The Power of “No” in Business: The Best Sales Tactic

One of the best sales tactics is learning how to say “no.” That sounds counterintuitive, right? Well, it isn’t.

When it comes to sales, if you’re the one selling, your goal is to bring in revenue. But your customer has a different goal: to pay as little as they can and get as much as possible.

Not every customer is like that, of course. Many recognize the inherent value of the product or service you provide and understand that you should be paid fairly for it. Those are the customers you want to keep forever.

The customers I’m talking about are the ones who ask for more and more – often after a contract is signed – and expect you to do additional work for free. Or the ones who want to keep negotiating the price long after you’ve agreed to fair terms. Those are the customers you have to learn to say “no” to.

The word “no” has the power to make your business more desirable to potential clients, weed out people you don’t want to work with and, most importantly, increase your bottom line. Plus, learning how to establish boundaries is an important skill to have, both in business and in life.

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Why People Don’t Say “No” When They Should

Saying “no” is hard, especially in business. If you want someone to pay you for a product or service and you decline their demands, you might lose a potential client or customer one you’ve probably put significant time and effort into landing.

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Another reason why we don’t say “no” is because it’s uncomfortable. Our brains are hardwired with a “negativity bias,” which makes us more sensitive to any kind of negative input. This trait served us well in the hunter-gatherer days when survival literally depended on being able to avoid danger. Today, that bias gives us a desire to avoid difficult interactions.

Potential or even current clients might get angry at being told “no.” They may push harder. So to avoid dealing with those uncomfortable reactions, we sometimes say “yes,” even when we don’t want to.

The problem with giving in to the unreasonable demands of customers is that you’re letting them know that their behavior is okay. And if they think it’s okay, they will continue to do it. It’s much harder to set boundaries with clients after you’ve already let them move the goalposts.

Your work should be on your terms. And if that means having difficult conversations with those who want it on their terms, then you have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Dive Deeper:

The Benefits of Saying “No”

Saying “no” in business comes with a lot of advantages, some of which are obvious and others that aren't. Here are a few benefits of learning to stand your ground:

Saying “No” Makes Clients Want You More

You know the old dating advice about playing hard to get? It applies to business, too. The less available you seem, the more that clients will want to work with you.

The key to this, of course, is striking the right balance. You don’t want clients to think that you have no time for them. Every client should get your personal attention, but they have to understand that you have other clients.

Here’s an example: Say you’re a social media marketing agency and you sell your services in different packages. A potential client wants your smallest package, but wants to pay less because there’s one thing included in the package that he doesn’t need. But your smallest package is the minimum amount you want to work for. What do you do? You say no.

Yes, there’s a chance that client won’t sign with you, but if he’s already invested the time and effort and thought you were a good fit, the “no” might actually make him more likely to work with you. You’ve showed him three things about yourself by turning down his offer, including:

  • You know how to run your business
  • You have enough clients who value your work that you’re willing to risk losing his business
  • You have a backbone and deserve respect

Saying “No” Protects Your Time

If you don’t set boundaries with demanding clients, you’re going to end up losing time. Always remember that time is money.

Those clients who, during the course of a project, keep asking for one little extra thing here and one little extra thing there with no written promise of additional payments are trying to steal your time and your money. Don’t let them.

Say your social media marketing agency does Facebook ads, but a new client told you she wasn’t interested in paid content. You create a post for her and she asks you to boost it “just to try it out.” It may seem like a small thing, but you have to have a budget discussion.

Maybe you need to set up an ads account for her because she doesn’t already have one. Who do you think is going to do reporting? You. Next thing you know, you’re doing it all the time, for free.

That’s not to say that you should never throw in a freebie, particularly for your best clients. But anything you do that falls outside the scope of the contract should be done on your terms, not theirs.

At Single Grain, we recently had a situation where a client with a huge budget in the millions blew off the first two meetings we scheduled. Those hours that we sat around waiting weren’t billable hours; we hadn’t even signed a contract yet. And when we did finally connect, it turned out that they had a bunch of unreasonable expectations. In the end, we decided it wasn’t worth our time.

