I Can’t stand “I Can’t”

Just yesterday, while waiting to catch a flight to beautiful Austin, Texas, I walk into an airport store to pick up a bottle of water.  The store offered two sizes of water bottle, expensive, and really expensive.  Ok, seriously, it was a small bottle for $2.69 and large one for $3.39.

I pick up a smaller bottle and I walk up to the clerk, and he says “That will be $3.02.” Holding 4 singles in my hand, and not really interested in a pocketful of change, I ask him “How much for the larger bottle with tax?”  He replies with some number less than four bucks and I respond “You know what, cancel the small,  I’ll take the large!”

Having already rung up the small water the clerk looked at me and he said “I Can’t.” After a long stare, I ask him if that is really the case (What do you mean you can’t!!!), and he pointed to the register as the culprit stopping him from allowing me to spend MORE money.  He then explains to me that it is requires a manager to cancel the transaction.  Finally, he flags down a manager who voids the transaction, and I leave with the large bottle of water and without the pocketful of change. (Win-Win…almost)

As I walked away from the store, I was trying to figure out why the purchase of a bottle of water ended up being such a poor experience for me.  Then it dawned on me, the words “I Can’t” need to be removed from the language of anyone who ever deals with customers (probably should just be removed period).

Looking in hindsight at the situation, I think about how the clerk could have handled the situation.

“Oh Mr. Customer, you want the larger water, no problem, I have to go grab my manager to void the transaction since I can’t do that.

The rest is history.  When you look at the situation, that is what ended up happening, but instead of taking the “I can” approach, he told me why “He Can’t.” In the process he ruined the experience for me, and it was completely needless.

Ok, I’m sure that some people are thinking… C’mon, the clerk at an airport general store? Well the fact is, in this case, it was a general store, it was a low wage employee, and I’m pretty much a captive customer.

What about in the professional world, in your business, for your company, in your life.  Is there ever a situation where “I can’t” is the right answer to give a customer?

I’d like to offer that the answer is almost in every case NO! In almost any customer request, there is an opportunity to take that request, and whether the answer is yes or no, provide the customer a positive experience by handling it the right day.

  • Note: I do believe there is a time to “Fire” a client, and if there is a point where can’t is because you don’t want to, or the relationship isn’t profitable, or the customer is just plain unreasonable, then that is what you should do.

I have another great example of this phenomenon in a professional setting.  This past year our organization made a massive investment in time, money, and resources to upgrade our enterprise and customer resource systems (ERP/CRM). (Massive meaning 7 figure lifetime investment)

After much deliberation and under the duress of being told late in one quarter that we had to sign the agreement or prices were going to go up, we chose a company called Netsuite as our provider. Netsuite is a SAAS that has a really solid platform, and although we didn’t appreciate the high pressure sales tactics,  our company was really excited about it because we really were long over due to upgrade our systems, and this product seemed to be the best fit.

During the sales process, we developed what Netsuite called a Statement of Work.  This is where in a document we outlined what each company would offer.  When we signed the contract, we also had to sign the statement of work.  At that time, we were told not to worry about exact details, we would work through that during implementation.

Funny thing, is during the implementation process, I counted at least 50 times where I was told by our senior level IT project consultants that “I can’t” help you because your request isn’t in the statement of work. (I guess that is what they meant when they said work it out)

There it is again, that darn word “Can’t!”

Whether our requests were reasonable or not, I look at situations like this and I think.  Using the word can’t does nothing but drive a dagger between the supplier and our organization.  There is a chance that the answer is no, but the word can’t still never needs to be used as a way to brush off a request.

Suggestion for a way to have handled any of the 50 aforementioned requests…

  • Mr. Customer, first let me see if I understand what you are asking for (gain understanding).  Ok, now I see what you are looking for and I can understand why you feel that is important (empathy).  Here is what we are able to do (or let me find out…) to help you with the situation. (consultative approach)

Notice that in the above scenario, the supplier at no time ever commits to my request.  However, through better understanding and validating the need, the supplier has provided me a much higher level of satisfaction.

