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How to Say “No” to Your Customers (And Why You Should)

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It can be hard to say no to your customers. But it doesn’t need to be. Here’s how.

Note from Len: this is a guest post from Nils Vinje, partner at Glide Consulting, a SaaS customer success consulting company whose customers include Oracle, Intuit, Customer.io, ToutApp and more. Nils has a tremendous amount of experience in customer success at fast-growth businesses, and I love the insights he shares in today’s post.

Enjoy!

If you work in customer support or Customer Success, you are built to serve. Your default response to a request for your time and expertise will probably start with “Yes! And…”

For example, a customer asks if you can send over information on a new feature you’re rolling out? You say, “Yes, and do you want to hop on a call and talk about it?” They ask you to weigh in on a new vertical they’re exploring and you say, “Yes, and here’s the latest data on the vertical!”

It’s hard to say no, but it doesn’t need to be.

Saying “yes, and” all the time means you wind up doing work that’s just not in your job description, because customers rely on you for every little thing. Glide interviewed hundreds of Customer Success Managers about their #1 frustration, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of them said customers always ask them to do their work for them.

This happens because CSMs are afraid to say no.

You think saying no will offend the customer and potentially destroy the relationship you’ve built. But reality doesn’t reflect your imagination. In fact, saying “no” can be the best choice for you and your customer—especially when you know exactly how to do it.

How to Stop Worrying and Love the No

A customer calls you in a panic asking you to clean up their CSV file for them. They need it by 2 PM, but it’s already noon and you have a call at 1 PM that you really need to prep for.

On the other hand, you’ve artificially created a 2 hour service level agreement because you’re incredibly responsive. You could be in for a world of hurt if you don’t drop everything and fix their file immediately. It’s a sticky situation.

Here’s the thing: If you say “yes and,” you’re setting yourself up to be their go-to problem solver for every single tiny issue they face. In order to protect your time and help your customers succeed, you need to say no, but still offer them some help and guidance. We’ve found that there are a number of ways CSMs can gradually transition from saying “yes and” to “no, but.” Here are some helpful scripts to get you started.

1) Meet them halfway

Customer: Can you fix my CSV file?

Your response: Can you tell me a little more about what’s going on? What have you already done to try fixing the problem, and where exactly are you running into the error?

In this scenario, you get to play investigator and draw out more detail about the problem your customer is facing. Yes, it takes a bit more of your time, but you will meet the customer exactly where they need you. It can be frustrating, from a customer’s perspective, to be told to go to self-serve support if they can’t even figure out what the problem is. Are they asking for help with a CSV file, or is it a bigger issue?

Taking the time to understand what’s going on will give you the information you need to point them in the right direction. If you listen to them, you can show them how to go about fixing it—whether that means passing them off to a different department, or walking them through the process yourself—and meeting them halfway.

Assess the urgency of the situation

Of course, when a customer calls you in a moment of panic, it can be really hard to tell them to go back and do more work. That’s why it’s important to assess the urgency of the situation at hand. They’re probably calling you because they’re in a pinch. They need this file cleaned up—and they need it fast.

Make it clear that you’re happy to help, but in the future, this is something that should be handed off, or taken care of by the client. Offer to schedule a call with someone from your support team, or give them the details they’ll need in the future to do it themselves. If you fix the problem for them, emphasize that it’s a one-time deal.

2) Direct the customer to support

Customer: Can you fix my CSV file?

Your response: Our support team will be happy to help you with that! I’ve replied all to this email, including our friendly support team on the thread — that way I can make sure they have all the information they need about your account.

It can be really annoying to field calls from customers when they should really be going to support. But let’s think about it from the customer’s perspective for a moment. If they have a choice between calling a 1-800 number or your direct line, why would they ever call support? You’ve given them a direct line. If you don’t tell them exactly when and how they should use it, they will use it for everything.

Teach the customer when to call you and when to call support. Explain that the support team are the technical experts, so they can get to the solution a lot faster than you can. They can also explain what went wrong, so the same problem can be avoided in the future.

Confirm that you’ll keep an eye on the problem

Remember, sharing the work isn’t passing the buck, but only if you’re sure the customer is in better hands with support than they are with you.

Maintain your presence throughout the process, so that the customer doesn’t feel abandoned. Confirm that you’ll watch the support ticket and make sure it gets done. Tell the customer that even though you’re not delivering the solution, you’re with them every step of the way.

It makes the process feel personal even though they’re not dealing directly with you.

3) Direct the customer to self-serve support

Customer: Can you fix my CSV file?

Your response: This is an easy fix. Please take a look at this document I’ve created for you, and you can follow the steps to get it resolved.

Self-serve support can be really hard to get customers to use—but if you compile good resources, they’ll be willing (and eager) to engage. People actually like using self-serve support, especially if the resources are tailored to them.

As much as we hate to admit it, the customer doesn’t really want to pick up a phone and call you—they want a fast solution. But in order to achieve this, they need to know that the resources are there. If their problems aren’t answered in self-serve support, use this as an opportunity to develop better ones.

Tailor the self-serve support experience

The problem with self-serve support is that it can make customers feel unimportant. Not only are you not sending them to a human, you’re just sending them to a website. Without the proper framing, or developed self-serve support resources, it can feel as rude as saying “Let me Google that for you.

That’s why self-serve support still needs to feel specific to the client. Are the resources tailored for each vertical? Are they searchable? It’s also important for you to know the support materials inside and out. If you can point them to the specific paragraph—or even sentence—that addresses their needs, you’ll demonstrate your knowledge and teach the customer how to find the information they need the next time they look for it.

Which “No” Works Best? Try This Exercise.

So what kind of “no” do you send your customer? Like anything customer related, it’s kind of a gray area.

Here’s a useful exercise: imagine that you’re the customer. You sent out an email to your CSM asking them to fix your CSV file. Now flip the script. How would you feel receiving one of these responses? Your CSM says “No, but I’ve looped in support,” or “No, but here is a help article that will get your problem solved, quick smart!”

Copy the text from the email and send it to yourself. Imagine how you, the customer, would feel opening your response. If you’re a new customer, and it’s your first month using the product, you might look for extra handholding. Your “no, but” might need to involve meeting them halfway, rather than simply rejecting their request.

If they’re an older client, they might be okay receiving a harder “no.” In fact, they might welcome it, especially if the information you’ve provided helps them prevent this problem from happening in the future.

Sending a hypothetical email is a great way to get in the customer’s head. You’ll get a better sense of what the reality of the situation looks like, from their perspective, rather than playing your nightmare situation on repeat in your head.

Bottom Line: Embrace the No to Help Your Customer

The CSM’s role is like a vacuum. If your customer doesn’t understand exactly what you’re there for, they’ll try to fill your role with everything. Every problem that comes up, every concern they have, whether it’s your job or not, will come to you.

It’s up to you to define your role to customers. Receiving a request to do the customer’s work is actually an opportunity to teach them how to use your services. It gives you the chance to define expectations. Saying “no” is one way you can define your role.

In the end, it’s about coaching your client—and constantly reinforcing—how you can best help them. It’s your job to delineate what CSMs do, what customer support does, and what the customer does. If you do this right, customers will learn what you actually can help them with. You’ll spend less time firefighting and more time helping customers succeed.

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About the Author

During his time at hyper-growth SaaS startups, Nils Vinje worked in every Customer Success role. From CSM to VP, he quickly established a track record of orchestrating record-breaking renewals and up-sells by aligning Sales and Customer Success. Nils now runs Glide Consulting, and works with fast-growing SaaS businesses to help them build high performing CS teams.

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