How to Say “No” Like Tina Fey


For those support reps looking for a way to never to say no to a customer, here’s an idea from Tina Fey’s world of improv to add to your arsenal.

Fey has an interesting take on the word “no” in her memoir, Bossypants, specifically that it’s very possible to go through your day without saying it:

“As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. ‘No, we can’t do that.’ ‘No, that’s not in the budget.’ ‘No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.’ What kind of way is that to live?”

“When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

We all know that emotionally, people don’t respond well to “no.” There’s also nowhere to go from there, nothing you can really further do with it. “No” ends scenes and ends conversations.

Micah Bennett, Support Lead at Zapier, has already done a great rundown of how you can use Fey’s rules of improv to improve your support. But I’ve got one more for you.

The power of positioning alternatives

The entire concept of improv banks on the idea that there is some other path, some way to still arrive at a mutually beneficial end scene.

Alternative positioning, a negotiation technique from described in The Effortless Experience by Matthew Dixon, complements the improv approach well.

Dixon defines positioning alternatives as, “A strategy designed to explore additional options with a customer—in many cases before the customer even knows they are not going to be able to get their first choice.”

Look at how, with a little creativity, freedom and skilled negotiation, you can come to a positive conclusion without saying the word “no”:

How to position an alternative

  • Figure out the customer’s underlying motivations. The real work starts here, when a customer calls (or writes) in with a request. First, establish a rapport and find out what they’re trying to achieve. Doing this really helps you establish yourself as THEIR advocate. It will also give you the context you’ll need in the next steps.
    • Ask: “Why are you trying to do this?” “What would be the ideal resolution for you?” “Can you explain your current process further?”
  • Draw up a quick game plan. Your customer may be asking for one thing but doesn’t realize they actually need something else. Or you may not able to offer them the exact outcome they’re asking for. Gather a couple alternatives solutions while you’re talking to them. It might not be the same thing, but that’s why you’re getting creative.
    • Think: “How are other customers doing this?” “What workarounds can we try?” “What’s the end goal here?”
  • Tell them what you can do. Armed with these alternatives, talk them through what you can offer them and how it can help them reach a resolution. It may not be their first choice, but most customers are willing to listen to and accept a different way as long as it helps resolve the problem they came for.  
    • Say: “Have you thought of trying….?” “I have a great idea that would accomplish the same thing more easily.” “Other customers have seen success trying…”

There’s always some kind of “yes”

A by-product of saying “no” is that it often results in lengthy conversations, anger and escalations. These cases almost always drag on for longer than they have to and get more people involved than should be. Take this example here:

Customer Cathy: Hey there, I need to cancel my gym membership starting next month.

Support Sam: Hmm, I’m seeing you’re on a 6-month contract so it looks like we can’t do that.

Customer Cathy: Why!?

Support Sam: Yea, we’re not able to cancel those prepaid memberships unfortunately.

Customer Cathy: Wow. I want to talk to a manager about this.

This conversation has already started off on the wrong foot. It’s negative and it reeks of a dead end. This could end quite poorly.

However, it could look different if Support Sam used the ASK-THINK-SAY framework:

ASK: “Why are you looking to cancel your gym membership today?” (After poking around for awhile, she says she’s going out of town for two months and that she doesn’t want to pay for the gym while she’s away.)

THINK: “What workarounds can we try since I can’t cancel her prepaid membership?”

SAY: “Hmm, well it looks like you’re on a 6-month fixed contract. What I can do is put your account on hold for $5 a month and then you don’t need to cancel and re-register your membership. You can just pick it up again when you like. What do you think?”

Cathy doesn’t know the options available to her, but Sam does. Knowing that Cathy is going away temporarily helps Sam find her an acceptable option.  It’s not her first choice, but at least this way she’s getting what she wants at a fraction of the cost and future hassle.

Just like on an improv stage, the rage-inducing frustration of a “no” can be avoided through positioning alternatives, finding something that works and ending the scene on a high note.

End Scene. Fin.

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About the author
Nandini Jammi

Nandini is Kayako almuni. Once passionate about customer service, she now helps brands craft content that tells their personal story.

  • Peter Marinari

    This was a great added-value exercise on an already great article. I shared it with my entire CS team!

    • So good to hear it! Also worth getting a few copies of The Effortless Experience. We have like 10 well-worn copies floating around our office.

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