The secret to this is that anyone dealing with a client, partner, customer, etc, needs to know that we as buyers want 2 things from our suppliers.  We want to be understood and we want our needs to be validated.  This is more than anything a psychological need, but in doing so, our buying experience is a better one.

Bottom line, in the customer experience and even more so in life,  “I can’t” is eminently lazy.  It is nothing more than a way to blow off the request and/or show lack of character and competence.  As a leader of people, I would strongly recommend the words are taken out of your and your team’s vocabulary and immediately replaced with an approach that embraces those that put food on our plates.  And remember…

“The customer is not always right, but the customer is always the customer.”

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9 Responses to I Can’t stand “I Can’t”

  1. There’s always a way. From a customer service perspective, “can’t” should never enter the discussion. Love this post my friend!

    • Dan Newman says:

      Sean, thanks for the kind words. I can’t tell you how passionate I am about providing our customers with a great experience every time. I know you understand this!

  2. @samfiorella says:

    Well written Dan.

    There are many situations where business clients are unreasonable and when a client’s demands force you to break the rule of removing “I can’t” from my vocabulary, I know it’s time to fire the client. We all have choices in life and in business – something I’ve re-learned lately.

    Set expectations and put yourself in a position where you don’t have the need to say “I can’t”. Be master of your domain and your vocabulary.

  3. Tobey Deys says:

    Such a great post – and I loved that you used a ‘regular’ experience to illustrate. As ‘regular’ customers, we endure ‘I can’t’ far too often. I think, as customers, we are far too accepting of dismissal of our wants – we shrug and say ‘oh well, guess they can’t’. We aren’t the ‘squeaky wheel’ so companies get complacent and apathetic.

    I ‘give good customer’ so expect ‘good service’.

    In a past life as a producer, I had clients request the wackiest things … my response was never ‘I can’t’ (even when it was true). I worked to either better manage their expectations (“I know you want an elephant in the shot but that really doesn’t work with the creative”) or suggest alternate solutions (“Golden retrievers are very popular!”) .

    Perhaps when a difficult (impossible?) situation arises, the response should always be “Well, I CAN do this … ”

    Great stuff, Daniel – thank you! :-)

    • I really enjoyed writing this one. It was genuine inspiration that drove this post. I was so disgusted by that experience that I felt helping even 1 person to “Give Good Experience” would be worth the time it took to write.
      Thanks as always for being such a great supporter!

  4. Pingback: Want to ‘get good service’? Consider ‘giving good customer’ | The View from Chair 8

  5. Mark Babbitt says:

    Well said, Dan!

    This lesson applies to many aspects in life. I had an office manager and friend (“Aunt Linda” my kids called her) who, whenever someone would say “I can’t”, would say “Well, if you could… what would you do?”. Pretty soon our account managers and employees (and my kids!) replaced “I can’t” and with some form of “let me find out how I can get that done…”

    I have often used Aunt Linda’s phrase at work, with coaching, and in life-in-general. Perhaps not-so-surprisingly, when “I can’t” is removed as an acceptable answer in a team environment — morale, productivity, customer service and communication greatly improves.

    Good stuff. Thank you for the reminder!

  6. kamkansas says:

    Dan, it’s so easy to resort to “I can’t,” but as you point out, that’s such a cop-out to the customer. Your example of expressing empathy and creativity is key to customer satisfaction. If we show our customers that we care about their preferences and input, it makes it easier to find a solution that all parties can be happy with. “I can’t” shuts down any other possibilities, and it makes customers want to call it quits with you. I called it quits with a vendor when I heard “we can’t” and then “OK, we can, but it will cost you a lot more,” when I knew that what I was asking for would only take them a few minutes. Go the extra mile for your customer and they will be more likely to stick with you for the long run. Thanks for such a great post, Kathy

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