It can be difficult for many business owners to say no, especially to a client or a customer. After all, you like solving their problems.
But contrary to the old saying, the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes the customer may behave in a way that seems obstinate or unreasonable. And in cases when they want a business to do something impractical, unethical, or even illegal, businesses need strategies to tactfully decline.
Here are some ideas on how to say no to customers when you need to.
1. Understand and Empathize with Customer Needs
The moment you don’t appear to understand what your customer wants is the moment you can lose them, possibly for good. So how can you say no to a client? Gently, kindly, and if you can come up with an alternative solution for them, even better.
“My husband [Brandon] and I own a small plumbing company in Northern Virginia. Over the years we have learned that not everyone is our customer,” says Janet Counts, one of the owners of Potomac Plumbing & Gas in Front Royal, Virginia. Potomac works with both residents and commercial businesses, but sometimes there will be projects that are out of the company’s scope.
“If we don't do what a customer is needing, we always aim to be helpful by providing them contacts or referrals for whatever it is,” Counts says. “Although it's hard to walk away from a sale on something that we do, there are situations where we do need to tell a customer ‘no.’”
If you refer a client elsewhere, there may be a chance that business will refer clients to you as well.
2. Explain Why You’re Saying No
Many unreasonable customers don’t know they’re being unreasonable – and can get on the same page once you explain why you’re saying no.
At least, that’s what Jesus Vargas has found. Vargas is the founder of LowCode Agency, which builds MVPs (minimum viable products) for clients. The IT services and consulting firm is based in Miami, Florida.
“We build MVPs for entrepreneurs and internal apps for businesses. In the world of software development, anything can be done with time and money,” Vargas says.
The problem? Sometimes, a client may not have the time or money to do just anything. When that happens, Vargas says that he and his employees will always explain in detail why the request isn’t really workable.
“We have to help them understand why we are pushing back,” Vargas says. “At the end of the day, in our world, we are getting paid by the hour, so clients have to understand that even though it's technically possible to do something, it might not be a good idea at this moment in time to build a feature into an app when they haven't even validated their product, for example. Basically, we're saying we don't want to do this because now is not the right time.”
You’re the expert. If you’re saying no to a client or customer because you want to save them money or a future headache, they may be grateful.
3. Prioritize the Customer Relationship in Refusals
Even if it looks like the end of the road after saying no, you may be able to save the relationship.
“I was terrified the first time I had to say no to a client, but it actually ended up going quite well. I believe the key is clear communication of expectations and standards,” says Yenile Pinto, who runs a boutique dental practice in Palmetto Bay, Florida called Deering Dental.
Pinto says that “one of our policies is our ‘three strikes, you’re out’ rule. We run on time and never overbook, so no-shows and last-minute cancellations are very disruptive and costly.”
The first time Pinto had to tell a client that she had struck out three times and was no longer a patient, “I was terrified.”
But Pinto says that “surprisingly enough, the guest knew exactly why it was happening, and she was apologizing to me for having missed her reservations. I ended up giving this guest a second chance and they haven't missed a reservation since.”
Pinto set the expectations and rules with everybody clearly beforehand. So when Pinto did have to say no, the client didn’t argue the point. Once it was clear that the patient was on board with the rules, and Pinto was confident she was making the right call, she wisely welcomed the customer back – and presumably has a loyal customer for life.
4. Treat Every “No” Like The First “No” of The Day
This may be helpful to remember if you’re in a business rife with customer service, in which you’re constantly telling the customer no.
By the time you get to the end of the day, if you’ve had to say no a lot, you’re possibly on edge, with frayed nerves. But if you and your staff can pretend that you’re hearing an impossible request for the first time, your reaction may be more cheerful, and your customer could have a better customer experience.
5. If Your Customer Is Hot, Keep Your Cool
When a customer asks or insists that your business do something it can’t or shouldn’t do, you could find yourself in a heated discussion.
Joe Bowab is the CEO and founder of Lobster Anywhere, which is based out of Amesbury, Massachusetts and specializes in delivering lobster and premium seafood to restaurants, hotels, and large institutions in the United States.
The key to saying no to a client, Bowab says, “is being as kind and understanding as possible when you are speaking to them. Let them know that you understand their situation and needs and then explain to them why you and your team are unable to fulfill their request."
As many of his business counterparts have suggested, Bowab adds, “Follow this up by offering viable solutions and alternatives in lieu of their original request.”
6. Turn That “No” Into a “Yes”
In other words, “focus on what you can do,” suggests Denise Hemke, chief product officer at Checkr, a background-checking service headquartered in San Francisco.
“Instead of hitting a customer who may get increasingly irate with a definitive ‘No,’ explain the alternative options,” Hemke says. “Focus on what you can offer the customer instead so they still feel they’re left with some options to explore if they choose.”
She says that if you do that, you’re likely to turn a lot of frustrated customers into satisfied ones.
“What can make some customers really upset aren’t your limitations but their feelings of lost autonomy. They want to choose an option that isn’t available and are getting ‘stuck’ with something else.”
And if the customer still isn’t satisfied?
“If they decline your options, apologize for the inconvenience and leave the door wide open for them to change their mind,” Hemke says. “Sometimes, a client might storm out and later regret it when emotions cool down. You want every client to know that you’ll welcome them with open arms if they change their mind later.”
7. Hold Your Ground – Politely
There are some customer service scenarios where you simply have to refuse service to a customer, and you don’t want to work so hard to be accommodating that you end up doing something your business isn’t equipped to do, shouldn't do, or can't do.
Vargas says that he once was working with a client building an e-commerce business and website.
“They had a lot of requests that were not part of the scope of work that we had agreed on,” Vargas says, adding that he had been clear with what his company could and couldn’t do and explained that more work would mean another bill.
“They became hostile not only with [me], but with our team members. Right away I pretty
much fired the client on the spot. We don't want to have to deal with [hostile customers],” Vargas says.
Bowab has a similar mindset. “There are times when a customer is entirely out of line regarding what they need or want,” he says. “This is when you have to be forced to draw a line in the sand and tell the customer that it cannot be done.”
He also says that some customers may not be satisfied with anything you suggest. In that case, “there’s not much you can do about this situation except try to handle it with grace,” Bowab says.
A version of this article was originally published on August 02, 2012.
Photo: Getty Images