A popular topic among product management bloggers is, How can I say no to my customers? Christopher Cummings has the most recent musings. The Cranky Product Manager and Jeff Lash have also written about the topics–along with practically every other PM blogger out there.

Obviously, it’s important to handle customers deftly when you can’t comply with their requests. You’d like to keep the conversation friendly, but sometimes, the situation gets confrontational. Your diplomatic skills will face their toughest challenge.

All politics is local
I might have been unusually blessed with reasonable, understanding customers, but I never found the "foreign policy" part of saying no to be that difficult. The real headache, at least where I’ve worked, was "domestic politics"–what happens within your own company when you have to say no to a customer.

Anxieties run high within your own company when No is the only answer you can provide (other than some possible workarounds). Salespeople worry about the long-term revenue impacts of customer dissatisfaction. Marketing people wring their hands over losing a customer reference. Executives who have built relationships with the higher-ups in the customer organization get cranky.

The more you have to watch your back, the harder it will be to say no. It’s a no-win situation, because the real obstacle isn’t you, but the development team’s ability or willingness to deliver what the customer wants.

If you’ve arrived at this unhappy point, you have more problems than the immediate dilemma over how to handle this particular customer. Product management, as I’ve argued in earlier posts, is an acutely political job. Effective product managers have to learn how to negotiate, cajole, wheedle, inspire, and deflect, none of which is possible if you don’t have a strong position in the company.

You can ask for full diplomatic powers when you deal with customers. The company trusts you to act in its interests; you promise to do everything you can to keep the customer happy without making commitments that no one can keep. PMs rarely get this sort of plenipotentiary powers, however. You might want to treat this special envoy status with a boulder-sized grain of salt.

Avoid being a supremo
If someone says to you, "I have an exciting opportunity for you to be a real hero, handling some tough customer enhancement requests," don’t answer. First, watch this short video from the brilliant BBC sitcom Yes, Minister, which should be required viewing for any product manager:

The Minister thinks that being "transport supremo" is a real honor, but instead, it’s a time bomb. So, too, are situations in which you have to say no to a customer, but you don’t have the political mojo in your own company to deal with the aftermath.

[Cross-posted at The Heretech.]