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How to Say No to a Customer

By: Renée Evenson
Last updated 12/17/2013

You’ve heard the adage: “The customer is always right.” Or: “You should never say no to a customer.”

But there are going to be times when the customer isn’t right. And there will be times when you’re going to have to say no. Perhaps the customer asked for a product or service you don’t offer. Perhaps the item is out of stock indefinitely. Perhaps the customer made an unreasonable demand. Or, perhaps the customer asked you to do something unethical.

So what’s the best way to say no? By learning how to say it without actually using the word. Does that even make sense? It does if you think about encounters in which you’ve been a customer and asked something, only to hear the response, “No, we can’t do that.” How did hearing the word no make you feel? It’s possible that you became defensive or frustrated or even angry. You may even have thought, Oh yes, you will do that or I’ll take my business elsewhere. While that may be an extreme response, the truth is that no one likes being told no. So when you’re on the employee end of having to say this to a customer, here’s a better approach. Offer a phrase of regret: “I’m sorry.” Follow up by explaining why you’re not able to do something, and focus on what you can do. “We don’t offer that service, but here’s what I can do for you. . . .” By offering an explanation and then placing the focus on what you’re able to do, your customer is likely to accept your answer without becoming upset.

Identifying the Customer’s Response
When you have to say no, your customer may:
• Not like hearing the word no
• Become defensive, upset or angry
• Demand that you comply with the request
• Try to goad you into saying yes
• Continue asking with the hope of wearing you down.

Do This!
Kelly works for a health insurance company. Her primary responsibility is to handle customer service requests over the telephone.
Employee: “American Health Insurance. This is Kelly. How may I help you?” (welcome)
Customer: “Hi. My name is Sandra Daniels. I’m calling to check on a claim for my mother.”

Employee: “I’ll be happy to help you, Ms. Daniels. May I have your mother’s social security number, please?” (enthusiasm, courtesy)
Customer: “Sure. It’s 554. . . .”

Employee: “Thank you. It’ll take me just a moment to pull up the account information. How are you doing today?” (courtesy, rapport)
Customer: “I’m doing great, thanks.”

Employee: “Ms. Daniels, I have the account information, but I’m sorry, I don’t see your name on the account as someone I can speak to about it. Due to our privacy policy, I can only speak to your mother. I’ll be happy to speak with her if she’s available.” (courtesy, regret, enthusiasm)
Customer: “Oh, I was afraid of that. We just moved her into assisted living. She has Alzheimer’s and wouldn’t be able to understand you. I’m going to be handling her accounts, and I’m just trying to check on the latest claim her doctor submitted. Look, I’m her daughter, and I’ve been going through so much trying to get her moved, can’t you check it for me this once?”

Employee: “I understand, and I’m sorry for what you’re going through. We do have a privacy policy, which I’m sure you can appreciate. Unless we have written documentation, I’m not able to give out any information to anyone but your mother. Let’s find a workable solution so that I can add you to her account. Do you have a power of attorney agreement?” (empathy, regret, assurance)
Customer: “Yes, I just signed one last week.”

Employee: “Good. If you’ll draft a short letter explaining the situation, include your social security number, sign the letter, and fax it to me along with the power of attorney agreement, I’ll add your information to the account and then I’ll be able to discuss it with you.” (enthusiasm, assurance)
Customer: “Okay. It’ll add to my already long list of things to take care of, but if I have to I have to.”
Employee: “Thank you for understanding. I’m not trying to make it difficult for you, but we do have to protect the privacy of our clients. I’ll give you my fax number and as soon as I receive the paperwork from you I’ll add it to her account and call you back.” (appreciation)

Why This Works
Kelly’s company had a strict policy regarding the privacy of its clients. When Kelly checked the records and didn’t see Ms. Daniels’ name on the account, she knew she’d have to refuse help. However, she was able to decline without saying the “no” word and offered an explanation as to why she wasn’t able to comply with the request. Then she explained what she could do to help the woman. Even though Ms. Daniels tried to goad her into complying this one time, Kelly held her ground, maintained a positive attitude and focused on what she could do to help.

Quick Tip for a Sticky Situation
If a customer asks for a product that your company doesn’t provide and you know of another company that does, why not offer that as an alternative solution? Think of how good your customer will feel if you say: “I’m sorry, we don’t offer that, but I know Jenson’s Hardware does.” Your customer is likely to be pleasantly surprised that you’re offering up information about your competitor and will leave your place of business with a positive feeling about you and your company.

Applying the Approach
When you have to say no, apply the following principles to your situations:
  • Don’t lose your confidence or fumble your words
  • Offer a phrase of regret, such as, “I’m sorry. I’m not able to order that.”
  • Follow up with an explanation: “That product is on backorder indefinitely.”
  • Then offer a phrase of enthusiasm indicating what you can do: “We have a replacement that’s actually an upgrade. It’s very similar, and it’s in stock. I’ll be happy to order that for you at no extra cost.”
  • Offer a phrase of empathy to show the customer that you understand the imposition: “I understand that you had your heart set on that, and I wish we had it available for you.”
  • Maintain your positive attitude by focusing on what you can do rather than on what you can’t do.
  • Keep a friendly facial expression and act with confidence
  • If a customer tries to get you to do something unethical, always act with integrity and do the right thing

© 2012 Renée Evenson. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted from Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Used with permission of the publisher.

How are your people treating your customers? They can learn more about service excellence at this AMA seminar:
Customer Service Excellence: How to Win and Keep Customers

About the Author(s)

Renée Evenson is a small-business consultant specializing in workplace communication and conflict-resolution strategies. Her previous books include Powerful Phrases for Effective Customer Service and Customer Service Training 101.