Telling Customers No Is a Terrible First Impression

Especially when the “no” is entirely avoidable

Image by Ana Krach from Pixabay

Imagine frequenting a business for the first time, and within one minute being told, “No, you can’t do that,” or, “No, you can’t have that.”

Now, sometimes you can’t steer clear of that conversation. An employee calls in sick and you have to open late. An item runs out of inventory. A supplier is late with a shipment. Those kinds of things happen to all of us once in a while. Explained properly to customers, all should be well.

However, every employee of your business is a marketer. Every time they interact with a customer, they say something about your brand. If they make promises — even unintentionally — that they can’t keep, they associate your brand with disappointment.

I recently had a highly revered business tell me no. It was a conversation that could have been avoided so easily. Let me tell you the story, and then I’ll come back and translate it into actionable takeaways.

How not to say “Sorry, we’re closed”

Last month was a cause for celebration in my city. Under new ownership, legendary dive bar Gertrude & Gail’s was set to reopen, having been closed for a year. G&G’s had only one menu item, the Rhythm Burger, but it was talked about all over the city. Said to be haunted, the building was a former brothel. Its jukebox was loaded with classic country, rockabilly, soul, and R&B tunes.

G&G’s was bought by a restaurant management group, an excellent sign because they were people who had experience running bars. The owners made the media circuit and said what all the customers wanted to hear — “Don’t worry, we are not going to change a thing.”

They told the media that they would open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday through Friday, and on the weekends they would open the doors at 11 a.m. I didn’t get down there the first couple of weeks Gertrude & Gail’s was open, because it’s kind of a far walk. Multiple friends went and told me, “They did it exactly right.” I couldn’t wait to get down there and soak up some soul.

Every Saturday from April through October, there’s a farmers’ market around the corner from Gertrude & Gail’s that runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “Perfect,” I thought. “I’ll go down to the market about 10:40 and do a little shopping. Then I’ll stop by Gertrude & Gail’s right as they get open.”

Just to make sure I had the opening time correct, I pulled up their Facebook listing. “Saturday: 11 a.m.-1 a.m.” As I walked to the farmers’ market, their doors were wide open and I could smell the onions cooking for the Rhythm Burgers. It appeared they had opened early! That’s an excellent idea, I thought. With the market’s opening day around the corner, the new owners of G&G’s seemed to be in touch with what was happening in the neighborhood.

I lingered at the market until two past 11, catching up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I didn’t want to be “that guy” who shows up a few minutes before the posted opening time. Although, with the doors wide open, I doubted I had anything to worry about. As I crossed the street I noticed a sign propping one of the doors. It read “OPEN.”

I walked in with a big smile on my face, ready to get change for a 20 so I could put some money in the jukebox. “‘Boy Named Sue’ by Johnny Cash will kick the day off right,” I thought. Obviously, a Rhythm Burger, with those delicious-smelling onions, was part of my plan as well.

A man behind the counter, who had been cooking the onions, came running over to where I was standing. “Hey, buddy, we’re going to try to open up around noon today.”

Not wanting to poke around a neighborhood far from home for an additional hour, I left, disappointed. Not only have I not been back since then, but I expressed my disappointment to the several hundred people a day who read my personal neighborhood blog.

Okay. Let’s review.

They told the media they would open at 11 on the weekends. They posted on social media that they would open at 11 on the weekends.

They were surely aware that it was the farmers’ market’s opening day, and that there would be foot traffic in the area. Surely they would want to capture as much of that foot traffic as possible.

They opened their doors before 11. They probably did that so the cooks could cool off (hey guys, you ever hear of air conditioning?), but they made the place look open and inviting.

And to top it all off, at a time when they were not open to the public, THEY PROPPED OPEN THE DOORS WITH AN OPEN SIGN!

I wonder how many customers besides me walked away terribly unhappy in that hour they looked open but were not? If I had to guess, I’d say between 30 and 50. And if each of those people told 3 others, well… the numbers start to add up, even without a local blogger writing a post.

It was all so avoidable. All they had to do was post a note on the closed entrance doors. “Due to unforeseen circumstances, we hope to open around noon today. We apologize for the inconvenience and we’ll be open at the regular time next Saturday.”


If you own or manage a business, take a look at every communication you have put out to the public. This includes social media, interviews with mainstream media, and print advertising. What promises have you made? Think about

  • Your business hours — do the hours published match the hours you actually keep?
  • Your inventory or menu items — do you have the products you have told the public that you have?
  • Turnaround time, if that’s a factor in your line of business — are you delivering in the time frame that you promised?
  • Refund policies — are you living up to what’s been posted or promised?

If any of the above is inconsistent with your promises, and you can’t fix the problem immediately, what can you do to let the customer know before they get emotionally invested in the experience they expected to have?

It’s a cliche, but it’s true — you only get one chance to make a first impression. Why not give yourself every chance to be able to tell a customer, “Yes we can!” and make that impression a fantastic one?

Let’s keep in touch! Feel free to sign up for my newsletter. Here’s another recent article of mine you might enjoy:

I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

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