How to Tell Customers No ...Without Actually Saying No
As a family doctor, I often have to say no to a patient’s request. It may be to a certain medicine they would like to have, or to a particular service they want my office to handle for them, or even to have my cell phone number to text me their needs.
Many times when we say no, our demeanor and our words communicate “I don’t value you” to the people we serve. In this article I want to share with you how we can decline kindly, respectfully, and most importantly without turning off our customer, client, or patient. I recommend this simple four-step process.
At some point, all of us have visited an establishment in need of a service or product and been turned away. With a flat face and monotoned voice, an associate relays, “I’m sorry, but we can’t do that for you here.” After a few seconds of awkward stares, we usually retreat.
While the statement the person used may have been accurate, the delivery can leave us feeling undervalued as a person, customer, or a client.
How to Tell Customers No and Still Maintain a Valuable Relationship
When you want to decline a request to a customer or a person you lead, or to anyone for that matter, you must keep in mind that this person is very important to you. Your goal is to bring them to your side, gain their understanding, and avoid alienating them when you cannot give them what they want. Hopefully you would agree that you desire long-term relationships with the people around you. People should know you are saying no to the request and not to the person.
Another very important point to remember is that in most cases, we can say yes. We can bend the rules to go the extra mile to take care of people. I recommend we do that.
Try to avoid one line responses, like these below. Instead, consider the following four step approach.
- “I’m sorry, I cannot do that.”
- “I’m sorry we cannot do that because our policy is…”
- “I’m sorry, I can’t.”
- “We can’t, because if we do, we would be violating…”
I Use This Four-Step Approach
Step One: Listen fully. This may seem counterintuitive. Why should you listen to someone completely and attentively, if you know in the end you will say no? There are two reasons. First, after you fully listen and truly understand the situation, you may discover you can say yes. Second, you want them to know you are saying no after hearing all the facts, rather than shutting them down before allowing them to explain the difficult situation they are in.
Listen attentively and with your heart. Slow yourself down and empathize. Be aware of your eye contact and body language. Sit down when you can. In some cases, the other person realizes what they are asking is unreasonable, but they want someone to see them and show them they care. The most important step of saying no is communicating to people that you care. Nothing communicates that more clearly than listening fully and listening well.
Step Two: “I really want to help you.” This is an attitude step. Try to say these words, or something similar, to the person whose request is being declined. Here is the key question for you and me: Do we really want to help them?
Sometimes patients come to me in so much pain. They ask for narcotics. Of course, there are limits to what I can prescribe in that regard. And yes, it is an epidemic, the number of people abusing narcotics. Many times doctors can’t tell if a patient is being truthful about their pain or not. Whether patients are in real pain or not, they do have a real need. And I genuinely want to help them. I love my patients. I took an oath to care for the sick, and I take it seriously. Sincerity should be our attitude regardless of our profession. We must authentically want to help people. When I have to say no, it hurts me. Saying no means I may not be able to help them.
Don’t fake this step. People can tell. If you truly want to help people, and feel saddened when you cannot, they see it. Having said that, I am also very intentional about my body language and speech when I am about to communicate the answer is no. I quickly remind myself, “Wes, you really care about this person.” And I try to genuinely tap into that emotion. I may sit down or lean forward. I become aware of my facial features to show sadness or disappointment because I cannot help them, rather than an “Oh well…sorry about that” face and body language. We must be genuine, but also intentional, with our tone and our body language.
I actually say these words to people (or something similar): “I really want to help you…” I will finish the statement below, but I want to pause here to explain the importance of this phrase. “I really want to help you” does not mean you are going to give them what they asking for. It means, you really want to help them, so you will see what else you can do for them. The reason this phrase is so important is if you say it and mean it, people will feel valued. People’s anger and disappointment is usually enlarged because they feel ignored, unheard, or uncared for. In this step, you are in essence telling them: I value you.
Step Three: “I wish I could do that, but I can’t because…” This is the step where you communicate your answer is no. I like to start by telling them, I wish I could do that for you… Of course, if they are asking you for something unreasonable, don’t say that. For example, if someone asks me as a doctor to give them a medicine to take and not wake up, I should obviously not say, “I wish I could do that for you,” because clearly I don’t. But when they ask, “Can I have antibiotics for my wife?” but I have not seen their wife, then I could legitimately answer, “I wish I could do that for you, but I can’t.” I do not say, “I don’t want to,” or “Our policy is…” If I truly can’t, then I first want to tell the customer I wish that I could, before I explain why I cannot. I do this step briefly. I prefer to spend the bulk of my time on Step Four.
Step Four: “But here is what I can do…” If you have to say no, but you do something else for the patient or customer to help partially or in a different way, they will leave better satisfied. Be flexible here. Negotiate a little. Bend a little if you can in order to go the extra mile. Try to give them other options; take them to another person who can help; make them feel valued and appreciated. Be apologetic when appropriate to let them know you really wish you could help. When I have to say no to a person, my brain goes into overdrive trying to find as many options as possible to help them. Again, they are in need, and I deeply care for them, so I must search for every way to do that.
Here are the four steps in summary and an example of the complete statement I use to say no to a patient asking me for pain medications I cannot give them. First, I listen, listen, listen. Then I say, “I truly want to help you. I can see how much pain you are in, and I really wish I could. I can’t because of how that affects our license, but here is what I can do for you: I can give you this other medication, or I can give you an injection for pain. Other options we can consider would be to send you to pain specialist or to physical therapy. Let’s try one of these options and have you come back and see me next week so I can make sure you are okay.”
Practice these steps and phrases until they become natural. Teach them to the people you lead so your organization makes a practice of excellent customer service while maintaining necessary boundaries with your valued clients and customers.
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