The Positive Power of Saying “No”

Published: May 14, 2024

Some of the most vivid memories from my career are also some of my least favorite. One of them is the time during an opportunity review meeting (a round table with senior leadership to determine if a project can succeed, or how to mitigate the risks). We had examined every possible method, the customer was a large, important one, and we just could not find a path to success. A silence had come over the group. It had been quite a passionate and animated discussion to that point. The next thing I heard, obviously directed at me, was, “Well, it sounds like ‘Dr. No’ has spoken and we are done here.” It gave me pause. It was obviously a personal jab, and I did say “no” a lot, but that’s what I had been hired to do — to stop a business that was hemorrhaging due to overcommitment, poor oversight and lack of understanding effective risk analysis.

I never liked voting “no” and it was never personal. But, here’s the reality of it: saying “no” may be the best thing you could possibly say. Let’s examine a few reasons why.

The Illogical Argument

“This is a huge long-time customer, we HAVE to do it (even if we can’t!). Makes sense, right? No, it doesn’t, at all. If customer service is paramount, then we owe them due diligence in assessing our ability to deliver. And, even more importantly, we owe them the respect and trust that you will have the hard conversations. They deserve that and are trusting you to identify risks, mitigate them if possible or counsel them on alternative paths.

The Difficult Path

Having those frank conversations and being honest about the decision in saying “no” is not easy, nor should it be. Every reasonable effort to validate that decision is required. There’s an old saying, “Bad news doesn’t get better with age.” However, it does require due diligence to make sure it’s the right call. And although it may not be what the customer wants to hear, it’s what they need to hear. I’ve been part of many such conversations and led them myself, they are not fun. Yet, almost without exception, the established relationship was stronger, trust was deeper and outcomes (eventually) turned positive.

The Outer Limits and Beyond

A large part of making “no” palatable and even appreciated, is framing the situation, reasons and motivations correctly. If the customer understands that you are making the decision through their lens (is this good for me,  the customer?) the barriers begin to fall. There is always room to discuss why saying “yes” (when you shouldn’t) is not good for you (as the provider), and those reasons may be driving the decision. I always try to make an analogy that is relatable, especially when the risks are too far outside of your ability to manage or the requirements too far outside of your core competencies.

I have a dentist who I’ve gone to for years. Completely competent, very considerate, gets me in fast when needed…they may be the best dentist ever! But I wouldn’t ask them to remove my appendix, and if the pain were so great that in my tortured state for some reason I did ask, I’d expect them to say “no.”

A Day at the Beach

Now, for the seven or eight folks who are actually still reading this,  I can bet what you are thinking by now: “You should never just say “No. You should offer options.” And I completely agree.

Saying “no” is not a decision to be reached lightly, even if followed by “But.” However, the “No” part is the hardest for most folks to say and requires the deepest effort. As for the “buts,” there are some tried and true best practices that can help the conversation and reduce risk.

Trying new or unproven things may be best in a Sandbox. A mindful, collaborative place where you can proof concepts and show proof of outcomes to the customer. Let them experience it before the commitment or failure.

A Play (with the concept) date and the Sandbox build trust, shows investment in your part, and gets all the required parties involved to make informed decisions. It may even result in changing the ask so that you can confidently say “Yes.” And if they take it somewhere else? That’s okay, and validates the decision.

And if they are upset? That’s unfortunate, but sometimes unavoidable. However, I’ve experienced many upset customers who went off and found someone who would do what they demanded, who didn’t tell them “no” and it failed. Many of these came back to the folks who saw past the short-term gains of saying “yes,” did the work and had the difficult conversations. That’s an incredible foundation to build upon.

Final Thoughts

Some of my greatest career successes were the projects that I didn’t do, at least not in their original form. Countless times, we would not do things that we simply knew the customer would not be happy with, even if they thought they would. In all of those instances saying “no” pushed the conversations to discovering the real requirement of  the use case, which was decidedly different from the ask and infinitely more deliverable.

Ultimately, the customer is not always right, and they rely on us as subject matter experts to tell them that when it’s in their best interests. And it never stops. “No” is never easy to say, even when it’s so incredibly important to say it. What’s more, doing so takes a toll, even though the outcome is ultimately better for having done so. And it is always the right time to do the right thing.

Bill Lawrence headshot.

Bill Lawrence

William J. Lawrence Jr. CTS-D, CTS-I, CQD, CQT, CQA, is executive director for The Association for Quality in Audio Visual Technology.

Posted in: Insights

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