How To Gracefully Say ‘No’ To Key Accounts, And Why It’s Sometimes Necessary

If given a choice between undergoing a root canal procedure and saying “no” to a client, there are some key account managers who would be more inclined to choose two hours of dental drilling over the prospect of disappointing a key account.

A key account manager’s strong desire to please a client can conflict with company policy or even the ability to properly serve other key accounts. Furthermore, a KAM might feel frustrated when a client asks for something they cannot or should not be doing for them. While saying “no” is never easy, there are some situations that simply require it. If you have ever been in a situation in which you’ve had to say “no” then you know it’s not particularly easy, and has to be done carefully – with grace. To better understand how to say it, it might be helpful to understand why it’s hard to do for some.

Why Saying No Is Sometimes Hard

Declining a client’s request is a true struggle for some KAMs because of the very notion of disappointing someone for whom their jobs depends. Here are some reasons why saying “No” is so hard for some key account managers:  

  • The pressure of keeping key accounts – KAMs worry that they will lose an order or lose the customer if they decline a request.
  • Desire to please – some KAMs instinctively want to please others and will do anything to avoid disappointing them. This often means being self sacrificial.
  • Force of habit – KAMs are so accustomed to saying “Yes” that they automatically accept requests. Saying “yes” seems like the natural thing to do.
  • Young KAMs who are eager to please often have the most difficulty declining a request, and this is simply due to lack of work and life experience.

When Is It Okay To Say “No”?  

A KAM should understand that it is virtually impossible to always say “Yes” to customer requests. Saying “No” to an important customer is a skill that is sharpened with time and experience. The five situations below are examples of scenarios that call for a KAM to gracefully say “No” to a customer request:  

  • There are not sufficient resources or expertise to fulfill a request.
  • Fulfilling the request would require illegal or unethical activities.
  • Time constraints preclude the KAM from fulfilling the request.
  • The costs to fulfill the request far outweigh potential benefits.
  • Fulfilling the request would set a precedent that would be impossible to sustain.

How To Say “No” Gracefully

Declining a client’s request does not have to be painful. By combining honesty with strategic planning, you can help your customer understand why you are unable to fulfill their request. Remember that most customers are reasonable people who will not overreact to your response. If you follow these five steps, you will likely realize that your customers will understand why fulfilling a request is not feasible.  

  1. Do not procrastinate. Respond to the customer’s request as soon as possible.
  2. Thank the customer for having faith in your ability to handle the request.
  3. Outline the reason(s) why it is not possible to complete the client’s request.
  4. Present alternative solutions to the client if any exist.
  5. Reinforce your staunch dedication to meeting your customer’s needs.

Revisit Expectations If Necessary  

In addition to following the steps above, KAMs should ask themselves whether they properly discussed expectations with the customer. A KAM’s failure to outline expectations at the onset of a customer relationship contributes to a customer’s tendency to make unrealistic requests. The result is disappointment on the part of the customer and the KAM. If necessary, key account managers should revisit the topic of customer expectations and clarify the limitations and boundaries that should be observed. This can even be done in conjunction with a quarterly business review.

The Bottom Line: Aim To Please, But Be Realistic  

Most KAMs are successful in their roles because of their desire to please others, and to go above and beyond when necessary. They instinctively accept requests and strive to fulfill their customers’ most challenging demands. However, it is important for KAMs to recognize that they will occasionally receive customer requests that they cannot, or should not fulfill.  

Fortunately, occasionally saying “No” to customers will rarely drive them into the arms of a competitor. The key to saying “No” is to use the word sparingly, ensuring that customers are keenly aware of the reasons why you are not able to fulfill a request. By keeping the steps above in mind, KAMs can say “No” gracefully and still preserve—possibly even strengthen—their relationships with key accounts going forward.

CEO at Kapta
Alex Raymond is the CEO of Kapta.