Sales: Just Say ‘No’

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:35 pm

Salespeople hate to say, "no." Oh sure, they’ll decline to bid on a bad-fitting RFP now and then. But that’s not really saying no. Or shall we just say, it’s the easiest way to say no.
The hard way of saying no, the one that most salespeople shun, isn’t really about saying no, as such. It’s about asking the tough questions that help determine how much time and money to put into winning a deal and asking in a way that the customer understands the reason for the questions.
Salespeople don’t like to ask those questions. Who can blame them?
Maybe you, as a senior executive or business owner, think you should be off the hook here. "I pay my salespeople to ask those types of questions, don’t I?"
But the reality is most salespeople see themselves as the "customer’s advocate." As a result, they put responsiveness at or near the top of the list of their job descriptions. Because of this natural, built-in orientation toward customer advocacy and responsiveness, asking questions aimed at protecting their own company’s resources usually falls outside of the range of even the best sales professionals.
There’s also something else at play here. It’s far more subtle but no less damaging. How salespeople conduct themselves as they move through a sales campaign sends signals to customers about what future negotiations with them might be like. Every time a salesperson sends a customer advocate signal, he or she is handing power over to the customer when it comes time for financial negotiations later.
These signals, incidentally, aren’t always high-decibel. Beginning or ending a customer meeting by saying, "Thank you for taking time to meet with me" (or any of this phrase’s variants) is classic customer advocate language that suggests that only the customer’s time is valuable, not the salesperson’s.
A quick fix, by the way, is to say, "I’ve been looking forward to our meeting. I’m glad we were able to make our calendars connect." Sends a bit of a different signal, doesn’t it?
Bottom line: if you want your sales team to shed their customer advocate mindset, you have to give them permission. It’s up to a company’s executive team to create an environment in which salespeople feel a sense of accountability for the company’s money to the point that they are not afraid to ask customers the direct questions that need to be asked about how real an opportunity is and how likely their company is to win the deal.
How much is a customer advocate mindset costing your company?
There’s a common phrase in Spanish, "Vale la pena!" ("It is worthwhile!"). Figure 1 provides a quick and dirty way to help you quantify the cost of the customer advocate mindset. Run the numbers for your own company. You will quickly see that even a small improvement in this area will certainly be worthwhile. You will be able to deploy more resources to the right opportunities, thus improving win rates, and you’ll stop wasting money-chasing deals that you had no business pursuing in the first place.
Ultimately, all salespeople exist for one reason: to contribute profitable revenue to their own companies. One way they do this is to commit resources according to potential return. You, the leadership team, can exhort them to qualify better until you’re blue in the face. But all the qualification criteria in the world, and exhortations to use them won’t make a difference as long as salespeople’s DNA is coded with a customer advocate gene.
Building a mutual value mindset is a cultural/behavioral change. Management will need to reinforce it with the sales force at every turn. And, even harder, management will have to accept salespeople’s decisions when they, for example, decide to withhold resources, including their own selling time, from opportunities that might be in this quarter’s forecast.
There can be no backtracking on your part.

Figure 1: A quick estimate of what a customer advocacy mindset is costing your company
Consider the opportunities with potential new customers your company lost over the past year to competitors or because the prospect decided to do nothing at all. In a hypothetical world of 100 lost opportunities, distribute the 100 over the following:
a. Real opportunities the company realistically could have won but lost because it didn’t pursue them hard enough.
b. Real opportunities the company didn’t pursue at all but, in retrospect, should have.
c. Opportunities the company pursued that, in retrospect, were "unwinnable" or not even real in the first place.
– Based on a and b, estimate the percent increase in top line revenue your company might have won if those opportunities had been won.
– Based on c, estimate the percent increase in bottom line profit your company might have realized if it had not committed resources to unattainable opportunities.

Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC,
a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at
(262) 524-8099 or on the Web at

August 5, 2005, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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