A simple word: two letters, one syllable. But those of us in business (and definitely those of us with kids) know that the complexity of this little word goes far beyond almost any other word in the English language.
Catch phrases like “Just Say No” or “No Means Yes” have made an indelible mark on our culture, and we have become a society adept at reading nonverbal cues to determine whether our colleagues, politicians and even family members are sincere when they say “no.”
Sometimes, however, saying “no” is absolutely the right thing to do. The meetings business is built on selling/producing/supplying/hosting experiences. Whether we are trying to earn business for our property, win a production contract or supply the speakers and entertainment, sales is a fundamental responsibility.
That said, many people often find themselves at odds with the long-term strategies of their organizations. Salespeople who are rewarded for each incremental sale have an implicit conflict based on their personal needs and wants versus the creation of healthy, profitable customer relationships for the organization.
When and why would I ever say no to a client? The answer is not a simple one. I would argue that opportunity cost is the single greatest expense of an organization. The cost of 1) not being able to pursue new business, 2) lost business because of an inappeasable customer or 3) inconsistent signals based on the customer base can be crippling to any organization.
There are four types of situations for which we should always say no. - Clients/Opportunities that are not consistent with our core values and core strengths - Clients who are not consistent with our values/brand (remember that we are measured in the marketplace by the company we keep whether real or perceived) - Clients that are mathematically unprofitable (either directly related to profits or time invested) - Clients who causes a distraction both within the office and from the outside
Let’s face it, opportunity cost—the cost associated with missing another opportunity because you were engaged in something else—is a nice concept, but is it measurable like the other expenses for which we are responsible? That is possible, if we run fancy algorithms and succumb to some boring matrix theory, but in reality there are always going to be unknowns.
We do have some inarguable facts to support the notion that turning away clients/opportunities (saying no) makes enormous sense. Take for example the fact that time is our most scarce resource. Hard to argue with that one, right? Time creates an immediate premium on anyone (or anything) on which we choose to spend it. Hence, by pursuing any of the above-mentioned activities, we are not only paying the cost of the chase, we are paying it at a premium. Say no.
Second, let’s look at the controversial concept of momentum. Momentum is not something we typically measure in our sales meetings or with the board. Karma and luck are also words we sometimes associate with unexplainable fortune (both good and bad). Consider that home-court or home-field advantage in sporting environments creates such a significant advantage that it affects the odds of winning. Business is really no different. Having troublesome clients or working on projects that we despise creates a culture of resentment and apathy that impacts momentum. Say no.
Can momentum be measured? Perhaps not. Can it make a difference? You bet! We know that others (clients, prospects and the marketplace) judge us by the clients we earn. It’s as simple as that. If we accept clients who are not consistent with the perception we want in the marketplace, we accept their reputations as ours. That may not be a message that we like to hear, but it is reality. So the next time we are faced with an ethical dilemma or are enticed by an opportunity that creates too much of a gray zone think twice and then walk away. Integrity is how we behave when no one is watching. While our own integrity may be sound, if our customers’ integrity is not aligned with our core values, we risk too much. Say no.
Saying no can actually be a profitable strategy in the right context, but how do we do it? There are three steps we can all take to help guide our behaviors and stay on track. First, we (as managers, salespeople and executives) need to create systems that support what we stand for. Develop policies that give you a benchmark for decision-making and also an out when you find yourself facing a volatile situation: “Thank you Mrs. X but we have a policy here that does not allow for xxx.” Oftentimes people will go against their own desired behaviors simply because they are put in a situation that is too uncomfortable. Instead of disabling their abilities to make decisions, support them with systems that promote profitable, healthy deal making.
Second, resist the temptation to spend time and resources reinventing the wheel. Every business has certain components of their service offerings that remain consistent. At THE AGENCY, we say we want to “make the routine…routine.” In other words, figure out what works and then figure out a system to replicate that result over and over again. Only then can you spend quality time figuring out how to be great for your clients.
Third, create a forum for reviewing various opportunities in a safe, positive way so that unprofitable activities can be minimized. Often we get so personally involved in opportunities that we lose objectivity. In these cases, the advice of a colleague can often make all the difference. Keep in mind, many situations that go awry likely could have been fixed at various points along the way. Developing a way to converse openly about situations will create more positive customer relationships. Going 100 miles in the wrong direction actually puts us 200 miles away from our goal.
One of the absolute toughest lessons I learned in business is that saying no can be a positive business strategy. We all know that our least-profitable customers can take up the vast majority of our time and resources. If we have a good client-retention policy for our best customers and a good exit strategy for our unprofitable customers, we are watching our top line and our bottom line and we are operating at an optimum level. This frees us up to more passionately pursue new opportunities, develop stronger bonds with our current customers and create new services and solutions for the marketplace.
DAN SIMS, CMP, is founder and president of THE AGENCY Speakers LLC, based near Washington, D.C. He can be contacted at [email protected]
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