It’s Okay to Say “No” to the Wrong Customer

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I was at an event recently where one business speaker asserted that there were four words you should never tell a customer: “I can’t do that.” And he had some very good reasons for this assertion:

Your competitors love it when you tell a customer, “I can’t do that.”

It’s music to their ears.

When you tell a customer, “I can’t do that,” you’re giving them an excuse to look elsewhere, and you’re opening a window of opportunity for your competition. This is a bad thing.

Except when it’s not.

Look, there are times when a customer makes a request—generally in good faith, but sometimes just to see what you’ll do—that you just can’t fulfill. Let’s imagine, for example, that I’m in the market for a new car, so I head on down to my local Lamborghini dealership. (But first of all, let’s imagine that there is a local Lamborghini dealership.) I tell the friendly dealer that I want to buy a brand new Lamborghini Aventador, and that I’m willing to spend as much as $35,000. Now, given that a new Aventador goes for nearly $400,000, what do you think the Lamborghini dealer is going to say?

“I’ll see what I can do”?
“Do you have a trade in”?
“How about if we meet halfway”?

Not on your life!

He’s going to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t do that.” At which point I’ll trot over to my local Ford dealership (there is one of those) and buy a top-end Taurus, loaded.

So, did the Lamborghini dealer just lose a sale to a competitor? Not really. Because he’s not competing with Ford. The Lamborghini dealer is competing with Ferrari, Maserati, and Aston Martin. And my $35K is going to be equally meaningless to them.

You may not be in the ultra high-end automobile business. But whatever business you’re in, it’s up to you to decide what’s negotiable and what’s not. Part of that equation is going to be determining who your competition is—your real competition.

My job is to inspire and produce award-winning performance in organizations, teams, and individuals. One of the ways I do that is through professional speaking. So is my competition every other speaker in the world? Nope. I’m not competing with beginners, or speakers who charge a very low fee. I’m not competing with life balance experts, or people who speak about diversity in the workplace. I’m not competing with magicians and jugglers. So if a prospective client says to me, “I can either hire you or a funny ventriloquist, and he’s willing to do it for $750. Can you match that?,” the answer is, “Nope, I can’t do that. Enjoy your ventriloquist.” (Yes, yes, of course there’d be a bit of conversation first to see which of the two of us—me or the ventriloquist—best meets the client’s needs, as well as what their real budget is; but if they’re holding their guns at $750, I’m not their guy.)

Is it always about money? Nope. That’s just one parameter; the rest are up to you. But here’s the bottom line:

If your parameters and the customer’s needs don’t intersect, they’re not really your customer. Politely refer them to somebody else, and focus on your sweet spot. You’ll both be better off.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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