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The most powerful word in your vocabulary

During the building boom, I ran a region of a company that sold tens of millions of dollars to a national builder. One day, I was called in with my sales manager and informed that the builder had determined that all lumber companies were “cheating” them to the tune of $1,800 per house package. They also inferred that their CEO thought this was a criminal action they might need to refer to the authorities. However, they were going to give us the opportunity to make it right. Because we had supplied 225 house packs that year, if we wrote them a check for $405,000, all would be forgiven. If we did not, we would lose all of their business.

I replied that while there was savings that both parties could achieve if we worked together, we were not cheating anybody on our lumber packages. They then asked if I would make a financial counter offer to keep their business. My reply to them was, “No.” I further explained that if I gave them a single penny, I would be admitting to something that we were not doing, nor was it happening elsewhere. I told them they would have to do what they thought was best, but I hoped they would realize that we were a very good partner and would want to do more business with us. A couple of my competitors who did very little business with the builder paid the “fine,” thinking it would get them more business. We lost a couple developments for about two weeks, but ultimately got them back, along with about twice as much business as we had before. In the end, the builder respected us more for saying no to what I confirmed later was a completely fabricated issue than they did the suppliers that fell for it and paid the money.

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When we deal with customers, employees, and even loved ones, we often struggle to tell them no, when in fact it is the best reply (just ask any parent of a two-year-old). It’s partly due to a desire to avoid confrontation. With salespeople, it runs counter to their desire to please the customer. As leaders, we often want to soften the blow. Some people have a need to be liked, so they struggle to say no. It can be one of the first traps people fall into when they take leadership positions, especially when they are leading the same people they used to work with. Having your people like you, while it may feel nice, will not make you an effective leader. Having the respect of your people, even if they don’t really like you, is what makes a leader effective.

I encourage you to learn to say no. Note that there are different ways to effectively say no. You can say it outright and then wait for a reply; this is the first-one-to-speak-loses strategy. Or, you can say, “No, I can’t do that, but I can do this.” The important thing is to start with a definitive answer of “No”, then build from there. The funny thing about giving your people a definitive no is that when you say, “Yes”, it makes the answer feel all the sweeter. Saying no can also move the process along much faster.

On a recent Saturday, I went out to a house build where the customer was having some window problems. The house was at framing stage, and the window installer had racked some of the windows when he installed them. The technician from the window company had showed it to the customer when he came out to inspect the problem. However, in an effort to make the customer feel good, he pointed out several windows that had weather stripping improperly installed, and he offered to come back and fix them at no charge. The customer turned this around, claiming all of the windows were defective.

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By the time I got involved, he was demanding new windows, or he was going to tear them out, leave them at one of our yards, and not pay the bill. While visiting him, I explained that the windows all were very fixable and that the manufacturer would stand by them. I told him that if he ripped out the windows, he would lose any leverage he had with the manufacturer. I also explained that if he did not pay for the windows, because we did everything we were hired to do, we would take any and all recourse to do what we needed to do to get paid. When I left, the customer was adamant that he was taking out the windows and not paying for them. I still stood my ground. By the following Friday, the customer was asking when the technician could come out.

The customer may not have liked us at that point, but he had moved beyond the point where he felt he could disrespect us and was now looking for other solutions. All because of the power of “No.”

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