Saying “No” Makes Your Business Relationships Better

The more comfortable you get with saying “no,” the better you’ll be able to navigate professional relationships. The brand/customer relationship should be one of give and take, and it should be beneficial to both parties.

The worst business relationships are the ones where someone feels like they’re being taken advantage of. You need to set boundaries with your clients so they’ll know they can’t make unfair demands on you. If you exude confidence, they’re less likely to even try.

Saying no accomplishes something else, too: it lets the other person know that they can say no. When both people feel like they can speak freely, good relationships develop. This goes for clients, customers, employees and managers alike.

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Saying “No” Helps You Refine Your Product or Service Offerings 

Over time, you’ll find that there are some things you say “no” to over and over. You can use those things to evaluate whether or not your business needs to be tweaked.

In the social media marketing agency example, what if your clients keep coming to you and asking you to do Pinterest, but it’s not among the services you offer? Will those clients then go to someone else or would they attempt to do it themselves? Maybe after your fifth “no,” it’s time to think about whether you should start offering Pinterest with your services.

Or maybe there are some tasks that you routinely say “yes” to because you think you have to, but you wish you could say no. Try it. You might be surprised by how little your clients miss it, and you can get something you hate doing off your plate.

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When to Say “No”

You want to be reasonable, but you don’t want to be a pushover. So how do you decide when to just say no?

Just Say No

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I really want to work with this client or customer?
  • Does this client respect my time?
  • Will saying “yes” make me lose money?
  • Are the client's demands outside of the agreed-upon scope?

If you’re just starting out and need the business and the money, the third point might be the only one that really matters to you. But if you’re already an established business and you answer no to the last two questions, you should strongly consider saying “no” to this client.

How to Say “No”

Learning how to say “no” is a skill like any other and it requires practice. If you’re learning from scratch, make it easier on yourself. Try it with your friends or, in a business context, try it over email first. Then, when you get comfortable, you can start to refine your approach.

Here are my basic rules on how to say “no” effectively:

Establish Boundaries Early 

Make it a point to lay out your processes and expectations as early as possible with a new client. This includes your work hours, turnaround times and preferred methods of communication. Communicate how any work requests outside of the scope will be handled in terms of prioritization and billing.

Setting boundaries with clients won’t eliminate the need to say no later, but it’s much easier to remind a client about your work hours than it is to bring it up halfway through a project.

Explain Why You’re Saying No

If someone asks you for a 30% discount of your services and all you say is “no,” you are 1) going to lose the business, and 2) have that person tell everyone what a jerk you are.

If someone asks you for a 30% discount on your services and you say, “I can’t do it. If I did, I would have to spend less time on your project, and I wouldn’t be able to deliver on the full scope of the project and help you grow your business.”

See the difference? When you give a reason, it’s harder for the client to argue. They know that you’ve done the math and determined that a 30% discount isn’t worth your time. Then they have a decision to make: find someone cheaper or pay you what you’re asking for.

Some will find someone cheaper, but they probably aren’t the clients that you’d end up having a long-term relationship with anyway.

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Offer an Alternate Solution

If you give a client a choice beyond “take it or leave it,” they’ll be more likely to negotiate a reasonable deal. Using the above example, if you said, “We can give you a 30% discount, but we won’t be able to deliver on these aspects of the proposal.”

Whatever alternate solution you agree on, whether it’s before you close the deal or after, always get it in writing. Revise the scope, revise the contract – whatever you need to do to ensure that the changes are documented.

Dive Deeper:

Saying “No” Is Part of Playing the Game

There’s a famous quote by Marc Cuban: “Every no gets me closer to a yes.” Learning how to say “no” is one of the most important sales skills to master so that you can get to the “yesses”. The “yes” might come from a current client you've just said “no” to, or an even better client that you go on to land after you lose the previous one. Either way, it’s a win for you.

Remember that the best salespeople in the world at the best companies in the world get rejected all the time. It’s the same thing with baseball – you’re going to get a strike most of the time. But the ones you hit? Those clients are going to be the ones that you want to work with long-term.

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