Saying “no” to the wrong customers and “yes” to what makes your brand unique

5th of Sep 2018

Michelle Bourke


So often, we are conditioned to feel like saying “no” means a failure to deliver; we condition sales workforces to reject it by creating remuneration structures that value yes over no, and service teams to reject it with the “customer is always right’ mantra that is drilled in ad nauseam through training. But there is a much greater power in “no” when we as marketers use it to communicate how we’re different and which customers our brand values.


The other day I received a call from my phone company as I was approaching the end of my contract and they wanted to recontract me to the new iPhone X. When I went to pick up the new phone, my account manager brought out a lovely bag with a bunch of extra accessories in it.  When I mentioned a wireless charger in passing and asked if they sold it in store they said,

“I can get that for you.”  

“How much does it cost?” I asked

“Oh don’t worry about it. It’s free!” they explained.

Those wireless chargers retail for $100+ and the other accessories in the bag were probably around the same.  As I was walking out of the store the account manager said,

“Now Michelle, you’ll receive a short survey from us to rate your experience and it has three main scores, 8, 9 and 10. If you don’t think your experience was great you put 8, if you felt it was good then put 9 or 10.  We get remunerated on our score.”


Then it clicked. They were trying to control their NPS score, telling me about only the top three numbers.  An 8 out of 10 is scored as a passive and requires that they get two advocates rating either 9 or 10 to neutralise it.  

Marketing Cartoon of The ultimate NPS Scale

The power of “no”, or to say “sure we have a wireless charger, it’s $X” was removed from this person’s vocabulary, having been pummelled into submission by the company’s remuneration structures. Freebies that undermine profitability, half-truths told to customers around the rating system to help game the result.  While the outcome for me in the short term was a positive one, all this has the potential to hide and keep bad customers while potentially alienating the ones a brand wants to keep. Similarly as marketers, if we continuously offer discounts to lift click throughs or campaign conversions, we’re sending a subtle cues that may be undermining the value of our product and attracting the wrong type of customer.


When we say “yes” to the wrong type of customer, or we try to deliver on a brand promise that attempts to be everything to everyone, we end up delivering an excellent outcome for no one.


For brands, “No” doesn’t have to be about being an exclusive club that caters only to luxury buyers or those that can afford it.  It is about understanding how your underlying business model and all the departmental activities that support it, from finance through to marketing and operations, can create a baseline for your brand promise which you can consistently deliver on.


This kind of “no” is one that acknowledges your brand will never be everything to everybody, nor should it be, and nor should you ever want it to be.


Ikea is a great example of this. As Vern Harnish notes in his book “Scaling Up”, one of Ikea’s great strategies was saying “no” to customers who wanted more than what they offered, a low cost, DIY furniture set up. Focusing on this value proposition impacted everything from their own supply chain all the way through to the people they market to and who would choose to buy from Ikea.  


Recently we ran an event specifically for enterprise level organisations where someone who managed a small business asked a range of questions around the pricing and process of collaborating with our business at the end of the session.  


In the follow up survey this individual gave us a low feedback score because they had wanted to collaborate with us but the way we had answered made them feel as if we were being exclusionary. It upset me for a moment because I’m so passionate about what we do and I’d hate to think that we caused someone to feel that way. Then I stepped back realised this was an important lesson to learn.  


We had sent subtle messages that this event was still applicable to small business should they wish to join. In hindsight that was a mistake.  It meant they were disappointed and left feeling they were given some information, but then unable to afford to take the next step with us.


Knowing who to say no to can often be an evolving decision and discussion.  Change is never comfortable. By its very nature, it is a place where uncertainty lives. But as a brand evolves, the ability to embrace that change and use it as an opportunity to reassess what kind of customer is ideal, is crucial. Revisiting those personas sitting in that 90 page research company deck you haven’t looked at for the last 12 months, and testing that against reality to truly understand which customers enrich your brand and which ones do not, can be a highly empowering exercise.

So what are some of the ways brands can say “no” to the wrong type of customer while maintaining integrity and authenticity?

