Brilliant Time Management Practice: Just Say No


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The natural tendency of anyone brought up in the services industry is to say yes. Yes, to helping a customer out with something “just a little” beyond scope. Yes, to meeting marketing’s seemingly endless requests for reference account examples. And yes, to bailing a salesperson out who promised a ridiculous date on a customer go-live. In fact, yes is often the first word that comes out of a service professional’s mouth.

In many situations, this is the right thing to do—suck it up for the good of the customer, your colleagues, and the company. A little extra effort on your part can do a lot of good. It is worth it.

Yet, there are some very negative aspects of saying yes too often. Based upon your agreeable past behavior, you set an unrealistic expectation with the people you deal with, as they assume you will always say yes to any requests. So when the customer or the salesperson or the marketer comes to you with a truly outrageous request and you refuse, he looks at you with disbelief and mutters phrases such as, “I wonder what has gotten into him!” Or, “She must be having a really bad day.”

In addition, you are spending time on things that might have been much better spent elsewhere.

Furthermore (and of course it was not your intent), when you say yes a vast majority of the time, you establish a perception that you are a pushover. This will never be stated, but most cultures (especially Western ones) don’t respect people who “don’t stand up for themselves” or who “lack backbone.” So your attempts at being a good team player backfire, and you are seen as being weak.

So what is the answer? If you’ve fallen into the “pattern of yes” described above, you can’t just start saying no anytime you feel it’s justified, or you’ll get the reaction described earlier—it is too abrupt a change. You have to earn the right to say no.

You accomplish this by making a “just say no” personal strategy. Do your homework up front by defining appropriate boundaries of what you will do and what you will not do to make your customers, sales, and your services organization successful while supporting the overall business. Involve your management in the process to gain agreement on how to handle all of the special requests that you know from experience will occur, and get their commitment on how they will be handled. By involving others, and by having fair plans on what is acceptable and what is not, not only can you “do the right thing” for the business, but you can build and maintain your own personal credibility. The Brilliant Practice for saying no is this: Say yes when it counts, but just say no when it doesn’t. Here is my suggested strategy.

Saying-No Scenarios

Illegal, Immoral, or Impossible

If you are certain the customer request is illegal, immoral, or impossible, you should say no at the time the request is made. To put off saying no immediately just wastes everyone’s time. The five steps to saying no are as follows:

  1. Acknowledge the customer’s concern.
  2. Provide an explanation.
  3. Present alternatives.
  4. Get the customer to buy in.
  5. Thank the customer.


The customer is not always right. If the customer requests something inappropriate (not in his best interest) and you know you will be supported by your management, say no at the time the request is made.

FLASH POINT: The customer is always right—baloney!

Out of Scope

If the customer requests something out of scope, and you have a scope-change plan in place, explain the impact of the change on the engagement, and then ask the customer to authorize the request.

If the customer has no scope-change plan in place or refuses to pay for the change in scope, say no at the time of the request if you are sure your management will support you. If the out-of-scope request is small, easy, and doesn’t take much effort, it might take less time and less hassle than arguing with the customer. This may make the customer feel that “he owes you one” sometime in the future. Just like Marlon Brando used to say in the Godfather after doing a favor, “Someday you may be able to repay me with a small kindness.” Or, maybe this customer has gotten the wrong end of the bull from your company. Use your discretion; just remember the possible drawbacks I mentioned earlier.

Management Support

I am sure you noticed that I recommend saying no for inappropriate and out-of-scope situations only if you know you’ll have management support. If you know you’ll have that support, then say no, ending this decision where it should be ended—with you. Sadly, however, I have often observed that if an important customer calls a senior manager in a company, often that manager will cave on the spot and give in to the customer, and your reputation has been significantly damaged. The customer now has your manager on speed dial and will call him at the least pushback you give to any request. You are out of the loop.

Brilliant Practice: If you have any doubts about management supporting you in telling the customer no, don’t make the decision—tell the customer that you will pass it up to management to handle the situation as they see fit.

