Deal or No Deal?

The Importance of Saying No

It’s not much of an elevator speech, but distilled to a single sentence, I sell advertising for a living. I’ve been involved in the profession of sales in one way or another for at least 10 of my 16-plus years in agribusiness media, and it is both one of the most challenging and most rewarding careers I’ve had.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books and listened to a number of speakers on the subjects of advertising, marketing strategy, and the sale process, and I’ve picked up a lot of tidbits and wisdom from those resources.

Today I heard a phrase that I’ll hang on to for a while: “I’d rather turn you down than let you down,” speaker Ryan Dohrn said in response to an audience member’s question about budget-related objections.

It’s a powerful concept in the realm of advertising, because an advertiser who can’t – or more likely who simply isn’t willing yet – to commit fully to an advertising strategy is doomed to failure. Advertising for most products, goods or services is a long-term proposition, because most people aren’t in the market for a given product or service at any given time.

So like driving a nail into a board, it takes the repetitive whack of the ad/hammer to fully drive the concept home. And that’s why the speaker advised turning some clients down – to turn them down when you know the project is doomed to failure – rather than to let them down in a month when they inevitably call and say, “Well, the ad didn’t work!”

I had an experience that illustrated this wisdom last week. A client had come to our firm with a request for proposal on a marketing research project. Their intended audience was very small, and after much discussion with our research team, we agreed that we would not be comfortable proposing a research study because we didn’t think it was possible to obtain a statistically-valid sample size.

Turning down business is hard – we’re conditioned to work for the business, after all. But in this case, I was confident that saying “No thank you” was the right thing to do. As it turns out, when I explained why we were respectfully declining to propose our services, the client responded that they were grateful for our frank assessment and honesty.

Will that decision pay dividends down the road? I have no way of knowing at this point, but I believe that doing the right thing by your clients is a non-negotiable principle, because my goal is to be in partnership with my clients for the long-haul, not just for today’s sale.

And the principle of saying no isn’t only important in advertising sales, of course. Many of us struggle with saying no to projects or responsibilities that may not be in our rational self-interest personally or professionally, and many of us in small business are so eager to earn the business that we’ll accept deals that leave us little margin as a return to our efforts.

Understanding that it’s okay to say no – in fact that often times it’s critically important to say no – is an underrated skill in business. It takes both the wisdom to recognize when you can’t deliver the goods, so to speak, and then the aplomb to respectfully decline the request.

Saying no is hard, but when it’s the right thing to do, do it with grace and professionalism. Your business might actually depend on it.

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