How to Say No

Today’s blog post is written by Jude Shimer, Associate Director of Client Operations, PatronManager.

Ten years ago, when I worked in a technical support call center, the platitude “The customer is always right” was part of our core training. It baffled me. Customers were not always right. They often asked for things that were unreasonable, or even impossible. They were rude and sometimes belligerent. I didn’t understand why I was expected to meet unreasonable demands, not to mention how I could meet impossible ones.

No one at the call center ever explained this to me, and no one explained what to do if I had to say no. Left at sea, I developed my own imperfect method: say no as sympathetically as possible, explain why, and, if the client pushed back, repeat “no + reason” with increasing firmness until they gave up in frustration and ended the call.

To be clear, this is not the correct way to say no to a customer.

In the years since, working on teams with far better training and communication have led me to understand an important distinction. The customer is not always right about what they can have. But the customer is always right about how they feel. They understand their own circumstances better than we ever could. And a person’s feelings may lead them to ask for something specific when other solutions could address their needs just as well or better.

(Rachel Hands, Director of Client Services and my boss, has a far pithier anecdote from days of old: while working as a barista, she had an exchange with a customer who asked for a decaf iced coffee. “We don’t have decaf iced coffee,” said Rachel, and the customer fled in tears before Rachel could continue, “…but I can make you a decaf iced Americano?”)

When you can’t grant a patron’s request, don’t lead with no—even if the answer to the literal question is “no.” First, pause and dig deeper.

  1. Establish why the patron is asking for whatever it is they want. What are their needs? How are they feeling?
  2. Validate the patron’s needs and empathize with their feelings. These are what they’re right about!
  3. Sometimes, once the patron’s underlying needs become clear, an equal or better solution emerges. Determine if their needs can be met or their feelings addressed in a different way.
  4. If no other solution is available, be transparent about why their request can’t be fulfilled. “No” is much easier to accept when the patron understands why.
  5. Tell the patron what you plan to do next—for example, bringing their concerns to a manager. If possible, offer to follow up with them later.

With occasional exceptions, an irritated patron is not a mean and unreasonable person, but a person who is struggling to express their needs, while you are struggling to understand them. Rather than escalating the situation with an immediate “no,” have a conversation. Every frustrated patron is not only asking for what they say they’re asking for, but also to be heard and understood. And that, all else aside, is a request you can grant.

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