Hulk Smash! How To Say "No" To A Customer–And Make Them Love You

Yesterday we looked at The Incredible Hulk #464 and witnessed an approach to conflict resolution that didn’t involve punching someone in the face.

Today, we’re going to use that story as a springboard into a discussion on how to say “no” to a customer.

Sound good, Hulk?

Right on!

Fact: No single company has unlimited resources, so no company can execute every single customer or stakeholder request. Nor should they.

When Should You Say “No”?

As a product manager, there are at least three times you should know when to say “no”:

  • When saying “yes” would be illegal or unethical;
  • When saying “yes” would fail to solve the customer’s true need;
  • When saying “yes” would fail to meet the strategic goals of your product.

The first situation is probably pretty easy for most of us to recognize. The other two, sometimes a little (or a lot) more difficult.

What Would The Hulk Do

Easy: HULK SMASH! HULK SMASH THINGS THAT ANNOY HULK!!!

While most PMs are not comfortable SMASHING others (thank goodness), too many are afraid to use the word “no”. It’s easy to see why: No one likes to be told “no”, and nobody wants their internal or external relationships to resemble the aftermath of a Hulk Smash-A-Thon:


The “Smash-All-Obstacles” approach to product management
may not work in every situation.

However, failing to say “no” inevitably leads to bloated products that may look like a great value but end up harming you down the line.

What Would Marlo Do?

In Incredible Hulk #464, the Hulk’s bedridden sidekick, Rick Jones, seeks unending pity from his wife, Marlo. Rick believes he needs the sympathy. Marlo knows better: What he really needs isn’t pity; it’s a kick in the pants to get him on the mend.


Note: I would advise against ending customer visits this dramatically.

Marlo can get away with talking to Rick like this because they’re married and deeply in love. You don’t have that luxury with your customers, so you must learn how to say “no” the right way.

How To Say “No” The Right Way

First, understand there are at least two kinds of No’s…

  • No, as in, “Not yet.” — good idea, but not a priority right now
  • No, as in, “No chance in hell.”

Second, understand how to deliver the “no” appropriately…

  • Reject the idea, not the genius behind the idea. Be sure to explain to the person making the request that you’re rejecting the idea, not the individual.
  • Explain the reason for the rejection. For example, is it time constraints? If you can’t meet their timetable, your customer will appreciate you being up front and not misleading them into missing their own street date.
  • Listen. Sometimes customers ask for solutions that treat symptoms of their problems, not the actual root causes. Your job is always to get to the root.

    And Remember To Pair A “Yes” With That “No”

    Or, at least offer an alternative. If you can’t meet their requested timeline, offer a timeframe that could work. If you can’t presently provide the feature they’re looking for, and have an understanding of what their core issue is, what can you offer them instead?

    For Example…

    At my work, we make online, multiplayer games and game shows. Some of the game shows have hundreds or thousands of people playing simultaneously; other games have a much smaller core of dedicated players.

    Our focus for the first half of this year is on the game shows because those generate the most member interest and generate the best messaging environments for our advertisers. So when a member writes in with ideas about improving a game that doesn’t fall into that category, we execute the steps above–even going so far as to recommend specific, niche gaming sites that meet their stated interests.

    Does it work 100% of the time? No, because nobody likes to have their requests rejected. But more often than not, we retain their business and, I think, their respect.

    The next time you have to tell a customer “no,” be sure you reject the idea and not the person, explain the reason for the rejection, and offer a reasonable customer-oriented alternative.

    That’s the way to win your customers’ hearts without SMASHING your business to bits.

    Additional Resources

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Christopher Cummings

Blogs about product management. Loves Jesus, his family, comic books, video games, and giant robots. Occasionally crawls through mud and leaps over fire.

7 thoughts on “Hulk Smash! How To Say "No" To A Customer–And Make Them Love You

  1. Nice step break-down and good reminder – I suspect that same strategy works with inside stake-holders as well. I think they key there is focusing on the product objective and avoiding the Yes trap.

  2. I’m doing research on when to say no to customers and found this very helpful! I work in the customer service industry and hate to say no to customers, but there are times when you just have to say no!

  3. Hey Christopher
    I’m linking the image and the article to a somewhat related article on my blog, check it out at blog.leolauria.com .
    Cheers and congrats on the great blog!

  4. I was preparing for a customer service training, and happened to bump into ur blog. Excellent material…thx a ton.. 🙂

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