In 2008 we pitched a piece of business that we really wanted and needed. The new business effort was a hard-fought battle and after numerous presentations our potential client told us the committee had narrowed it down to us and one other agency. The problem was we were more expensive than our competition. “As much as I’d like to work with you, they’ll do the job for less” the client told us.
Needless to say, our pricing had not been determined casually. Before we ever submitted a bid, my partner Roberto Schaps had built a well thought-out list of deliverables and figured out exactly what resources and investment it would take for us to do the work. We hadn’t discounted our price but we also hadn’t added a cushion for negotiating. Doing the job for less would provide much-needed cash flow but would not earn us any profits. And regardless of my Poppa Hy’s old line that he “lost money on every deal but made it up in volume,” we weren’t smart enough to figure out how to stay in business that way.
Remember that this was back in the dark days of the great recession and we really REALLY needed the business. But after a lot of number juggling, hand-wringing, and soul- searching, we finally went back to our prospect and said “no, we couldn’t do the job for less.”
When you say “no” you establish who you are, what you stand for, and — most importantly — what you will and will not do in a given situation. And whether you’re an advertising agency desperately trying to make payroll; an unwilling young woman being offered another drink at a fraternity kegger; an elected official being told by their party leaders to change course on an issue that they promised to their constituency; or an artist debating changing a piece of artwork in order to have it hung in a gallery, getting the “yes” you want often comes down to your ability to say “no.”
Because of its incomparable ability to establish terms and boundaries, “no” might very well be the most powerful word in the English language. Thanks to the naked simplicity of just two letters —‘n’ and ‘o’ — the word “no” has a raw power that can’t be enhanced with more letters or syllables. “What part of ‘no’ didn’t you understand?” says it all about as clearly and succinctly as any comeback you can employ.
Most of us want to be positive, helpful, agreeable, and we want to be liked. So we don’t like to say “no.” “No” is not friendly, it’s not happy; it’s not what people want to hear. But unless we’re willing to draw our line in the sand and say “no,” then we can’t really achieve the outcome we want. Ironically, sometimes the only way to get to “yes” is to start with “no.”
“No, I won’t compromise my values.”
“No, I will not vote against my best interests.”
“No, I cannot sacrifice my ideals.”
Of course, not saying “no” because we want to be nice is really a misnomer. After all, what’s nice about agreeing to a task that you already know you’re not going to be able to complete well or on time? What’s nice about saying “yes” to a social engagement that you don’t want to go to, don’t have time to attend, and will probably wind up blowing off? And even if you’re not concerned about being nice to the person asking you to do something, what’s nice about putting yourself under the pressure of doing something you don’t want to do?
So repeat after me: “No, I can’t do that.” “No, I don’t want to do that.” “No, I won’t change my mind.” “No, I will not be there.” “No, I can’t lower my price.”
And speaking of not lowering prices, did we get that piece of business back in 2008 when the economy was sucking the wet mop and lots of businesses were hurting and we refused to lower our fee? Considering that I’m still writing these blogs and our business is humming along better than ever, I think you can figure out the answer (and it’s not “no”).