There are two pieces of business advice that I recall being the worst advice I’ve ever gotten to date. The one I immediately called foul on was “Be like Steve Jobs!” Unless you’re the CEO and chief rainmaker of a hugely profitable and influential tech company speaking like this generally results in you clearing out your desk or otherwise given the boot so hard that there’s an imprint on your ass cheek for the next week.
The other advice makes more sense on paper but less so when you’ve actually attempted it. It’s the ever-popular chestnut “Don’t take no for an answer!” It’s sales advice for everyone from people who work in sales to entrepreneurs to small business owners, repeated ad nauseum from business coaches, consultants and marketing companies. It’s also horrible advice.
This idiom was first recorded in 1930 in Winston Churchill’s My Early Life : “Don’t take no for an answer, never submit to failure.” In the context Churchill is using, he simply means that “no” shouldn’t be assumed to be a reflection of you, and that failure isn’t something you should concede to when you hear no.
What I’ve learned in the past few years is that people have a habit of attributing their successes to themselves and their failures to external circumstances. If anything, the opposite tends to be true. Whether any sales professional will admit it or not, a successful sale stems from the idea that people will be interested in your product or service. Sales coaches and consultants always pitch secret ritualistic sales techniques designed to result in 101% conversion.
The problem with this line of thought is that sometimes people won’t want what you’re selling. Even if you’ve identified a specific need there are a million variables in play that have nothing to do with how good of a salesman you are. Or maybe if people lose interest during the sales process, maybe they had second thoughts and didn’t decide they hated you? There’s no telling what people might think.
Instead, what many people have twisted this into is the idea that “no” itself is a failure on you – and therefore you can’t take no for an answer under any circumstances whatsoever or it means you’ve failed. I already detailed why this is absurd, but on a broader level, what would your successful sales even mean if you had no failures?
The example that prompted me to write this post was my walk-in pitch to a deli with no website. I gave them my card and they asked me to follow up with their manager. We had a good conversation that ended on a very positive note, but to my initial disappointment, when I followed up the owner said they weren’t going to build a website. I shrugged, thanked them for the consideration and invited them to call me if they needed anything.
You may be thinking that I should have not taken no for an answer and gone into a prepared “retention strategy” on how awesome my services are. That I should have kept contacting them weekly until they reconsidered. Even if this sort of tactic actually worked (more on that later, though), I had no idea of knowing what was going on behind closed doors. Maybe they had suddenly run into dire financial straits, or the owner was dealing with a serious personal issue, or maybe it was just an unusually busy week.
Sure enough, the deli wound up closing its doors two months later. Taking no for an answer wasn’t going to stop that from happening. For all any of us know, they may have decided to close within minutes after meeting me.
If you’re still not convinced, just watch this video.
Yeah, remember this? The Internet exploded over it back in 2014. Engadget editor Ryan Block spent a staggering 20 minutes in the phone with a Comcast customer service representative who tried with increasing desperation to get Block to not cancel his service, which was no longer necessary in the first place.
Try to listen to the mental thought process going through this Comcast representative’s mind as he talks to Block with increasing urgency. You can practically visualize the script he’s going through in his head, where the process is a complex Rubik’s cube of derailing the conversation, emphasizing how super-special-awesome Comcast is (hah!), and just making a concerted effort to bludgeon and cajole Block into staying as a customer. By absolutely any and all means necessary. Despite how calm he is, Ryan Block’s increasing incredulity can be heard as well.
Now picture how you felt just listening to the first minute of that recording. Maybe you were getting exhausted or drained just listening to it. Maybe it was irritating you. Hell, maybe you wanted to deck that Comcast representative in the mouth.
Now imagine you’re the Comcast representative. This is how you look to people when you ascribe to this “Don’t take no for an answer” philosophy. Beyond being a good reason to slag off on Comcast, this recording represents the logical end game of the “hard sell.”
This is why the most frequent case with sales in any business setting place are at an automatic disadvantage. The individual they’re selling to (seriously, stop referring to them as “prospects”; it’s dehumanizing, but topic for another time). It’s not because they hate being sold to, and it has nothing to do with the product. People being sold to put their guards up because in their experience, it’s going to take too much effort (read: any) to make the salesperson accept a simple “No.”
The really sad fact is that this is the state of sales in business. People are conditioned to expect manipulation and Fisher Price Jordan Belfort-ism, like this scene from the movie. I’ve seen other articles bring up Boiler Room and Glengarry Glenn Ross this way too. In a way, it becomes more about the sale than it is actually providing the product or service you’re (ostensibly) supposed to provide.
If you can accept the short term loss of a sale that you likely weren’t going to get anyway, you’ll also find yourself a lot happier. Accepting no for an answer means saving your own time, making you less miserable when dealing with a bad transaction, and giving you a reputation as a reasonable person.
If you’re willing to think longer term, it may even turn into a successful sale. I pitched a local retail store on a referral a few times once, and despite it being a referral the store declined despite being interested. They didn’t dislike me or my service offering; they just had a great deal going on internally and it wasn’t on their mind. Six months later they eventually got back to me, to my pleasant surprise, and they’re still with me today.
My example beats being in that Comcast representative’s situation, doesn’t it?