When you’re running a small business, loyal customers are everything and keeping regulars happy is one of your most important jobs. But what do you do when one of your customers asks for something that you know doesn’t make good business sense, such as for you to extend a promotion to them or waive a missed class fee? How do you say “no” while still preserving the relationship and (hopefully) keeping their business? Is there a right (or best) way to say no? The answer is 100% yes.

Saying no is never easy, especially when you’re declining a request from a VIP member. The key to saying no is to say it gracefully, without burning any bridges, and to immediately redirect the conversation to positive alternatives. Larry Track, owner and founder of Track Fitness in Toronto, advises against using the word no when turning down a customer’s request. Instead, he says, “explain to your client why you can’t grant the request and highlight some other positive options.”

Have a Plan B

How do you avoid using the word no and what do those other positive options look like? In his book, “The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes,” author William Ury recommends following a three-step process. For starters, say yes to yourself and your key needs and interests. Standing firm to preserve your studio’s principles is important and if saying no means you’ll protect your values, you’re doing the right thing. Second, say no with confidence and authority and demonstrate that your plan B is a better idea than saying yes to their request. Finally, negotiate your way to yes by suggesting something that will satisfy both of you while keeping the relationship in tact.

When a customer asks for something that doesn’t align with your studio values, you’ll be doing your business a favor by saying no. It’s natural to want to say yes and keep members happy, but that should never be done at the expense of setting a bad business precedent.

It’s natural to want to say yes and keep members happy, but that should never be done at the expense of setting a bad business precedent.

Once you make an exception for one member, others will quickly follow suit with the same request.

Offer a Compromise You Can Both Live With

Debbie Wolff, owner and director of Fusion Fitness and O2 Yoga in Coral Springs, FL, sells a lot of packages with expiration dates written on the receipts. Her studio offers up packages at less than half the original price via a one-day flash sale. Beyond time limitations, the studio’s receipt also says there are no cancellations, refunds or sharing any part of the package.

Inevitably, Wolff says, members will call and ask why their package has expired and if the studio can extend the deadline. “We are usually very reasonable if the person has a good reason why he or she hasn’t been able to use it,” she says. “I try to either extend the package a short time longer or ask if they would purchase a regular-priced package and I add a few classes onto that package to help their loss of classes. If we create a relationship of trust on both sides, both the client and studio are winners and happy.”

While that outcome doesn’t always happen, Wolff tries to offer her customers at least a part of the package. Even though she can’t honor their original request, she’s still giving them something valuable. Steady members are usually happy with this outcome. Customers who aren’t satisfied aren’t typically regulars anyway, and may be looking to move on to the next coupon deal advertised at another studio, she adds.

Listen and Be Empathetic

There will be times when there’s nothing you can say or offer to make a member happy. In the event that a customer isn’t satisfied by any alternatives you’ve offered, be sure to listen, be empathetic and assure the member that you have no choice but to abide by studio policies. The best way to preserve your relationship in cases like this is to sympathize with your member’s situation.

Take the focus off the member’s mistake and instead emphasize what you’ve tried to do to help. Consider asking the customer to walk in your shoes and how accommodating his or her request would mean you’d have to do the same for everyone, which would harm your small business. Assure the customer that you have taken the time to think about the request. Making a customer feel heard and understood goes a long way, especially if you can’t say yes.

Always Stay True to Your Studio Values

Sometimes, a member can cross the line by being disrespectful, haggling non-stop or bad-mouthing you or your employees. In situations like this, it’s usually best to agree to disagree and let the relationship lapse. Good leadership means you don’t let a customer with unreasonable demands push you around. By staying true to your studio values, you’re also setting a good example for other loyal members who play by the rules and those are the members you’ll want to keep for years to come.