How We Keep Customers Happy By Telling Them “No”

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Almost every truly bad sales experience I’ve ever had has involved some form of fake vetting. Walk into the local megabank and sit down with an “advisor” if you want to recreate one of these in your own time. In short, the conversation looks like this.

Bank Guy: “So I see you want a new bank account.”

Hapless Sucker: “No one wants a new bank account, but I can’t keep all this sweet cash under my pillow any longer.”

BG: “Great. So do you have a car/dog/precious art collection/need for bonus insurance/longing for more monthly bills?”

HS: “No? Does anyone?”

BG: “Great. You’ll probably want to open the Plold account. It’s our new mix of platinum and gold.”

HS: “I hope a squirrel bites you in the parking lot.”


All of the theoretically probing questions end up being oddly worded statements. The salesman is just shouting into the dark, with no accounting for the answer you give them. You’re having the same “conversation” that a six-year-old would have with this guy.

It’s a poor experience because it’s indicative of a sales process that doesn’t care about you and a company that is interested, not in solving problems, but in sucking as much cash out of your wallet as possible in the short time.

Listening and giving real options

In a paper out of the University of Alabama, researchers looked at how much affect sales people have on building trust and how much trust affects purchasing decisions. That paper defines “trust” as having two components – security and cognition.

Security is fairly basic. Can I feel secure in the decisions and recommendations that a person makes? This can be built by being generally nice, coming in as a recommendation from another trusted source, or though other actions that make you feel good about the process. Security is largely emotional.

Cognition is less so and is the place where a good salesperson really shines. Cognition is the sense of intelligence and ability that a salesperson puts across. Sometimes, you really like that guy selling you the new car, but it’s clear they’ve never looked under a car’s hood.

Pleasant people can be horrible at sales. Another paper out of Baylor puts cognition in terms of “consultative behavior.” “The key aspect of consultative selling is the ability of the salesperson to analyze, solve, and present viable solutions to customer problems.”

The best sales people have the skills required to understand their clients and make tailored recommendations. In our bank example, you might have a lovely person sitting across from you, but it’s obvious that they don’t care about solving the problem you’re presenting them with.

The value of a “No”

So if we’re making tailored solutions for our clients, we’re really in the business of saying “No,” in a general sense. A client is presented with 100 options, we’re telling them that 99 are not for them, and that the remaining option is the winner.

This is how saying “No” works in a broad sense. It builds trust by demonstrating that a salesperson is listening and comprehending all of the issues being presented. It shows that your expertise can narrow down a large range of solutions to just one winner.

As a result of saying “No,” you’ll find that the best salespeople don’t always jump to the most expensive solution – they jump to the right solution.

What if none of the solutions are right?

This is where we drill down to a real, honest “No.” This isn’t winnowing down options or presenting the best of a large set, this is saying, “You’re not a great fit for any of the things we sell.” Let me pause and talk briefly about our business here at Capterra.

We work with vendors to promote their software products. This is a massive operation, but there are two key aspects. First, we provide them with a forum to collect honest and vetted customer reviews. That helps them establish trust and it means that buyers get a chance to see the good right alongside the bad.

Second, we give them the chance to promote themselves within the directories they inhabit. Just like with a Google AdWords campaign, vendors can pay to be featured in a directory. That’s the business, right there. We try to build the best relationships possible with software vendors, while keeping the information presented to buyers honest.

Sometimes, this means that we don’t work with vendors. We tell them “No” because it’s the right thing for our collective businesses. The twist is that, more often than not, this is actually the beginning of an incredibly strong relationship with those vendors.

By saying, “I’m sorry but your product is poorly presented or misleadingly marketed or not scalable, we give vendors honest feedback on their bread and butter.

Imagine a banker telling you that you’re not right for the bank. Not because there’s something inherently wrong with you, but because the bank is designed for customers with $X in savings and $Y in an investment account.

If you don’t have those assets, you’re not going to get anything out of the relationship. But when you look down in two years and notice that you’ve crossed the threshold, who do you think is getting the first call? Mr. Plold Account or the lady who said, “Sorry, but I don’t think we’re a good fit for your financial situation.”

It has to be an honest “No”

As with all sale data or techniques, this is not about ticking a set of random boxes to get to “Yes.” You’re not out nagging your customers to try and steal their wallets. Saying “No” has to come from a real recognition that the relationship with that customer isn’t going to benefit both parties.

Note that I didn’t say, “one of the parties” – I said both. Relationships and long-term trust are built on two-sided conversations and growth. If you’re only saying “No” when the customer isn’t going to turn into a cash cow for your business, you’re doing it wrong.

We tell people to call Capterra back when they’ve fixed a landing page or reworked their marketing materials, for instance. Those are common flaws, and present situations where we could easily sign the customer up, take $300 from them in a month and then they’d cancel.

They’d cancel because their landing page isn’t converting leads or their terminology isn’t buyer-specific. We don’t want to take your $300. We want the customers – and there are more of them than I ever imagined – who call us up in five months and want to double their spend because they’ve seen their $150 turn into ten high-quality sales.

Saying “No” to a bad relationship gives you the opportunity to help customers and to grow your own business.

Final thoughts

If you didn’t buy any of that, let’s think about it in one more, slightly selfish, way. Look at your customer portfolio right now. You’ve got 30 clients that you haven’t talked to in years, that you spent hundreds of dollars recruiting, and that probably don’t even know who you are anymore.

You would have been better off just telling them it was a bad fit on day one. What if you could build a business with a tenth of the bad customers you had now? A business that didn’t take on the no-shows or the poor performers or the customers that clearly should be with your competition.

Telling a few people “No” when it really matters can cut costs, increase overall portfolio performance, and build a less stressful environment for your salespeople. There is no reason not to be picky about the clients you take on.

Try it tomorrow. Tell someone that’s clearly a bad fit that they’re a bad fit. Come back later, we’d love to work with you once you’ve figured out what you really need.

Is “No” a common word in your sales vocabulary? Drop a line in the comments and let me know how it’s worked out for your sales team.  

Looking for software? Check out Capterra's list of the best software solutions.

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About the Author


Andrew Marder

Andrew Marder is a former Capterra analyst.



I always feel so bad for saying no! Thanks for the tips!

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