Want to make customers happier? Say “no” to them

Sylvie Woolf,

Global Vice President, Customer Success & Solutions

30 November 20210 min read

Whoever said "the customer is always right" was clearly not a CSM. Customers are wrong all the time, and if you really want them to be happy, you need to learn when and how to say "no" to them.

There’s a quote that’s about as old as business itself. It goes something like, “consumers bought a million quarter-inch drill bits last year. Not one of them wanted a quarter-inch drill bit — they wanted a quarter-inch hole.”

I always heard that quote attributed to Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt, but apparently it goes back way further. The same sentiment even popped up in a plumbing ad from 1923! (You can read the whole history of the quote here — it’s fascinating.)

But if you were to let the meaning go right over your head and take it at face value, you’d think there’d be millions of people around the country proudly displaying neatly drilled holes throughout their homes. Maybe there’d be an Instagram account dedicated to the nicest ones — #quarterinchholesofinsta

Obviously people don’t even want the holes as much as they want to hang a painting or build a doghouse or any of a million outcomes you could achieve with the help of a quarter-inch hole by way of a quarter-inch drill bit.

Those are the kind of outcomes customer success managers are here to help companies achieve.

That’s why the most painful thing to me is to see CSMs spending their time trying to create holes rather than helping to hang paintings.

Solving problems or achieving outcomes?

Customers ask their CSM for drill bits or for holes all the time. Ever have a customer come to you when they really need support? That’s a drill bit. Or have they ever asked you to try and custom-engineer the product to solve some limited problem? That’s a hole.

The whole point of customer success is to take the desired outcome of the customer — that perfectly hung painting or that beautiful watertight doghouse — and work backwards through the product to help the customer achieve it.

At Front, we don’t sell drill bits, or even holes. We sell business value. And our CSMs are the world’s leading experts by far in figuring out how to get to the most value out of the product. So when a customer asks us for drill bits or holes, we have to say “no.” 

It can frustrate customers sometimes, but the alternative is worse.

Let’s say we “drill a hole” the exact place and size a customer asks for, but it’s not really conducive to their end goal or we know a better way of doing it. Sometimes that looks like customizing the product or complicated one-off workflows. Then that custom code doesn’t get updated in the next release cycle or the workflow gets broken by an update. 

In one case, we tried to implement a customer all together as one team. We knew Front works better broken out by teams, but then down the line they saw there was just way too much visibility, it was paralyzing.

All you did was give them what they asked for and it drives them to churn — and there’s no partial retention for how nice and accommodating you were!

Our most successful customers are often the ones where we pushed back or stood our ground. We said no, and worked toward a better solution instead.

Who’s the real expert here?

One of the reasons companies give for asking for holes rather than outcomes is that they’re the experts in their business.

They’ve been leading their team for years. They’ve been in their industry for decades. How can our CSMs possibly know better than them how to solve their business problems?

And honestly, that’s a really good point! There’s no way we could match the depth of knowledge and experience any of our customers has on their business. 

But the same respect needs to be paid the other way. We’ve implemented 6,000 customers and counting, and we’ve gotten really good at it. We’ve helped multi-thousand person companies orchestrate communication across their entire customer journey. We’ve helped professional services companies grow from startup to enterprise-level scale, and we’ve set up best practices for C-level users keeping an eye on company-level strategy to operations experts who automate millions of messages and tasks each year.

Our best relationships have that trust going both ways.

How to say no

It starts with doing really thorough discovery into a customer’s business and their goals. One of the best places to start flexing your “no” muscle is actually during discovery.

A lot of customers ask to skip goal-setting or defining outcomes — they just want to jump right into the product and start to play around. Then down the road they find they’re not successful, but they never stopped to define or understand what success would even look like!

That’s part of the genius of having CSM broken out from support or implementation roles. It helps you keep the relationship focused on strategic outcomes. From day one, our CSMs set the expectations that we’re not taking your order at a drive-through. We’re a partner and guide on the journey to a destination. Where you want to go is up to you (though we can help you figure that out too!), but how we get there, that’s the real value of customer success.

Just to be clear, I’m not advocating being rude or combative. There are all kinds of “soft skill” tactics to say no without alienating the customer or shutting down the dialogue.

  1. Being transparent with the context of why you’re saying no.

  2. Offering multiple options or alternative pathways.

  3. Having social proof from other successful customers with the same issue.

But the truth is in my experience, most customers are happy and relieved they don’t have to carry the decision-making burden alone. I’ve had many calls with customers who are overjoyed to have an expert around to help figure out these difficult problems.

At the end of the day, most customers know they don’t really want a quarter-inch hole, they just want the painting on the wall. Sometimes you just have to say no in order to do it!

Written by Sylvie Woolf

Originally Published: 30 November 2021

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