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Have to Say “NO” to a customer? Try these tips

The main reason why “Customer Satisfaction” in public organizations is so difficult is because we have to sometimes say “no.” That is why I would argue that customer satisfaction is not the goal at all, and that good customer service doesn’t always result in a customer getting what they want.

Our goal has to be to protect the public safety, environment, children, etc., while providing the highest quality service to steward our customers through processes to achieve an acceptable outcome. People will never be happy paying the fees associated with their building permits for example, but they could walk away feeling that staff were professional, knowledgeable, accurate and caring during the interaction.

So how does one say No? First – listen to what the customer is really asking for. Our customers do not know our processes or our internal jargon. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an employee say, “Our customers really need to be educated. Why don’t they just know what they want?”

It’s not our customers’ job to know our processes, it’s our job. If your job is to be asked the same question 100 times a day, then guess what? Your job is to answer the same question 100 times a day, with the same great service the 100th time as the 1st time. You may be asked the same question over and over, but it’s probably by different people. When you are a customer and ask a question, what would you think if the person acted put-out to help you?

The second thing is to rack your brain for acceptable alternates. If you listened and truly understand the end game for the customer, there may be other ways to get there.

No one wants to be told what to do. When government says “you must do X” it’s like someone pointing there finger at you and telling you to do something. You wouldn’t like that, and neither do our customers. So if they can’t do what they originally asked for, look for another option.

Here’s an example. A couple wants to build a granny flat on their property for one of the moms to move in. There property isn’t zoned for that. So the answer is obviously no.

Wrong way to say no.

“Well your property is not zoned for that. You can’t build a second dwelling.”

“But our neighbors have one right next door!”

“I didn’t write the law.”

“Unbelievable. Damn bureaucrat. I’ll just build it anyway.”

The right way to say no.

“Well your property is not zoned for a second dwelling, but I think I have an alternative.”

“But our neighbors have one right next door!”

“It’s possible that two properties next to each other could be zoned differently. But I do understand your goal to have a separate place for your mom to live. Let’s talk about an alternative – OK?”

“Sure, whatever”

“Great – well you could build an accessory dwelling.”

“A what?”

“An accessory dwelling. It’s basically an apartment that is attached to your house by one wall. It could still have a separate entrance, kitchen and bath. Does that sound like it might work?”

“Yes, that would work. But that’s not what we wanted.”

“I understand it’s not what your family would prefer. It is a great way though to provide privacy for everyone, and actually add value to your house if you ever decide to sell the property. If there is a second dwelling that’s not permitted, that will give you trouble down the road with property value and sales. I don’t want to see that happen to you – especially after going through the time and effort to build something.”

“That makes sense. Thank you. How do we get started?”

In this scenario, the service provider remained calm; kept a professional tone of voice.; wasn’t patronizing or too personal; and kept to the facts of the situation.

I highly suggest you sit with your team and brainstorm your “NO” scenarios. Then write some draft scripts for training purposes so that the team has the opportunity to provide great service the first time to every person every day.

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Katie P.

We are working on this same problem right now. Part of our solution is to try to prevent the customer from getting to that “same question 100 times” in the first place, by putting easy-to-understand material on our website (and possibly also in printed materials). I agree, right now there is too much jargon, especially when it comes to building codes and zoning!

Richard Wong

We try to circulate successful answers and responses within our customer response team. That way everyone can see model responses and it prevents forum shopping by callers hoping to find “the weakest link.”