Did he just say “No” to a customer?

Why Business owners need to learn to say “No” to customers.

After countless exhortations from marketers telling us that the customer is king, how can I say we need to say “No”? We’ve all been taught the damage a customer can do in terms of bad press (isn’t it something like an unhappy customer tells 9 or more other people?) and so we need to avoid this at all costs, right?  In service industries especially, we get told that we need to always ensure the customer is happy, never to argue, that the customer is always right.  

Well, I say “No”.  

I say business owners need to learn to say “No” to customers for their own good.  Why?

My first explanation is that we need to say “No” to the wrong customers.  The wrong customers are far more likely to request things that we don’t really do well, or efficiently.  The wrong customer is a fine dining, luxury customer who comes into your convenient economy take-away and expects crystal glasses and proper cutlery and wants almond milk in their coffee.  The wrong customer walks into a luxury car dealership and complains about the fuel economy of a multi-million rand sports car (for cost, not environmental reasons).  

Wrong customers try and force-fit you into offering what they are looking for, instead of looking for the right business offering for themselves.  

The best you can do here is politely refuse and point them in the direction of what they are really looking for. 

You will never entirely satisfy the wrong customer without substantially changing your business offering.  The fine diner will never be happy with your convenient economy take-away, however much you try to dress it up for them, they are really expecting something more upmarket.  The economy car person will never see the value in a vehicle they need to pay a huge premium for with additional premium upkeep costs, no matter how you try to discount it for them.  Trying to meet the wrong customer’s needs will cost you massively in physical time and effort. There are more hidden costs too…

When a wealthy exclusive type (a right customer) notices you giving discounts to wrong customers, 2 things happen.  Firstly, the tactics you are applying to the wrong customers don’t appeal to them, they don’t expect or “need” those from you.  They see these as irrelevant.  Secondly they don’t feel like they are your “right” customer anymore.  Someone patently unlike them is getting your attention and focus, so they had better move on. So by trying (in vain) to satisfy wrong customers, you can lose the right customers too!

But those wrong customers complain?  (and they do!), so what do I do?

Wrong customers will tend to complain about the exact things that make you special to your right customers.  A wrong customer will complain about the lack of service precisely when the right customers enjoy not being hassled by sales people. Your right customers love seeing the complaints of wrong customers because it reinforces why they like your offering.  A wealthy elitist loves seeing people complaining about their choice being too expensive. It makes them feel more wealthy and elite!  Be polite and reinforce why you can’t accommodate the wrong customer and provide them with an alternative that will.  This will mollify the wrong customer somewhat, but more importantly it will reinforce to the right customer why they chose you.

The best way to avoid wrong customers is to lay out expectations up front, through your marketing messaging.  If you are cheap, tell people all about how cheap you are and show how you go to cost cutting efforts to make your offer so cheap.  If you are premium, don’t be afraid to class yourself with premium lifestyle cues.  By being clear on who your right customers are, you will already deter most of the wrong customers.  Of course, you need to clearly define who your right customers are first.  

This is trickier than it sounds.  You need to be able to profile your right customers, by their behaviour, age, gender, dress and more.  The more detail you can get into about your right customer the better, as it will help you (and your staff) to identify them when they come along.  But, never assume that someone is not your right customer if they don’t quite fall into your profile – you could always be wrong in your classification.  Rather assume a customer is the right type and develop tools to try and further determine this, until you can be sure.  However, as soon as you know someone is not your right customer, don’t hesitate to make it clear your offering isn’t ideal for them and point them towards something that is. If you don’t give them a better alternative, they may continue to force-fit you into what they want.

In conclusion, my point is not to fly in the face of the concept that “the customer is king”, but to modify it to “the right customer is king”.  When the right customer does come along, you still need to ensure they leave feeling satisfied and happy.  Do all you can to ensure they feel you are meeting their expectations.  Anticipate their needs and requirements.  When you make one “right” customer happy, you are in fact working to make all of your other right customers happier too.  You will attract more “right” customers and deter more “wrong” customers.

“It’s only by saying NO that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.”  Steve Jobs