When I was 16, I interviewed for a cashier position at Corner Bakery. The manager asked me to choose between customer service and hospitality and explain why one was better than the other. I bombed it, partly because I had no idea how hospitality applied to baked goods and partly because of the dry-mouth I get during job interviews. Though my cashiering career was stunted that day, I learned the basics of good customer service: it means solving needs before they exist… and doing it cheerfully. Lame as it sounds, Corner Bakery was right. Hospitality is a better goal to set for your business because it inspires a mentality of reaching further rather than performing the bare minimum. But what many businesses don’t realize is that reaching further doesn’t have to cost much, and it certainly doesn’t mean running a yes-man operation.

The Need

Beneath every outrageous customer request, there’s a foundation of misunderstanding. The customer doesn’t grasp the limitations of what you can offer or why those limitations exist in the first place. It’s tough for people to recognize the barriers that prevent businesses from being the genie lamps we wish they were, especially when companies like Amazon and Google are getting scary-close to wish-granter status with same-day shipping and robots that know your favorite Jolly Rancher flavor (green, always). They’re not helping the cause of the small business that can only afford to hire from a pool of candidates who have to call their mom for their social security number.

On the other hand, the employee often misunderstands the customer’s request, inflating it into something much bigger, or they just don’t see a reasonable alternative, so they leave it at “No” when it should be “Well…” Employees sometimes forget that customers don’t know the language of the business. There may be an easy solution; they just don’t know how to ask for it. Dancing around the language barrier is an important skill for any cashier, clerk, or customer service rep to develop. If you can uncover the need quickly, you’ll get extra points for decoding and then delivering on that need.

The Workaround

When it turns out the request is an outrageous one, good customer service is especially necessary. Customers are more liable to develop steadfast views about your company when they’re in the expectancy phase—their hopes are high and they’re gearing up for good news. This is a critical time for that cheery hospitality. Employees will often turn customers down flat with a reasonable explanation for why, preface their response with a cringing “unfortunately,” or try to sugarcoat the “no” with some unrelated offer. All three are mistakes that lead customers toward greater disappointment than necessary.

Instead of dwelling on the “no” and matching their response to the negative reaction they expect from the customer, employees are better off getting to the next part: what they can do. Even customers with foiled hopes appreciate a good alternative, so the workaround tactic is huge for businesses big and small. To instill this attitude in your employees, you first need to educate them enough on your product that they’re able to find unique solutions. It’s not too hard to do that—retail and entry-level customer service jobs can be mind-numbingly monotonous, but the moment you give someone the freedom to be creative, they get better at their job. Set the tone during training and make it clear that a flat “no” isn’t always the answer. Just don’t forget to empower them to be blunt when it counts. By creating an environment of engaged problem-solving, you’ll do better by your customers and your employees.

Tools That Help

You don’t need a multi-person team to make hospitality a priority. One-person operations can vastly improve customer service by developing a solution-driven mindset with customers. The time you waste dwelling on limitations is better spent on alternatives, and there are a few ways you can simplify the creative process:

  • If you find you’re getting one common request that just can’t be done, post an FAQ or suggestion that leads customers toward your workaround. This could be on a store sign, a website, an app—all of these offer quick answers for questions you’re tired of answering. Many bars that don’t serve food keep local restaurants’ menus stocked and set up deals for free delivery. They probably got “Do you serve food?” a dozen times and realized “Unfortunately, no” was sending people next door.
  • Limited hours? Set up mobile ordering or reservation options that do work while you’re away. Customers won’t fault you for your 4-day week if they can place next week’s order through your app.
  • When your products take a bit more time, don’t get caught up apologizing away the delays. Be clear about what you offer from the start. A restaurant by the Pantages Theater that’s known for its desserts tells customers right away if they’ve cut it too close for a soufflé before the show. Big disappointment if you came for the chocolate, but they list it on their online and printed menus, and the wait staff quickly moves past it by focusing on the wine selection. Smooth.

When you’re considering your next business move, whether it’s a product or service change, don’t forget to fit in the workarounds. Every move will make someone unhappy. It’s the reality of running a business that can’t afford to do it all. Just remember that you’re in control of the wild requests. Don’t bring an “unfortunate” ending to an opportunity to do a bit more.