7 Ways to Tell Your Customer No

As much as you'd like to, you can't always give a customer what they want. Here's how to let them down gently.
August 02, 2012

I’ve just returned from a business trip to Beijing as a presentation skills consultant, and like my previous trips, on this one I noticed the same phenomenon:  When I make a request for anything—extra pillows from the hotel, a participant roster from my workshop, the removal of the turtle shell from the turtle soup I ordered in a restaurant—nobody ever tells me no.

That doesn’t mean they say yes, either. In most cases, my requests don't get met at all, but my Chinese colleagues believe that telling me “no” directly would make them "lose face."

As a straight-shooting  New Yorker, I am used to saying and being told "no."

While it’s safe to say that our customers would prefer to hear a yes, when we have to say no, we can still take steps to preserve our professional relationships and reputation.

Here are seven things to keep in mind for those times when you can't give your customer what they want, and have to let them down gently:

1. Empathize with the customer’s situation.

You may not be able to deliver the outcome they’re looking for, but you can still help them feel like they’ve had every right to ask for it. For example, if your customer was counting on a quick order fulfillment for a product that is now out of stock, you might say, “I know that you were counting on us to have our best-selling stress balls available for your annual conference. I’m sure this puts you in a bind.”

2. Validate the customer’s emotions while reiterating your intention to help.

A dissatisfied customer can be like a steam pipe—ready to explode unless you give them an outlet to release the pressure. You don’t have to be their therapist (“what does my saying ‘no’ bring up for you?”) nor do you have to be their whipping boy (“Keep yelling, I can take it.”) You can simply say, “You’re disappointed [or insert other emotion], and I’m going to do my best to help you.” 

3. Focus on the primacy of the customer and the relationship.

When I am put on hold with an airline, the phone company, or my cable service and I hear, “Your business is very important to us,” I am reminded that I am nothing more than a revenue source. Tell your customers outright that they personally are important to you, and that you will do whatever is in your power to do to satisfy them—not just retain the business.

4. Treat every “no” like the first “no” of the day.

You may have had to reject 37 customer requests by lunch. I’m sorry to hear that, but that’s not this customer’s problem. Each customer deserves to have his or her case regarded as the most important issue at the moment. Make sure that your 38th customer of the day gets the same level of attention, willingness and problem-solving focus that your first one does.

5. Offer your best alternative first.

Several years ago, my husband and young twins arrived at a chain hotel around 1:00 a.m. As our children conked out on the lobby’s couches, the desk clerk managed to lock himself out of his computer, and then couldn’t get anyone on the phone to help him retrieve his password. An hour later, he grumbled, “Let me just give you a different room for tonight, and we can deal with this tomorrow.” This alternative should have been offered by 1:10 a.m., not 2:00 a.m. You want to offer your clients the best possible option as quickly as you can. Make sure you empower your employees with this ability, as you want to avoid customer frustration at all costs.

6. Get curious.

Chances are, you’re a born problem solver, which means that your default is “action” over “question.” If you and your customer are both stuck, start to ask more questions before you offer more suggestions. Start with “What else would be important for me to know right now in order for me to best help you?” and be open to what you learn. And as Walt Whitman reminds us, “Be curious, not judgmental.”

7. Ask for feedback.

Opening yourself up to critique from a frustrated customer might seem masochistic, but it’s really the best way to get better at serving your clientele. You don’t have to invite an attack on your character, but by simply asking, “What could we do better next time?” you let your customer know that you care about them, about the relationship and about continuous improvement.  

Saying no doesn’t have to mean the loss of a customer. In fact, telling a customer no with great care, clarity and consideration can save face for everyone involved.

OPEN Cardmember Deborah Grayson Riegel, a communication and behavior expert, is President of Elevated Training Inc., and is the author of Oy Vey! Isn’t a Strategy: 25 Solutions for Personal and Professional Success.