Here is a Shining Example that addresses how to handle an inappropriate situation using these steps:

Irritated Customer: “I keep telling you, I don’t have the budget to buy the Maximo Converter!”

Brilliant Service Professional:

  • Acknowledge the customer’s concern—remain calm, pause before responding, demonstrate empathy: “Suzanne, I get it. I understand budgets and having to live within them.”
  • Provide an explanation: “However, I refuse to support a buying decision that isn’t going to give you what you need. The Minimo Converter cannot deliver the precision required for your application. If you buy it, you will get nothing but rejects, hassle, and high blood pressure. I am pretty darn good, but I can’t make chicken soup out of chicken feathers.”
  • Present alternatives: “Maybe you would be best off waiting for your next budget cycle and trying to get additional funds. Another consideration, though you’d have to talk to our salespeople, could be a lease program. Can you think of any other options?”

Customer: “What about a retrofit of our current equipment? I surely have budget for that.”

Brilliant Service Professional: “Good idea; that might work.”

  • Get the customer to buy in: “I will put a team together to explore your suggestion and get back to you within a couple of days. OK?”
  • Thank the customer: “Thank you.”

Here is a Shining Example that addresses how to handle an out-of-scope situation:

Smiling Customer: “Sammy, I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’m going to tell that to your boss when I seem him next month at the Premier Customer Council. Oh, by the way, I’d really appreciate it if you would customize six more screens for me. I don’t have any additional budget, but you are so fast, you could do it in no time.”

Brilliant Service Professional:

  • Acknowledge the customer’s concern—remain calm, pause before responding, demonstrate empathy: “Bill, I appreciate your comment, thank you. You know I enjoy working with you, and I appreciate the challenges of staying within budgets.”
  • Provide an explanation: “However, I have to say no to your request. Tailoring those six screens would take at least six days of my time. It is not fair to my company to pass up the opportunity for billable hours helping other customers.”
  • Present alternatives: “Possibly, those six screens can wait a few months until you get new funding? How about getting your marketing group to pay for it?”

Customer: “Yeah, I can probably come up with the money somewhere.”

  • Get the customer to buy in: “Great! Let me know when that happens, and we will get things scheduled.”
  • Thank the customer: “Thanks for understanding.”

Here’s a Shining Example that responds to your boss’s inappropriate request:

Your Boss: “Sammy, I need you to take the lead with Complexo right away. I need someone of your caliber to keep things from totally crashing.”

Brilliant Service Professional:

  • Acknowledge the customer’s (your boss’s) concern—remain calm, pause before responding, demonstrate empathy: “Boss, I appreciate your confidence in me. I know how important Complexo is to the company.”
  • Provide an explanation: “However, I need your help. You know I don’t mind working hard, but right now I am totally slammed. There are not enough hours in the day for me to take on Complexo, plus adequately deal with Orthogal. You know how temperamental they are.”

Your Boss: “Yes, you are right.”

  • Present alternatives: “Could you bring Franny back from Hong Kong to handle Complexo? Or how about you taking care of Orthogal for a few months?”
  • Get your boss to buy in: “I want you to take Complexo. I’ll find someone else to take on Orthogal by Friday.”
  • Thank your boss: “Thanks, Boss.”

Savvy readers will quickly see that in this scenario, the Saying No model is a negotiation tool, and is very powerful in dealing with demanding bosses!

I have yet to meet a top-notch service professional that has too much time on his hands! Say yes when it counts, but just say no when it doesn’t, and you will free up valuable time.

This article was adapted from The Brilliant Service Professional: Building Trust, Creating Value, Having Fun, by James “Alex” Alexander.

James Alexander, EdD
James "Alex" Alexander has a doctorate in Human Resource Development, and after a dozen years in corporate life has spent more than two decades helping product companies build brilliant services businesses. Alex researches, publishes, advises, trains, and speaks on transforming good services organizations into high-performance services machines that create loyal customers, drive sales of services and products, and dominate the competition. He has written five research studies, four books, and over 150 articles, and has spoken, consulted, and trained in 25 countries.


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