How to Say “NO” Without Losing Your Customer’s Trust

By Joanna Holt, St. Louis Better Business Bureau

“The more things I said yes to, the more I had on my plate. I was busy, very busy in fact, but it was not the right kind of busy. I was stretching myself thin making promises all over the board. I would cave to customer requests and soon I found myself falling short on a lot of my promises.”

Why is it so hard to say no? Many businesses believe excellent customer service equates to bending over backwards in order to appease every customer demand. What they don’t realize is they’re actually damaging customer relationships by saying yes to things that are not in their customer’s best interest. A business with integrity is “willing to take a stand, even if it’s unpopular with the client or the company. You don’t need to be adversarial, but have the ability to make decisions based upon what you know is right.”

When trying to build relationships based on trust, knowing when and how to say “no” is a necessary skill every business should have in order to keep its standards high and deliver quality products and services its customers can depend on. A recent article from Inc. suggests several reasons when “no is the only way to go.”

  1. Say no when your team isn’t prepared.
  2. Say no when it’s not a good fit for your business or your customer.
  3. Say no when you’re overloaded.
  4. Say no when the request is unrealistic.
  5. Say no when you can’t meet expectations.
  6. Say no when it doesn’t align with your vision.

So once you’ve determined your non-negotiable “no’s,” it’s important to know how to say them without losing your customer’s trust. Here are a few ways to deliver a high quality “no” that gives you a better chance in keeping your customer relationship intact.

Don’t make them wait for a response.

The problem will not go away if you ignore it. You’ll just be adding fuel to the fire, and your customer will feel disrespected and unvalued. Instead, show your customer how much you care by responding quickly, so he will have plenty of time to look for another solution. Hopefully, he will work with you on finding other options, but if he ends up going to someone else, don’t worry. You have no control over that. What you do have control over is having the integrity to be honest and straightforward, especially when it means delivering bad news.

If you don’t have a solid answer to give him right away, respond anyway. Let him know where you are and that you’re proactively working on it.

Example Response: “Thank you for contacting me personally. I understand that you want this job done by the end of this week. However, we don’t have the manpower to complete it in that timeframe. Would you like to discuss some other options?” 


“I’m sorry. I don’t have an answer for you yet. I don’t want to leave you hanging, so this is a heads up to say I will get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks for you patience.”

Treat each “no” as the first one of the day.

Give each customer your undivided attention. You may have already turned down 20 other requests today, but every customer should get the same level of attention and focus as the first one. She should feel like her issue is the most important one at that moment and that it isn’t a burden to you.

Treat her like a valued partner. “Make sure it’s clear that you want your customers’ feedback and that your business truly values them as a partner.”

Example Response: “Your input matters to me. I’m sure we can come up with a solution for you. Do you have some time right now, or later on, to talk more about this? I want to make sure I understand exactly what you need.”


Don’t be so quick to say “no.” It sounds dismissive and unfeeling. Listen to what your customer is saying. You might learn something you didn’t know before and be able to offer another option that works better for both of you. What he thinks he needs may not always be the answer.

“When someone takes time out of their day to contact you, pay attention. Their thoughts could shed light on what other customers might be struggling with” (Help Scout).

Example Response: Offer a sincere thank you. “Thank you for trusting us with your business. We will do everything we can to help you find another solution.” 

Offer an alternative. 

Focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t do. Offering other choices will help your customer feel empowered instead of discouraged. “Good customer service relies on solving problems, even if the solution is not what the customer has offered.”

A “no” also doesn’t have to be a definitive “no.” Maybe, it’s a “no, not right now” or “not today, but tomorrow.” See if there is some wiggle room for a specific timeline or feature he is looking for. Most people will be flexible, especially if you’re suggesting a better alternative.

Just remember that your customer chose your business for a reason. You are the expert, and he doesn’t always know what’s best. He might be looking for a quick fix to a problem without knowing there are other options that deliver better results.

“When it comes to a product’s vision, many will tell you: customers are often poor judges of their own needs. You’ll find yourself having to say “no” most of the time, and it’s for a good reason.”

Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Obviously, faster horses wasn’t a good solution to the problem, the need for faster transportation. But, at the time, it was the best idea people could come up with. Luckily, they had great minds like Ford who saw what most couldn’t see. He provided a solution that far exceeded anything anyone ever expected or imagined. Faster horses, they thought? What a ridiculous idea!

Example Response: You can say, “I wish we were able to do that. Here’s what I can do instead.” 

Refer them to another business. 

If your customer is reluctant to accept your alternatives, you can refer her to one of your competitors. It may be risky, but it’s the right thing to do and it shows you have integrity. If you truly care about your customer, you won’t leave her empty handed. You will do whatever it takes to make sure she gets what she needs and leaves your business on good terms.

Once you’ve given the referral, make sure to follow up with your customer and the business you referred her to. You want to check that she was able to get what she needed and that the solution worked.

Example Response: “We value your business and are committed to helping you achieve the results you’re looking for. At this time, what you’re asking for is not in our area of expertise. However, we can recommend some businesses that would be able to help you.”  


Being a trustworthy business means always doing the right thing even when it means having to say “no.” Having integrity, you stand firm on what you believe is the best thing for your customer and your business, even when there is a risk they will leave.

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