top of page
  • Writer's pictureKirk Dunn

Saying “No” to “No” – the Art of Positive Language in Customer Service

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

No one likes to hear the word ‘no.’ It is an obstacle and an irritation. It stops us from moving forward on our chosen path. And when we run into this block, most of us will try to get around it. Even those of us who don’t make a significant effort to overcome it will certainly feel the impulse to do so.

Customer saying 'no'

It is particularly hard to hear the word “no” when our money or our general well-being is at risk. That’s why it is important that call center agents approach the word “no” with skill, diplomacy, and empathy. Our Call Center QA experience has taught us that without these attributes, customer interactions become loaded with opportunities for things to go wrong very quickly.

When clients hear an abrupt or undesirable “no” you may find them employing a number of strategies to get around, under, over, or through the impasse. Here are a few you may recognize:

  1. The customer hangs up and calls back again in the hope of reaching a different agent who will give them a different answer.

  2. The customer raises his voice, argues and/or expresses anger toward you.

  3. The customer asks to speak with a supervisor (even though you may have made it clear that it is a corporate policy/procedure and not a personal decision on your part).

  4. The customer threatens to take their business elsewhere.

  5. The customer tries to ‘bully’ you into action by insisting you do what he has asked.

  6. The customer ‘compliments’ you by telling you that ‘if anyone can do this, you can.’

Unfortunately, though we always want to help the customer as best we can, we can’t avoid saying ‘no’ from time to time. In these instances, what we can do is pass along that information in a way that minimizes disappointment or defensiveness. We can choose our words in such a way that we optimize the potential for buy-in. It is not so much what we’re saying, but rather how we’re saying it.

For e-learning related to this topic that can be customized for your unique environment, take a look at VereQuest's Check-Up Program and then let's talk!

Proven Strategies for Delivering Less-than-Positive Information

First of all, we have to assume that in your organization, ‘no’ means ‘no’. There is no room for negotiation or bargaining. There is no possibility that you could change your mind on the fly or overturn a policy or procedure. You simply cannot do what the customer is asking of you. And so, in addition to using ‘positive’ language (which we will cover in a minute), the following are some proven strategies for delivering a ‘no’ message in a way that helps to manage the customer’s emotional response:

1. Maintain a calm, professional demeanor. When you deliver the information, be calm and firm. Your tone and manner should not change from your normal telephone voice. If the customer raises his voice, it is never appropriate to raise your voice in response.

2. Use confident language. Deliver your message with confidence. If you ‘sound’ confident then the customer will recognize that what you are saying is ‘fact’ and not think that you are being unhelpful or unreasonable. What you don’t want is to sound flustered or uncertain as the customer may believe that there is room to negotiate.

3. Don't be overly apologetic. Given that we all wish we could help in all circumstances, it is appropriate to say “I’m sorry. I share your frustration.” if you really mean it. However, the more you repeat “I’m sorry” the less confident you will sound and the more likely you will create the perception that you don’t agree with the rationale/policy for not fulfilling the request. And that opens the door to the customer not accepting your ‘no’.

Instead of saying:

"I am so, so sorry that I can't process your request until tomorrow. I feel really, really bad about it."


"I’m so sorry for the frustration. I will make sure this is processed first thing tomorrow.”

4. Explain why you can't do what is asked of you. Help the customer understand the situation more completely by giving him/her a brief explanation of why you can’t do what has been asked. Don’t be overly excessive about it – just a sentence or two. Honesty is the best policy here. Never feel like you have to lie or make up excuses.

Instead of saying:

"That’s just the way it is. That’s what it says on your file.”


"Every program has different terms associated with it. These are the specific terms related to your program, and we will follow them as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

5. Provide some alternatives. Deliver the information in a way that doesn’t leave the customer feeling abandoned. Wherever possible, provide the customer with some alternatives. Now is the time to be creative to see if you can help resolve the customer’s concern … just in another way:

"It would be great if you could complete the application and send it to my attention within the hour so that I can make sure it is processed first thing in the morning.”

“I can arrange to have the Branch Manager give you a call or we can walk through the procedures now over the phone.”

“We do have a service that is very similar to what you’ve mentioned. Let me tell you about it.”

6. Avoid negative phrases. The best way to gain customer buy-in is to choose a positive approach and do our best to avoid negative phrases (ones that include the words “no” or “can’t”). With that in mind, speak in terms of what you can do, rather than what you can’t. So when a person calls and asks, “Can you confirm if my wife’s account is still active?”

Instead of saying:

“Unfortunately, I can’t share that information with you. Your wife would have to be on the line.”


“I can absolutely give you that information once your wife has given me permission to discuss her account with you. Is she close by?”

7. Be positive. The goal is to always look on the bright side. We’ve all heard of the legendary phrase Disney uses when asked when the park closes. Disney employees are trained to have a conversation that sounds like this:

Tourist: “What time does the park close?”

Disney Employee:

“The park remains open right up until 8:00 pm this evening and then opens for more fun tomorrow morning promptly at 9:00 am. We hope to see you then!”

The glass does not have to be half-empty -- the glass can be half-full! Rather than being disappointed at all the effort, we need to expend to solve a problem, we can instead celebrate the fact the there’s a solution out there and that we are going to get to it.

8. Change the Game. Depending on the circumstances, we often find customers who assume the relationship between themselves and the agent is adversarial. It’s a game: it’s them vs. you. They may be thinking: “How can I solve my problem by getting this company/agent to do what I need to be done?” Our behavior over the last several decades has created this environment. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be a competitive situation. Instead, try placing yourself firmly on the customer’s side by being their advocate. In many ways, you’ve taken the first step when you asked that ever-present question as you answered the phone: “How can I help?” You are looking for a way to make something good happen for the caller.

Why Does Positive Language in the Call Center Matter?

Finally, a word on the reason we want to take care of the way we say ‘no.’ Our goal in being positive and constructive in these instances is to build mutually rewarding and positive experiences for our customers – so that they reward us with their ongoing loyalty.

Our goal is not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, or to cut short an uncomfortable conversation with a caller because it’s too much of a hassle. If we approach these conversations with the manipulative intention of convincing someone to settle for something less than they deserve, the results will be disastrous.

We know from years of Contact Center QA that clients can smell a disingenuous pitch a mile off! We will only find ourselves with defensive and enraged callers, and we will have backed ourselves into an authenticity deficit. From there, it will be very difficult to win back the trust of our clients.


Kirk Dunn is the VP of Customer Engagement at VereQuest and a highly skilled coach, actor/writer, and textile artist.

VEREQUEST is a consulting firm specializing in driving and sustaining the quality of the customer experience in the contact center environment. We help our clients, each a leading organization in N.A., to strive to win the hearts and loyalty of customers through a wide range of proprietary tools and techniques.

Get in touch to get to know us better @


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page