When do you say “No” to a customer?

When do you say “No” to a customer? This is a question a reader of this blog asked me in an e-mail recently.

We are all familiar with the phrase “The customer is always right”, but well all know that the customer is sometimes wrong. It is likely, therefore, that at some point in your professional career you will find yourself in a situation where you need to disagree with your customer. So when do you say “No”?

I would argue it boils down to just a few key principles. You believe saying “Yes” would be:

  • Bad for your customer’s business
  • Bad for your own business
  • Unethical
  • Illegal

In the first case, as a business analyst, your job is to understand your customer’s strategic and immediate needs. It’s not good enough to know that the customer wants solution X in place by the end of quarter three. You have to understand the driving business need behind that requirement. Every demand from your customer has to be weighed against their own stated, documented, strategic, business goals. Any demands that do not support those goals are candidates for a “No”. Any demands that blatantly go against those goals should provoke a firm “No”.

Wait a second!

Surely the customer would not demand something that was not in line with their own strategic goals! Well, the fact is your customer will rarely be a single person. Your customer will be an organisation, within which there will be competing departments, led by human beings with competing ambitions and desires. The reality is that not everyone in an organisation pulls in the same direction. Unfortunately, saying “No” in these circumstances might mean you are thwarting someone’s personal ambitions, even though you are acting to protect and support the organisation’s strategy. Tread carefully.

But even all your customers were pulling in the same direction, customers are not always immediately aware of the repercussions of their demands. This is particularly the case in organisations where departments act  as “silos”. One department might want to implement some tactical goals, without realising that they are confounding the strategic goals of another department. It might simply be that one worker in a department does not want a certain task to be part of their role in the “To Be” business model, even though it is in the interests of the department. Doing your stakeholder analysis will help mitigate these issues.

Having decided to say “No”, the next step would be to gather evidence and prepare a justification. The customer is entitled to know why you think their request is bad for their business. In some scenarios, I would almost prepare a business case for saying “No”. I would also seek the support of my peers and my manager. If you are thwarting an individual’s personal ambitions, then the response is likely to be challenging, so you should be prepared for the response to be emotional.

If your customer’s request is bad for your business, saying “No” is almost a no-brainer. Even so, your customer is entitled to a structured explanation. This is not just a question of courtesy; you may have to cease doing business with your customer for the moment, but who knows what mutually beneficial business opportunities may arise in the future? Parting should be amicable and professional.

There may be cases where your customer asks you to do something unethical or illegal. This is also a no-brainer, assuming you know the law. Chances are that saying “No” to such requests are likely to end your relationship with that customer, so you may be tempted to say “Yes”. If you are tempted to say “Yes”, remember Enron and then make your choice.

To re-cap, in order to say “No” to your customer you need to know the following:

  • your customer’s strategic goals
  • your own company’s strategic goals
  • the law

You also need:

  • a structured justification (whether written or oral)
  • to be right
  • to have a backbone

Good luck!

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4 comments to When do you say “No” to a customer?

  • Visitor

    Thank you for very clearly setting out the scope of your responsibilities regarding customer relations. As a reader not in your line of work – but interested – I had no idea that you might often have to juggle the reactions of so many people, all within the definition ‘customer’.

    I had the impression that you were engaged by one person, generally a manager, to do work for the company, and that you would liaise solely with that manager. I stand (sit?) corrected! Your description of your “customer” sounds positively labyrinthine!

    Excellent summary at the end. :)

  • At the moment I answer to a single person within my customer’s organisation. He is my customer in most cases, but I can never lose sight of the fact that in reality, the company he works for is my customer and there can be many interested parties (see my posts on “stakeholders”) within that company.

    Off the top of my head, in addition to my individual customer, I can think of at least 15 stakeholders who are part of the wider “customer”, not all of whom will have the same level of interest or influence on my project.

  • Thanks for the post, Declan! There is another approach for this topic and it is related to what should be done from the Project Management side when the customers are continuosly asking (or even demanding) more work from their provider (us) than what is in the scope of the signed contract that rules a project.

    From a strategic point of view, you don’t always want to be saying NO, even if you have a contract that backs you up. For instance, because there could eventually be cases where you cannot meet strictly some contractual requirements and it is needed to negotiate about those. Also, because you would like to overdeliver as long as you can control the cost and the effort in the project. On the other hand, assuming extra work out of the scope of the project team in a demanding environment can frustrate team members….

    By the way, recaps are great!

  • You are quite right, JF. Even if the contract is on your side, saying “Yes” might actually be good for your business and saying “No” might be bad.

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