on Twitter: @ZendeskOps.

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