How To Avoid Saying ‘No’ To Customers, And What To Do When You Have To

I’m a longtime proponent of defaulting to yes when taking care of your customers, of maintaining an attitude of “the answer is yes–now what is your question?”

But no business can give every customer a yes every time, and there’s one situation in particular where you may need to say no: when the customer is asking for something that falls outside the scope you’ve defined for your business.

(Since the hospitality industry has clearly defined levels–the star rating system–I’ll use examples from hospitality for the rest of this article. However, the concepts here apply as well to other industries and contexts, including SaaS, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and others.)

“The nice thing is that most of the time, the marketplace calibrates guest expectations,” says Robin Baney, COO of Oxford Suites, a family owned chain of suite hotels in the western United States. In other words, “while guests may have high expectations, the breadth of expectations is limited and for the most part can be anticipated.” Distinguishing yourself in your target market, says Baney, depends primarily on “understanding what those expectations may be and learning to anticipate and respond to those expectations better than your competitors within the same market segment.”

Diane MacPherson, who with her husband John owns and operates the Foster Harris House, a three-star B&B in the Virginia countryside, tells me that “at a three star [property] such as ours, people’s expectations are rarely out of line. It’s unlikely, for example, that I’ll get a request for a 5 a.m. four-course breakfast or for a grilled cheese sandwich at midnight. Of course, when such things come up, we address them with good cheer and as much flexibility as we can offer”—sometimes by collaborating with local vendors to get the request fulfilled—“but my feeling is that the four star [inn] across the street gets, appropriately, far more of these kinds of requests than we do.” The MacPhersons are thus able to concentrate their “yeses,” so to speak, “within the parameters of our business—making the kind of stay we offer here the absolute best, most intimate, most memory-infused that we can.”

Preemptively educating customers can help bring their expectations in line, an approach used by Suzy Hankins, the proprietor of the Ant Street Inn, a diminutive B&B in Brenham, Texas. Hankins’s Inn consists of only fifteen rooms, each of them unique. For example, room 209, “Memphis,” features exposed brick and a layout dominated by a hundred-year-old freight elevator smack dab in the middle of the room. All of which is great until a guest arrives and asks to check in early into “their” room.

Do you see the problem? The Ant Street Inn has limited staff and very limited inventory: an inventory of one, in fact, if you have reserved, say, “Memphis.” Hankins and staff can’t service a room until it is vacated, and therefore have no control over whether a particular room will actually be available for another guest’s early check-in. Because of this reality, Hankins spends “a lot of time on the phone and in the copy on our website essentially training our guests as to what a stay at Ant Street is like: what the positives are of this enchanting property and, at the same time, what our limitations are, so they are prepared when they get here. It solves a lot of problems and it results in happier guests—and employees.”

Sadly, in spite of your best efforts, not everyone is going to understand the scope of your business and what is and isn’t reasonable to expect. And the longer you’re in business, the more of these exceptions you’ll run into: customers who are by nature unreasonable, or who don’t understand where you fit on the continuum of service providers.  There’s no magic solution here, so the most important point to keep in mind is the need to avoid growing jaded, of not letting your worldview be poisoned by the worst of what customers are capable. Being and staying in a customer-focused business requires a pair of rose-tinted glasses and a predisposition for seeing the glass as at least half full.

Because the opposite outlook will result in business catastrophe, quickly or over time. When you find yourself tempted to dwell on war stories—in your own mind, or, worse, when talking with employees—about the customers who took you for a ride, who made you lose your shirt on past deals, who exploited every loophole, for whom “yes” was never good enough—you have to nip that impulse in the bud. Because customers, challenging though they are, are the lifeblood of a business. And when you stop being capable of seeing the best in them, you have a problem much worse than occasionally being taken advantage of or being asked to give more than is reasonable, a problem whose most effective resolution may lie in your own early retirement.


How To Avoid Saying 'No' To Customers, And What To Do When You Have To (

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