How to Say No to Feature Requests

A lesson in startup account management

When I was at Privy, my job was to manage all of our customers. This meant it was my job to keep them happy, make sure they renewed their contracts with us, and where possible, get them to pay us more. Like most people in account management roles at a startup, this also meant that I was the first person they called for anything (and that’s not a figure of speech — they actually called). Direct to my cell phone. Didn’t matter if something was broken at 9 AM on a Saturday or they just had a new idea for a feature right as I was trying to get on the T, they called (we didn’t have hundreds of customers, so that meant that I actually could spend time an interact with each and every one). As a result of having to be on the front lines, I think I learned more about business in a year than I did in all of my other jobs combined — but the number one thing I learned was the importance of saying no and the right way to do so.

Before learning the right way to say no, I realized how hard it was to actually say no. I used to struggle with it because when you try to put the customer first, you feel like they should always be right. In my head I would always think: “We can totally do that. I mean, our engineers are building complex stuff all the time. How hard could it possibly be to change the background on that landing page to black?” Well, talk to any product person and you’ll realize that while this approach would make the customer happy and is doable, it’s not going to help the team get anywhere with the product overall (there’s raraley a small change). Saying no is hard, but it’s super important.

Sometimes, You Just Have to Say No

Since saying no was hard, I started to save emails that I sent to customers and created a little template that I kept in Evernote with some common responses and helpful wording. That way if I needed to respond to something, I wasn’t sitting there staring at the computer thinking “how the hell am I ever going to say no to this? Here are a few of the things that helped me respond to customers. Hopefully they can help you.

  1. Not every question needs a long winded answer or a reason. If it’s a quick ask, like “Hey is it possible to XYZ with your product?” sometimes just saying no completely diffuses the question. People like to talk and if they have a direclty line to you, they will talk. I was surprised at how many times someone was asking “just because” or responded with “oh, ok nevermind” after I said no — but early on assumed that if I said no, they were immediately going to churn.
  2. Try not to say “unfortunately.” When you say unfortunately, it implies that something is, well, unfortunate. Instead of “unfortunately, we don’t integrate with X Platform” just try to and stick to “Right now we don’t integrate with X Platform” or “Currently, we ___”
  3. Empathy. Show your understanding that this is something that they want (“I understand that this would be helpfu and save you some time, but…”
  4. Don’t be overly excited about the idea. You are gearing up to say no, remember? Don’t set them up for a let down. Avoid “this is a great idea” and try: “Interesting. I’ve added this to our list of product suggestions that we evalute each quarter. Thanks for taking the time to share this with me.”
  5. After you say no, explain why. No won’t be good enough, so try and provide some color as to why. It’s even better the more honest you can be: “We’re a really small team and right now we are working on X and Y. We don’t want to take the team off track on delivering on those two things.”
  6. Never say “this is something we hear a lot.” This is one of the best things I learned from our VP of Product: “You’re the first person to mention this. I’ll keep an eye out and see what other customets have to say and we’ll consider adding this feature only after we receive a number of similar requests.” H/T to Alex Jenkins for this.

Even though you’re saying no, it doesn’t mean your work is done. Keep a list of all of the requests that come up and set aside some time to walk through that list each month with the product team. One of the best things we did was a create a customer scorecard that allowed us to rank requests by the customer that was requesting it (i.e. if it’s our biggest or most strategic customer, it would get prioritized higher than someone on the free version).