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Customer Service

Just Say no! Because sometimes, it’s the right thing to do…

“You can say ‘no’ to customers!”  feels like an outrageous thing to advocate, especially when your organization is known for delivering great customer service…

To be clear, what we’re talking about is not, “No, we don’t have that” or “No (I don’t really feel like helping you)” or “No (because I don’t know the answer and can’t be bothered to figure it out)” or any of the other iterations of “No” that has a subtext of “it’s too hard” or “I don’t want to.”

The “No” scenario we’re thinking of is one where we want to help the customer – because we have their best interests at heart – but at the end of the day, delivering on their request would be doing a disservice to both the customer and ourselves.


When We Say No

Here are a couple of examples of how this plays out in our business:

When a client asks us for training on a topic that we don’t typically train on.

Often, it’s a topic we’re actively working on internally, maybe even teaching within Zingerman’s, but isn’t something we’ve hashed out enough to teach externally.  While the instinct is to say “Yes!  Of course we can help,” and then scramble around to figure out how we can actually make it happen, we acknowledge that if we do this, we run the risk of delivering a less-than-stellar training, and ultimately letting our customers down.

defining_service_255UTo be clear, we don’t respond with an automatic, “Nope, sorry!”  Recently, we got a call asking for ZingTrain to facilitate a meeting for a local client.  On first glance, straight meeting facilitation isn’t something that we have expertise in, so the answer in that moment would have been “no.”  But after talking with the client, doing more discovery on what the outcomes were for the meeting, we realized that what the client was asking for was something a little different: facilitating their team completing work started in one of our seminars and based on Zingerman’s content and process.  That we can do!  

When a public training is “full.”

What a great position to be in!  That one of our two-day seminars is scheduled at the right time, and the content is what everyone seems to want – and boy, do we want to welcome everyone with open arms.  

We’ve learned over our 20+ years of leading training here at ZingTrain that there is absolutely a point of diminishing returns, however, on the overall experience when we say “yes” to everyone.  It’s hard for the trainers to engage with all of the participants, we run into space limitations, not everyone gets a chance to speak, etc.

So there are times when we need to honor our experience and expertise and say “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry – we’re at capacity for this seminar,” and see if we can find another option for that customer.

When we experience either of the scenarios above, we are often in the enviable position of working with clients with whom we have a long-term relationship, and therefore, there is a high level of trust between us, which makes the desire to please even higher – they believe we can deliver on their request, and we so want to say “yes.”  But experience has taught us that for every time we say “sure, we can do that” and it goes great, there are more instances when we just don’t deliver the quality of training we want to deliver and/or we fail to meet the client’s expectations.

How to Say No, and Set the Customer Up for Success

So now the big question is, how do you say “No” in a way that still delivers great service, and sets the customer up for success?

Operate with an open hand

The crux of this is operating from a spirit of generosity.  In the case of the first scenario, if we’re not the right people to teach on a topic – who is?  At ZingTrain, we have a list of outside experts on a variety of different topics, and we’ll gladly refer a client to one of those friends of the organization when we’re not going the be the best fit.

Some organizations shy away from that – refer your client to a competitor, are you nuts?  We believe that when we’re acting with the client’s best interest at heart, and not purely out of our own self-preservation, the end result is that those clients are more loyal to us in the long run.

Take action on the customer’s behalf

In the second scenario (we’re at capacity), one of the things that we find to be incredibly helpful is that even when you know deep down that the end answer is “No,” don’t be too hasty with that answer.  

phone-1There is a value in time delay, during which you’re taking action to help the customer.  Can you check to see if there were any cancellations? Can you add them to a waiting list?  Even knowing that they are number 11 on that list, and not likely to get in, will still leave them feeling better knowing that they’re on the list rather than you saying “No way, you’re not getting in.”

In addition, can you make a note of the circumstances to learn from when you’re not meeting your customers’ expectations?  If this event, in this month, is oversold, let’s figure out if we can improve our scheduling for future years.

Sounds great, now what?

So how do we get into that mindset?  How do we encourage the 700+ people at Zingerman’s to think beyond the immediate sale to the bigger, long-term relationship between the customer and the organization?

We teach it!


BLT_345x@2xIn the 2 ½ hour Art of Giving Great Service class that we teach internally, (required for every Zingerman’s employee as a part of their orientation), we actively teach that saying “No” is sometimes a part of the 5 Steps to Effectively Handling Customer Complaints, specifically Step 3: Take Action to Make Things Right.  

There are times when we are not going to be able to make it right by giving the customer exactly what they want, so how can we have the customer leaving the interaction feeling listened to, valued, and taken care of?

Some examples from around the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses:

  • We’re not out of stock until we’re REALLY out of stock. When the Deli is out of wild rice, and a customer is standing in front of us, shopping for all of the ingredients to make a dish that calls for wild rice, the first step an employee takes is to find out if the rice is available at one of the other Zingerman’s businesses.
  • When we (Zingerman’s) are out of the item, we can still find it!  It’s not uncommon for an employee to call around to find out where an item may be available; at a competitor here in town, or in the case of a Mail Order customer, their hometown grocery store!
  • The Bakehouse’s BAKE cooking school has a runaway hit on their hands, the Fancy Schmancy Holiday Cookie class.  The class often sells out within hours of it being listed, so the BAKE team works hard to add classes to satisfy everyone on the waitlist.   This year, they’ve scheduled a whopping 65 classes, and as of August 30, there are still 4 seats left.


Hopefully you’re feeling perhaps a bit more convinced that saying “no” to your customers sometimes is a good thing, and you’ve got some tools to take this to your own organization and put it into practice.  Ultimately, we believe that it’s excellent service to your customers and your organization to take an honest look at your organization and your expertise, and doing so will make it easier to say “yes, we can do this” or “we’re not the right fit.