Marketing: Messaging

Cues that you can give your target audience come through not just in what you say, but what you don’t say, the imagery you choose, the emotion you communicate, the language you use. Considering things like:

  • How you communicate pricing (or don’t communicate pricing)
  • Using imagery that represents your target audience and how they see themselves, or how they want to see themselves.  The way they dress, move, act, think and speak.
  • What to communicate as a genuine difference and reason for choosing your brand based on what competitors may be communicating in market

Marketing: Targeting

Once you have the messaging right, delivering that message to the right audience and at the right time is critical.  Digital media makes determining this a particularly delightful exercise, with the level of control you can have over targeting.

Marketing Cartoon of marketing in the front seat

But don’t get caught up in getting this perfect right away.  If you think big brands always get this right, you would be surprised.  Big marketing budgets can often hide major inefficiencies as well as wasted communication to the wrong target audience.  And this doesn’t just impact marketing, it impacts the time of sales and customer service team members down the line. The trickle down impact is enormous.


Sometimes you might not know exactly who your perfect customer is yet.  You may have some assumptions, but you need to test them. That is completely ok, in fact, I’d wholeheartedly encourage it.  Just because you’ve used Helix personas on your existing database doesn’t mean that you know who your customers are. That’s like saying “my future performance is determined solely by my past performance”. History certainly contributes to the future but it does not define it.  Especially if your goal is to refine and better understand your ideal customer.


In a scenario like this, starting with digital can be a powerful approach because you can go fairly broad with your targeting to begin. Test multiple messages and gradually refine targeting based on campaign measures from clickthrough rates to conversion to sales or lead rates (and lead to sale rates if sales controls the final part of the funnel), and then use that information to help determine your media spend in other channels and to scale up spend where it will be most impactful.  Aussie corporates are already spending 40% of their marketing budgets on digital. In the UK and Sweden its over 50%, so internationally speaking we are still lagging in this space. There’s a real opportunity to continue to push for a digital first approach where budget allocation is concerned.


When you carry out tests though, keep in strong communication with finance and with sales departments to make sure their expectations are set and that they can also be prepared to give you feedback also.


Sales: Risk matrices

Especially in the B2B sales environment, once marketing has done their thing and brought in a the lead, what success matrix are you applying to determine if this customer is the right fit? A simple risk matrix calculator can be a useful addition for the sales team.  It doesn’t have to be in depth, just an excel spreadsheet with a checklist of questions to ask and help score an incoming lead with an initial conversation can be enough. One question we have, for instance, is the likelihood of the clients modus operandi having a detrimental impact on our team culture. Whatever your questions, a worthwhile exercise is to take a range of existing customers (those you may have lost, won and currently have) and apply your risk questions and play with the scoring to get to the point where those that your gut tells you should have been rejected, would have been picked up by the scoring system.

Marketing cartoon of tinder for business

Customer service/customer experience/customer satisfaction: Feedback prioritisation

Just because you’re getting a lot of the same feedback from customers, doesn’t mean you should action it.  The first question is, is the feedback coming from a relevant customer cohort? Perhaps you’re in the middle of a customer base transition, from smaller to more enterprise customers in a B2B context, or visa versa. Where that is the case, it may be important to know which feedback to ignore and which to action, regardless of the sheer volume of requests.  A simple practice of assigning a persona / customer type to each piece of feedback (if the feedback isn’t made anonymously and can be connected to your CRM or other customer database) and then using this to help determine and prioritise which feedback should be actioned first can be immensely helpful.

Marketing cartoon of when to ignore customer feedback

Finance: Customer value metrics

Does your finance team track customer lifetime value?  Is the impact of specific types of customers very clear from a financial perspective?  If not, it’s worth considering how to help the finance team bring these calculations and metrics to life.  It may need some help and collaboration with marketing and sales analytics to connect the dots, but this valuable exercise is a key factor for determining the health of your current customer mix, and how well it aligns to your ideal mix.



Sometimes hard calls need to be made.  Is there a line of business, a product, a customer type that no longer aligns with the future vision and brand promise? Resist holding on to what is holding you back and pulling or splitting the focus of the internal team.  It is a false economy to look at current revenue and conclude that cutting it would mean $X revenue loss without considering the gains made by focusing team energy into a space where you can truly differentiate.


Every part of the business should own and take responsibility for ensuring that the right type customer is being represented and cultivated.


In every no there is a silent yes being said to your brand’s individuality, your difference. So it’s worth saying yes to no more often.

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