Early in my career I worked in the customer support department of an internet service provider. I supervised a team of young tech assistants who helped customers with everything to do with their internet connection. If a customer demanded that their call be escalated, it would be transferred to me.
The person on the other end of the phone was frustrated, often angry, and they wanted their problem fixed now. They didn’t want to hear that I might not be able to give them what they wanted.
At first, taking the “grumpy customer” calls was nerve-wracking but over time I discovered it was a perfect opportunity to give great service. I’ve taken what I learnt there into many other roles and situations where I need to say “no”.
Sometimes on those customer calls I was lucky and a quick fix resolved everything but mostly it wasn’t that easy. The issues that really frustrate people are a result of complexity, ambiguity, and miscommunication, and often don’t have easy solutions. Those kinds of problems need to be investigated, and resolving it might take time. Sometimes what customers want isn’t in our control and sometimes it isn’t possible at all.
Even when I couldn’t give those customers what they wanted, I managed to help them feel better. How?
- The first thing was I cared about them. I treated them with respect and empathy. We all know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of bad service … we just want someone to make things right.
- But I also discovered a technique that worked really well – I never said “no” or “we can’t do that” or “that’s not possible” without also saying what I could do.
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. But what I can do is …”.
Being specific about what you can do helps when dealing with unhappy customers but is also useful in other situations, such as when you might need to disappoint someone at work. Maybe your workmate is asking for something that’s not possible, or your manager wants an answer you can’t give.
Here are a few examples of things you could say after “no …”.
– What I can do is set aside some time with you to talk through our options.
– What I can do is get the details for a proper investigation before I get back to you.
– What I can do is sit with you while you complete that task so I can help if you need it.
– What I can do is put you in touch with someone who will have the information you need.
– What I can do is make sure the Product team get your feedback.
We all have times when we don’t have the answers that people want, or we can’t do what they expect. By saying what you can do they’ll know that your intent is to help and they’ll be clear about next steps. Of course there are times that what you can do will seem insignificant, but offering even something small is going to be received better than just a “no”.
It works the other way around also – if someone is only telling you what isn’t possible then ask what can be done. Help them to focus on what is possible.
Try it the next time you need to say no … say what you can do, and notice how this changes the rest of the conversation.