I grew up working in my family’s retail business. I was taught the customer is always right and it’s a privilege to serve them. So this is difficult for me – it goes against my nature, but yes, there are times you should politely walk away from a customer. There comes a time to say “no.” Do you know when to tell a customer no? 

When to Tell a Customer No

The Profit Margin is Too Tight – This is a tough one, but the margin should have room for changes, mistakes, material inflation, and labor overruns. I’ve taken low profit jobs to keep employees busy or to get my foot in the door for future orders, and I’ve underbid jobs that did nothing but lose money. If you’re cutting it close, have a good reason.

You’re Too Busy – What a great problem to have. If you’re maxed out, don’t fool yourself and take on more jobs. Overbooking will overwork your team, put undue stress on the organization, affect quality, and cause missed deadlines. Before taking on too much, ask yourself – can we complete all of our commitments and do this job?

It’s Not Up to Your Standards – A friend who owns a video production company recently decided to not connect with the new marketing team of a customer he’d worked with for over two years. The new team was producing television ads not up to my friend’s standards, and although he had no part in the ads, he didn’t want potential clients to associate his name with their TV work.

It’s Illegal, Unethical, or Questionable – I’ve been asked to duplicate trademarked graphics without consent, which is illegal and unethical, but what about questionable requests? If you would consider a service, product, or strategy questionable, don’t take part in it.

It’s Not Your Expertise – Rather than scramble to learn a new product or service, outsource it or turn it down, and if you know a provider that can help, offer a referral. If you receive enough inquiries for similar work, you might consider adding it to your product line.

When to Say “Maybe”

Have you ever wanted to say no to a customer because they were difficult to work with? Of course you have. I imagine we can all name a few controlling, demanding, and unreasonable clients who are loyal, profitable, and ethical. They’re good clients in every other way. It’s your responsibility to make it work as best you can by providing the best service possible and giving realistic expectations to the customer.

You shouldn’t consider saying no until the scale of their demands outweighs the work they provide. And even then, the retail clerk in me wants to tell you to suck it up and do your job, but there’s a line between a profitable yet demanding client, versus an energy-sucking, time-consuming nuisance. Before you say no, consider if you’ve done everything within your power to help the customer understand your parameters and expectations.

Your customers and jobs should help towards your vision. Accepting work that isn’t profitable or doesn’t fit your culture will weaken your organization. Having said that, proceed with caution. The customer may not always be right, but should always have the benefit of doubt. Have you ever turned away a prospect?

But Don’t Chase Valuable Customers Away

I had a medical procedure a while back — a minor surgery if two hours, out cold, under a knife could be called “minor.” Although the medical staff was professional, I will not recommend them. Let me tell you what they did well — they explained the procedure and followed a zillion compliance regulations (how many times do they really need my middle initial and social security number?). One pre-op questionnaire asked about my learning style so they could give me post-op information that fit my modality. They didn’t silo, but worked together as a team, which in my experience with hospitals, is rare and unique. What they didn’t do was prepare me for recovery. I’m culpable, as well, as I didn’t do my due diligence and research.

I signed the consent forms. I was told 1 in 1000 people experience bad things, and I was told to expect a 70% improvement. Others who had similar surgeries shared the relief and improvement they saw almost immediately. What the surgical team didn’t explain, until after the procedure, was the possibility my pain could worsen after the surgery — for as long as three months. I feel I was misled by omission of details. It seems what was important to the facility was to protect themselves and to secure the procedure. There’s more, but I’d only be ranting. Sharing worst-case recovery scenarios with me would not have caused me to cancel the operation. It would have prepared me for what I’m now facing, gained my respect, and made me a supporter.

Is This Applicable to Other Businesses?

During a recent sales seminar, a new salesperson asked me for advice. Their customer was upset because product delivery took longer than expected. I asked what the customer’s expectations were, and he answered, “Two week delivery — that’s what I tell everyone.” The job was in its fourth week, and had yet to be delivered. The customer was not informed to all possibilities — they only knew it was two weeks late.

Under-promise and Over-deliver

Don’t give a standard answer to every client. Be transparent and explain all possibilities. In the long run, you’ll gain more loyal customers with the truth. It may not always be what the prospect wants to hear, but it’s what they need to hear. Misleading a potential customer by omission of details will usually cause you pain. When the new salesperson told his customer two weeks delivery rather than realistically explaining the process, he set himself up for dealing with an angry and demanding customer who will never do business with him again. And once the trust was broken, the customer questioned everything. It’s not fun, is it?

Set expectations closer to the worst-case scenario. If you tell someone it will take four weeks and deliver in two, they will likely not be upset. On the other hand, tell them two and deliver in four? Not good.

Explain the customer’s role in the process — how required information and order changes can speed up or slow down a project, affecting the outcome.

Is it Time to Say No? 

Do you have a customer you should say no to? Have you told a customer no? How did you handle it?

How Can I Help You?

I like to help people and organizations, but I have three criteria I consider before taking an assignment – I believe in what the organization stands for, I know I can help, and it looks like fun. If you have any questions, Contact Me. 

So, does your business have a  management training plan? Because, if not, many organizations, large and small, use my book, The New Manager’s Workbook a crash course in effective management, as the basis for their leadership development program. Check it out.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash