Published: August 14, 2019 | Comments
Rejection hurts. More commonly dreaded than snakes or spiders, it's an
almost universal fear. It's unpleasant to give and even less pleasant to
receive. No one likes to be denied, and it can bring out the worst in
people. Regrettably, rejection is often a necessary function of contact
centers and customer service professionals. It's one thing to tell a
customer that their preferred flight is fully booked or their favorite
product is sold out; most customers understand this scarcity is just part
of life. Refusing customers based on seemingly arbitrary policies and
procedures is another beast entirely.
In my current role, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)
regulates the disclosure of student information. Regardless of age, upon
enrollment in a university, it restricts the dissemination of academic
records. Even if your sixteen-year-old child is taking a dual-credit course
while in high school, we're prohibited by law from sharing certain
information with parents. For parents, loss of control and involvement is
painful even when their kids turn eighteen; it's practically unimaginable
before then! It creates a unique challenge because parents are still vital
to students' academic success. If for no other reason, the institution must
maintain a good relationship with parents to ensure they keep signing
There is no shortage of reasons to tell a customer "no." In some cases, the
law requires it! It's up to us to communicate necessary rejection while
preserving the customer's goodwill towards us. Our actions when denying a
customer decide the outcome. Getting this right is not a "nice to have"
skill; it's essential to operate efficiently. Getting it wrong can
materially impact profitability.
Longer Handle Times
Too often, telling a customer "no" devolves into an argument over the
policy or regulation that lead to this outcome. Rejection is painful and
inconvenient; customers understandably resist denial. Increased handle
times are the most direct way that rejection affects the bottom line. Time
is money, and it adds up quickly.
For even low-skilled agents with average salaries, after accounting for
benefits and shrinkage, the total cost of talk time easily exceeds $23 per
hour. This cost skyrockets for agents with specialized technical knowledge,
experience, competitive pay and benefits, and other costs of employment. If
a five-minute call turns into a fifteen-minute call because a customer
won't take "no" for an answer, that's nearly $4 wasted on a single
rejection! The adage, "if I had a nickel for every time..." doesn't even
come close to describing the potential loss.
I don't usually make service decisions based on handle time. Generally,
spending a little more time with a customer is an investment in the
relationship and prevention of future expensive contacts and frustrations.
However, arguing with a customer about a policy (or law) that cannot be
changed, isn't a productive use of time, and it doesn't improve the
As if longer handle times for front-line employees aren't enough, customers
who feel dejected often demand escalations. Involving a higher level of
support isn't always a bad thing. However, if the cause of the rejection is
set in stone, such as with government regulations, it won't be any more
productive. These conversations are even more expensive than those with the
first-level agent, they can put a strain on limited resources, and they
take specialized personnel away from more strategic duties.
Furthermore, being declined a second time by an even more authoritative
source doesn't make rejection any more palatable. Repeating the same
information may further the customer's perception that we don't care about
them enough. I'm not implying that it's wise to withhold escalations, but
it's better for everyone if the customer can be satisfied at the first
The Nuclear Option
Beyond routine escalations, there is yet another method of recourse against
rejection. At this point, things have gotten really out of hand. If being
told "no" inconveniences the customer or makes them feel defamed, they may
take matters even further. The result may be anything from contacting
executives directly to threatening legal action.
When customers contact executives directly in an attempt to resolve
disputes, it doesn't reflect well on the contact center. The potential
consequences for this depend heavily on your organization's culture, but no
one wants to be made to look incompetent for merely doing their job. Even
if a systematic failure prevents us from resolving an issue through regular
channels, it can still affect our sense of pride.
If the customer initiates legal action as the result of rejection, no
matter how frivolous the claim may be, it can be incredibly expensive. The
cost of legal counsel to investigate the allegation and evaluate the
company's potential liability is incurred regardless of its merit.
Furthermore, this could turn into an invasive appraisal of the contact
center's procedures and compliance, which takes even more time and energy
away from productive, strategic tasks. While government agencies may be
immune from civil liability, they may be subject to undesirable political
scrutiny or publicity.
The first three costs we uncovered are direct and incident-specific, but we
all know there are usually further impacts that are less quantifiable or
immediately linked to specific incidents. Negative word of mouth is a real
concern for any organization striving to differentiate themselves based on
customer experience. Unmitigated anger that might result from rejection is
a powerful motivator, and one of the first coping mechanisms of an angry
customer is to tell others about it.
At this point, we've lost our ability to explain the reasoning behind the
denial. The customer's story has already been decided. The company can't
always be there when the story is told. To the customer, and potentially to
their audience, the law, regulation, or policy that resulted in the denial
no longer matters. Lost business isn't the only potential consequence. If
fellow customers become more apprehensive or sensitive to the issue, it may
increase the cost to serve them.
If customers are complaining to their friends and colleagues, we're at risk
of losing them entirely. Being rejected conjures terrible feelings, and it
may induce a significant amount of additional customer effort. They may
feel as if we've given them the runaround, or that it's hard to do business
with the company. They could assume the company doesn't want their
business. If the switching cost is low, they could be gone before you know
it. Losing a customer because of a trivial misunderstanding is a tragedy.
I saved the most severe cost of saying "no" for last. Throughout this
article, we examined the emotional toll that rejection takes on customers
and the organization's associated cost to serve them. Customers aren't the
only ones worn down by being rejected; it's not any easier for agents
delivering the denial. It can be emotionally taxing, especially if it's a
regular occurrence. Rejection is a conflict. Conflict is stressful.
A bit of conflict and a little creative problem solving makes contact
center work exciting. If battles, particularly very emotional ones, become
the norm, it will wear down the attitude of even the best agent. While the
high-stress periods may be short-lived, too many of them can start to
affect how the agent serves other customers. Left unchecked, high stress,
reduced performance, and emotional exhaustion are a recipe for attrition.
Being equipped to say "no" the right way is better for the customer, and
that makes it much easier on the agent.
Session 405: Sticking to Policy and Procedures Without Killing the
at ICMI Contact Center Connections, I'll share my strategies
for protecting both customers' assets and emotions. We'll explore ways to
avoid these hidden costs of saying "no" by preparing agents to say it
without starting a fight.