how to say no to a client

At one point in a past business relationship, I learned a painful lesson about how to say no to a potential client. I had committed to the customer to present a training seminar without realizing the true nature of the training the customer wanted. When I realized what they really wanted, I realized that it was beyond my competency, so I called the customer to say I would have to pass on the job. The customer was very angry, but I couldn’t understand why. After all, would he have wanted me to agree to a job that I wasn’t qualified to perform? Still, he was very angry, so I asked my business consultant for his input. He told me that the reason the customer was angry was that he thought he had a solution to a problem, but suddenly it was yanked away from him. My consultant told me that, while I was right to pass on the job, I should have also contacted my competitors to find someone who could do the job and made arrangements with them to present the training before I called the customer. That would have been good customer service. You see, I now realize that I did the right thing in passing on the job, but by not offering an alternative, I left my customer hanging. That’s definitely not how to say no to a potential client! Think of how we feel when someone does that to us. At best it’s annoying, but at worst, it’s frustrating and even maddening. No wonder my customer was angry.

How to Say No to a Potential Client

The lesson learned is simple and very important. There are going to be times when we have to say no to a customer…an end-user. When we have to say no, we must first work to understand the business reasons for the request and then be prepared with an alternative or a full explanation.

For example, suppose an end user wants to set up a network share on her laptop computer, but a group policy object has been configured to prevent that and she wants you to create an exception. Such a share violates company policy due to security and backup issues and you may not even have the authorization or permission to modify group policy settings. You can, however, set up a network share for her workgroup on a workgroup server. Start by trying to understand the business need for the share. Say something like, “Help me understand what the share is for.” Once you understand the business reason for the share, you think a network share on a server might solve the problem. You might say something like, “I’m sorry I can’t set that up for you on your computer because it violates company policy on security and data backup, but I can set up a share for you on a network server that will do exactly the same thing. Will that work for you?”

Of course, it’s also important to consider who is making the request. For example, if a C-level executive or a manager is making the request, the answer is usually yes. In that type of situation, you should also immediately make your supervisor aware of the request and your actions in response to the request.

If responding to the request is beyond your scope of responsibility or outside of your authority, you should explain that and then immediately offer to escalate.

As with every aspect of customer service, always put yourself in the customer’s position. Imagine how you would feel if someone had to say no to you. Wouldn’t you want to be offered alternatives or, at the very least, a reasonable explanation of why the request had to be turned down. Certainly, you must also remember to respond with empathy and compassion for your customer, your fellow human who’s simply trying to do their job. Always remember that those of us in information systems and technology are the liaisons between our customers, our end-users, and the software and systems we support.

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