The Hardest Word to Say is No

There are a lot of over-the-top maxims in the lore of Customer Service. Many of them
sound good, and look good on the printed page, but frankly, they do not properly serve
the customer or the vendor.

For instance, The Customer is Always Right. Please! The customer is not always
right; sometimes the customer is dead wrong AND being foolish about it. Quite
honestly, sometimes the customer is way off base, and needs to be educated. Now, this
is not a license to treat this customer like an idiot. To the contrary, this is an
opportunity to acknowledge your customer’s presence, thank them for coming to you,
and to help them understand exactly what it is that you can do for them.

If the product or service they desire is so different than anything that your company
offers, you do them, as well as yourself, a disservice by trying to force-fit your
product/service into their needs. Even if the customer insists that the product/service
he needs can be purchased through you. This is often a supreme test of your patience,
diplomacy, and maturity as a service provider.

Some insightful person once said, “Diplomacy is the delicate art of letting the other
fellow have your way.” I’ve also heard this definition: “Diplomacy is the art of telling a
man to go to hell in such a way that he actually looks forward to the journey.” I think
that both of these definitions can come in handy, but for different reasons.

If a customer comes to you seeking a specific product or service, and it is something
that you know you do not offer, you can always say, “Sorry pal, can’t help
ya.” However, that attitude is not going to win you any awards for humanitarianism or
customer service. But a little probing into the customer’s actual needs, behind that
product or service, can lead you to something that you do offer. Like the old hardware
store story: Nobody needs a quarter inch drill bit; what they need is a quarter inch
hole. By paying some attention to your customer, however, and asking some questions,
you may find that you have an alternative solution to his problem.

But this is a place to tread lightly. You need to be certain that what you are offering
your customer is, in fact, a fair alternative to what he requested, and will fill the need
that he has. You don’t sell the guy who needs a quarter inch hole a stick of
dynamite. Nobody likes being sold something that they don’t need, so don’t be so
shortsighted that you go for the one sale, but do not serve, and gain, a customer.
The best policy, in a situation where you just cannot meet your customer’s needs, is to
help him find someone who can, even if this means referring him to a competitor! Yes, you
may lose this “sale,” but you will have gained the respect of the customer as being one
who is helpful in resolving his problem. And that is a reputation that will serve you

Another common problem occurs once you have contracted with a customer to provide
some work, and the customer decides in mid-project that he wants some
modifications. In the interest of customer service, you may often take a deep breath and
say okay to all of his requests, even though it can cause you extra work, extra materials,
and put the project off its deadline, or reduce its level of quality. However, this attempt
at providing excellent customer service typically serves neither the customer nor the
vendor. The customer ends of with a piecemeal product, thrown together in a hurry to
accommodate his last minute requests. The vendor ends up delivering a substandard
product, because what he initially had been creating has been modified beyond
recognition by the customer’s last minute requests.

This is a perfect opportunity to allow the customer to have your way. If you did enough
up-front presale work with the customer to ensure that what you can offer is exactly
what he needs, then you can remind the customer of that, and assure him that his initial
decision was the right one, and convince him to trust his own first instincts.

However, not all customers are reasonable, and willing to be pacified by logic. Because
of this, it is always a good idea to have clauses in your agreements with customers,
stating that any modifications to the initial specifications can be subject to additional
costs and or time. You don’t always have to enforce those clauses, but there will be
times that you are glad they are there. Again, this allows the customer to
have your way.

Then, there are those wonderful customers, who refuse to listen to logic, refuse to pay
more or accept delays in turnaround, yet still demand what they want, when they want
it, even if you have never offered what it is they want. There comes a time when you
must realize that you cannot serve this customer, as much as you may try. You can’t
win ‘em all. Sometimes you have to let them go. And sometimes, you are more than
ready to let them go! But as tempting as it may be to tell this customer to go to hell,
remember to try to do it in a way that he looks forward to the journey.

Customer service is not about always giving in to the customer, and the customer
always being right. Customer service is about treating each customer with courtesy and
dignity (even when they don’t deserve it), and if you can’t help them, then point them
in the direction of someone who can. In this way, you have served the customer as
best you can, and have not tarnished your reputation by delivering an unsuitable
alternative, or a hastily-made modification, or by being rude and leaving the customer
high and dry.

This is customer service at its best.

— Charles Dennis
© Knowledgence Associates, 2002 / All Rights Reserved

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