When Is It OK to Say No to a Customer?
Here are 4 situations where it is acceptable - or even valuable
Yes, customer centricity is the new gold standard in CS, but in some situations a business has to say no to a customer. Your time and resources are finite - whether you’re an agent, a manager, or in charge of budgets - and customers are more likely to be dissatisfied if you don’t manage their expectations.
Two customer service hall-of-fame stories represent extreme cases of going the extra mile - and while they are equal parts admired as they are contested, they have made it harder for businesses to feel comfortable with saying no. First, the ensuing controversy when a Nordstrom department store proffered a $25 refund for a set of tires to an evidently confused customer.
Second, when pundits lauded e-retailer Zappos for spending a record-breaking 10 hours and 43 minutes on the phone with a customer - most of which was idle chit chat. In Zappos’ case, the clothing and shoe vendor differentiates itself through its bend-over-backwards customer service, and agents are encouraged never to cut calls short. During peak times when call volume surges, Zappos reportedly assigns additional agents to take calls rather than encouraging occupied agents to jog things along.
But in both scenarios, it may have been acceptable or even valuable for the business to say no. Nordstrom’s liberal return policy undoubtedly inspired other outlandish refund requests - whether or not they were honored is beside the point.
As Sean Tygrett, senior director of client experience at Cox Automotive, wrote in a recent article, a business faced with an unprecedented customer request should consider the following:
- “What is the impact to existing processes and supporting technologies?”
- “Can we scale this experience and consistently deliver it?” and
- “What is the benefit to the business and how will it be measured?”
Following are some instances when it is appropriate to say no to a customer.
1. When a customer asks you to go against company policy
Sometimes, customers will ask for things you can’t give them, like replacing an item with an expired warranty. Hotwire, an online booking portal offering deep discounts on hotels, flights and car rentals is not able to provide refunds or change bookings after purchase - which the company makes clear on its website. But sometimes customers neglect to read the fine print. The company’s CS reps are specially trained to explain policies to customers with empathy and clarity. Because of the nature of the business, agents are more focused on managing and minimizing customer dissatisfaction than on traditional vanity metrics like CSAT.
2. When a customer makes an unrealistic demand
Certain customers are used to getting what they want at the drop of a hat - or, they like to test people to see what they can get away with. When pop singer Dua Lipa demanded that her United Airlines flight refrain from serving peanuts on account of her sister’s peanut allergy, the flight attendant informed her: “We’re not a nut-free airline so if she has an [EpiPen] she might have to use that.”
He also added, “We can’t not serve other passengers in your section nuts.” Following her much-publicized tirade on Twitter, which received a mix of sympathy and “suck it up,” the airline held fast to its stance.
Thresholds for what is “realistic” varies between industries, brands and even price points. Cursorily browsing Reddit throws up scores of “horror” stories from baristas and deli workers who’ve had customers demand that their milk be boiled to 220 Fahrenheit or that their footlong Subway sandwich contain everything in the display case and not fall apart.
3. When a customer asks you to overstep your duties
Even if agents are no longer evaluated based on average handle time, they are still responsible for handling a high volume customer interactions across a variety of mediums - from chat to phone to email. Say a customer calls you in a panic asking you to clean up their CSV file for them within the next hour - maybe it’s outside of your job description, or you end up overextending yourself on a time-consuming task and neglect other customers. From the standpoint of first-call resolution, some would argue that Zappos’ 10-hour call is a sign that you are making things inefficient and difficult for the customer.
4. When a customer is rude or abusive
It’s important to distinguish between a challenging customer and an abusive customer. When a person starts to use offensive language or threats, they have crossed a line. In some cases, these customers don’t want you to solve their problem; they want a venting outlet, which makes it near impossible to appease them. Before you break with an abusive customer, have a clear strategy in mind. It might even help to draft a script -- and always, always keep a level head.