Why Saying "No" Can Be a Great Sales Tool

The flim-flam artist school of sales can only get you so far. For great salesmanship and happy customers, try being honest about what you can and can't do.
Founder and Chairman, Palo Alto Software, Inc.
October 26, 2016

I once thought that I hated sales because sales was supposedly about the silver-tongued—those with a natural gift of gab—coupled with a disregard for the truth. While that kind of selling still exists, I've learned that true salesmanship is about empathy. Great selling can come from caring enough about the customer and the business to match what the business does to what the customer needs—and saying no when there isn't a good match to be made.

The Myth of the Flim Flam

I first learned about the wrong kind of sales when I was a young man with a summer job selling encyclopedias door to door. We were supposed to trick our way into our customers' living rooms with an educational survey, then pitch encyclopedias as keys to future success. I failed, but people on the team succeeded. They bragged later about how they'd managed to get gullible people to buy what they didn't need and couldn't afford. They were wolves and customers were sheep. It was a culture of sales as flim flam.

Good selling is caring about people, listening to and understanding their needs, and then helping them.

I bet you've seen that same culture yourself today. I certainly do. Aside from the folklore of used-car sales, it also happens in business-to-business sales, especially with direct selling to larger companies. I've seen it in sales conferences for decades. It's the culture of high pressure, answering customers' objections and closing.

Does it work? What do you think?

Real Sales

I learned about a different kind of sales decades later, in steps. I guess I'm a slow learner, because it wasn't something I picked up in a book, lecture or workshop. It took years.

My first step was selling myself as a consultant. I was a one-person band. If I didn't sell, my family didn't eat. But if I did sell what I couldn't deliver, I'd have had unhappy clients, frustration and failure.

So I learned to say "No, that's not what I do." And I discovered that saying no gave me credibility. Some potential clients would then ask more about what I did do. And some would call me back later for what I did do. I saw selling as first listening to what my prospect needed, then matching that—or not—to what I could deliver.

The second step came later when I started selling software I'd developed myself. I started as a garage shop, packaging disks in plastic bags, and taking calls myself. As with my consulting services, if I oversold the capabilities of my software it would have just caused problems later. I would have to take the call from the unhappy customer and manage the return via credit card or check. That reinforced my instinct to say, "No, it doesn't do that." It also trained me to listen carefully during the initial call, ask the right questions and guess whether that person on the phone had a problem my product would solve.

A special bonus for me was the satisfaction of occasionally telling would-be customers that my competitor's software matched their needs better than my own. That was fun and satisfying because many would realize later that they'd misjudged their real need and actually did mean mine, not theirs. I had added the credibility of recommending a competitor to the credibility of saying no.

The Secret

Taken together, what I learned about selling is too simple and obvious to call a method. It's just common sense and empathy. Good selling is caring about people, listening to and understanding their needs, and then helping them.

Listening is absolutely essential. Avoid turning a conversation into an opportunity to spout hype and answer any customer objections. Listen first. Empathize, know what that person needs and wants and then you can match what you sell to what that person wants or needs. You have to know your product line or service well. Caring enough about the customer helps you offer real help when you can, and lets you say no when you have to. 

That, in a nutshell, works. I call it empathy.

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