Sometimes You Can’t Say Yes – Shep Hyken

Sometimes You Can’t Say Yes

In a perfect customer service world, we would never have to tell a customer “no.” But in real life, there are situations in which it is unavoidable. No one likes to be told “no,” and it can create a negative environment that has to be overcome.

Karen Leland and Keith Bailey address some reasons you might have to say no in their excellent book, Customer Service for Dummies. Let’s discuss Sometimes You Can’t Say Yes – the main situations and how we can handle them.

To uphold the law

This one is obvious – when you are asked to do something that is against the law. Any reasonable customer will understand why you can’t comply.

Company policy

If you are telling a customer that you can’t do something because of “company policy,” there should be a sensible reason behind the policy. Sometimes it seems as if “company policy” is simply used as a blanket excuse for a business to avoid putting any thought or effort into customer service.

If I visit a restaurant and am not permitted to make a substitution in my meal order – corn instead of green beans, for example – please be able to tell me why it is policy to not allow such changes. I will be a happier customer if I understand that inventory is specifically allotted – or whatever reason – than if you simply claim “company policy.”

Out of stock

In spite of a company’s best efforts, there may be times when an item that a customer wants is not available. Perhaps a product sold better than was expected, or a shipment from the manufacturer was delayed.

How far are you willing to go to keep the customer happy? Legend has it that this situation occurred at Nordstrom, and the employee asked the customer to return in 15 minutes. In the meantime, the employee ran to another store, purchased the item at retail price, returned to Nordstrom’s, and when the customer came back, was able to offer the item for sale.

That might not be practical as a business model, but it does show a great dedication to customer service. Some retailers, if they are out of stock, will direct customers to a competitor, perhaps even calling the other store and having the product held for the customer.

It definitely does show customers you are interested in their needs, not just the bottom line, and they are usually appreciative. If it is necessary to simply tell the customer when the item will be back in stock, make sure it is there when you say it will be. Keep your promises.

It’s impossible

There’s impossible, and then there’s impossible. What I mean by that is, that some items truly are impossible to get; however, others may be obtainable if you research other sources. Or, perhaps there is a suitable replacement? If it really is not possible, educate the customer as to why you can’t get what they want.

A reluctant “yes”

It is not good customer service when you reluctantly tell a customer “yes” after a bout of argument. I pulled up to the entrance of a parking lot recently only to be told by the attendant that the lot was full. I argued that I had seen empty spaces in the lot from the street while driving by.

The attendant insisted that it was full, and refused to actually check for open spaces for a full five minutes. When he finally did and waved me in, it was more like an angry gesture. Even though I was able to park my car, I was not happy with the service. A forced “yes” is not a positive thing.

Good customer service would have been knowing that the spaces were open, or listening to what the customer was saying and checking for parking spaces sooner.

Turn the “no” around

Many times when you are forced to tell a customer “no,” you still have options to present to keep good customer service alive. Often, substitution is a viable solution. If you are working behind the counter at an ice cream parlor and a customer orders a variety that is out, suggest another flavor.

The 7 p.m. showing of a movie is sold out? Give the customer options for other films that are showing, or the time of the next screening plus recommendations for nearby dining or shopping to enjoy in the meantime.

At times it may take a creative approach to change the “no” into a “no, but …” However, if you have the right attitude and a dedication to customer service, it can usually be done.

Remember these ideas the next time you have to tell a customer or client “no.” Be flexible and stay on your toes and you can create Moments of Magic in even the most challenging times.

Shep Hyken is a customer experience expert and the Chief Amazement Officer of Shepard Presentations. He is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author and has been inducted into the National Speakers Association Hall of Fame for lifetime achievement in the speaking profession.

Shep works with companies and organizations that want to build loyal relationships with their customers and employees. For more articles on customer service and business go to


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