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There’s One Bulletproof Way To Politely To Tell Your Customers “No”

October 24, 2016

6 minute read

There’s a growing feel-good philosophy in customer support that manages to be both enormously unhelpful and ineffective at once: “When you want to be honest and helpful, there are situations when you need to say “no” and make it clear.”

In other words, hang up on your customer…politely?

I can’t imagine how we would have ever built a customer base at ProdPad if we took that kind of advice. Telling a customer ‘no’, or what you can’t or won’t do for them is not customer success. It’s lazy customer support.

At ProdPad, we don’t see customer requests as something to be accepted or denied. We don’t even use the word “no” with our customers. We process every request that comes our way as:

a.) An opportunity to educate our customers

b.) Feedback for us

Then we use that to either to communicate what we can do for them and how we can solve their problem or log it as feedback to help us improve our product.

There is a constructive space in between “yes” and “no” – here’s how we’re using it to grow our business.

Serve up an order of options 

If anyone would have to say “nope, sorry” a lot, it’s me.

People come to ProdPad expecting the same project management features they see in all the other product roadmap tools they’re looking into. And when they don’t find it, they email us:

“Hey, where can I set up a timeline or a Gantt chart on my roadmap?”

I could answer that in one of two ways:

Option 1:

“No sorry, we don’t have Gantt charts because that falls under release planning and project management. Our software doesn’t support these functions.”

Option 2:

“Hi Lance,

Thanks for getting in touch!

We don’t have dates on our roadmap, as we find it helps keep the purpose of the roadmap focused.

The roadmap is meant to show you which areas of focus (sometimes called Themes in the Agile world) you’ll be working on at various time intervals.) We stick to the time horizons of ‘Current’, ‘Near Term’ and ‘Future’ (though these can be renamed) as they are more appropriate for a roadmap than a 4-quarter style or detailed release plan. We wrote a little about this here:

Roadmapping without dates

How to build a product roadmap everyone understands

Essentially, we’re differentiating between a roadmap and a Gantt chart, which is project management functionality that we don’t touch. Instead, we integrate with a bunch of great tools, like JIRA, Pivotal Tracker, Rally, etc. which do make for great project management tools!

That being said, once they’ve been completed, adding a date and allowing for a field where you can write some details about the project.”

Which one do you think does better? Option 2 routinely gets us customers who respond thoughtfully back:

  • ”Hmm, never thought of it that way”
  • ”Thanks for sending me these resources, I will look into this and get back to you!”

Dig deeper to find out what they really need

The truth is that customers usually have no idea what the solution to their problem is – all they know is that they’re having one.

This is how we bring potential customer over to our side. We take the time to communicate that we don’t lack functionality, we’re just solving the problem differently.

There’s another good reason to avoid Option 1: People don’t respond well to the word “no.”

Starting off an interaction with a denial or refusal kicks off a biological process in your customer’s brain: the brain releases dopamine, which fuels anger and disappointment.

That flood of emotion overwhelms their logical reasoning, making them both unable and unwilling to listen to whatever you might say next. However, if you position yourself and your words to show your customer that you’re capable of helping them, they are more willing to stay and listen.

It would be the same if you go to a restaurant and they were out of your favorite dish. You would be annoyed if the waiter just told you, “Sorry, we don’t have that!”

But if he explained that it was a seasonal dish and the ingredients aren’t available, you could understand that. Any reasonable person would.

A good waiter would follow up by asking what else you like in order to recommend an alternative. That would demonstrate that they know the menu well and care about your experience. You would trust their judgment and you might even relax a little, opening you up to trying out this new dish.


Position yourself as a trusted resource, problem solver

I’ve found that when you don’t keep “no” as a fallback option, you end up having more productive conversations and they do generally result in sales or upgrades. (There’s a reason my former employer Apple has such a stringent vocabulary policy.)

They also open doors over time. Here are some ways we’ve won customers:

  • They were impressed with the way we listen and respond to the particulars of their situation 
  • They were referred to us by another customer who specifically cited how helpful we were

But what if even after all these conversations, you really can’t help them with what they need? Thank them for getting in touch with you and let them know you’ll log it in as feedback.

How to say no

Not only does this help your customers feel heard and appreciated, it’s also generally an excellent practice to follow at a product company.

We use our own tools – ProdPad and the Customer Feedback Portal – to log customer feedback and link them to ideas in our product backlog.

This way, these customer comments surface again during product planning sessions. We all see them, we all think about them, and our product managers actively consider them as they’re developing product specs and setting out priorities.

The remarkable thing is, customers do notice and appreciate your efforts when you take care of them. We see our approach pay off in a very tangible way through our customer surveys.    

positive customer feedback

When you listen to your customers, they walk away with a solution in their hands and you walk away with another great rating. Everyone wins!

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