How to Say “No” to Your Customers Without Ruining Their Experience

| October 15, 2015
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You can’t always give your customers everything they want.

It would be impossible (and bad for business) to build every single feature your users suggest, or to accept every imaginable form of payment, or to offer full refunds on anything and everything. You’re going to have to tell customers “no.”

On top of that, there are times when things go wrong. Servers go down. Errors occur. Your users can’t do what they need to do, and you need to bear the bad news.

But saying “no” to your customers can present a risk.

In any customer interaction, the words you use either build up your relationship with the customer or tear it down.

This is true whether you’re writing UI copy, sending a marketing email, responding to a support ticket, or even helping a customer in a store. And that’s exactly why it’s important for companies to get it right, consistently, across all channels and departments.

No small task!

So where do we begin?

Start with empathy

Our first instinct can be to defend our company and our policies—and to assume the user is at fault. But your users’ needs should be your top concern. Even when you aren’t able to give them what they want, you should understand and care about where they’re coming from.

When you understand how your user is feeling and why they’re feeling that way, your response will be much more genuine than if you think of them as just another problem. Coach your team on practicing empathy for your users so that your responses are consistently sincere.

Choose your words wisely

It may not surprise you to learn that “no” is a pretty loaded word. Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Waldman have called it the most dangerous word in the world; just a brief flash of the word “no” on a screen can release stress-producing hormones in the body, impeding reasoning and communication.

It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to know that people don’t like being told “no,” but there’s also a case to be made for being honest and direct with your customers. It’s easy for customers to spot an indirect response that skirts around the issue to avoid blame. It’s also easy to spot overly cheerful language that can come across as cheesy and insincere in a negative situation.

My advice:

  • When possible, choose words with positive connotations (while still being sincere).
  • Be careful that your response doesn’t place blame on the customer.
  • Be brief but kind.
  • If an apology is called for, then give it openly.
  • If good alternatives are available, present them enthusiastically.

Here’s a nice example from the FAQ section of Dollar Shave Club’s site. 

Text: "Can I pay by check or over the phone?" "Sorry, we only take major credit cards at this time. Signing up online is easy! Our awesome blades are just a few clicks away. Questions not answered here? Contact us."

Dollar Shave Club answers the question briefly, directly, and with a positive voice.

While the customer might be temporarily disappointed that they can’t mail a check, the copy does a nice job of making online payments seem like an even better alternative. (Bonus points for including a Contact Us button in case the user has further questions.)

Explain (and understand!) why “no” is the answer

The one thing worse than telling a customer “no” is telling them “no” without a reason. In fact, offering a reason can make people much more likely to respond positively.

In a 1978 experiment, researcher Ellen Langer found that when asked for a small favor (cutting in line at the copy machine), people were 50% more likely to comply if the request was followed by a reason.

Interestingly, people were equally likely to comply whether the reason offered additional, legitimate information (“because I’m in a rush”) or was just bogus (“because I need to make copies”).

Of course, I’m not encouraging you to go making up bogus reasons for your denial! It’s much better for your relationship with your customer if you explain the honest (but brief) reason why you can’t help them out. This not only offers them the peace of mind that there’s a reason why they can’t do what they want; in some cases, it gives them an idea of what to do instead.

Here’s an error message I found when I made a typo trying to sign into Slack.

"We couldn't find your team. If you can't remember your team's address, we can send you a reminder. | Don't remember your team's domain? Find your team | You're already signed into this team: UserTesting

This error message gives a completely reasonable explanation of why I can’t take my desired action—as well as some helpful alternatives.

What’s so great about it?

It not only tells me why I can’t sign in (Slack can’t find a team called “usertestinh”), it also offers a link to help me find my team and even gives me a reminder of a team I’ve already signed into.

Align your team’s voice and tone with a style guide

This document is the Content Strategist’s best friend. And the UI Copywriter’s. And the Customer Experience Manager’s. And… okay, everybody loves a good style guide. It’s your company’s playbook for addressing your audience in a helpful, positive, on-brand manner. It empowers your team members to write and speak to customers confidently, even in awkward situations.

If you don’t have a style guide yet, now’s the perfect time to create one. It doesn’t need to be fancy; it can be as simple as a list of words to use and not use. If you’re feeling nerdy, you can make your style guide more robust by adding in separate guidelines for different types of content and interactions, your company’s preferred grammar rules, brand assets, and so on. For inspiration, check out MailChimp’s style guide.

Once you have a style guide, make sure the different departments in your company know where to find it and how to use it. You might find it helpful to sync up with different team leaders and create separate sections for in-person, phone, chat, and written communications.

The power of “no”

Being able to decline customers with grace is a key to a lasting customer relationship. Whether it’s in an email, chat message, phone call, or in person, encourage your team to practice empathy for the customer, be honest, and maintain a positive approach. It’ll go a long way toward creating trust with your customers.