Turn Down Requests With Finesse

Certain sales situations call for a thumbs down. But you can say "no" to your clients without actually uttering that word. Here’s how to frame the conversation in ways that build trust and strengthen long-term relationships.

While sales reps strive to make the customer happy, that doesn't mean always saying "yes" to their requests. Agreeing all the time can lead clients to believe they can get anything, anytime, without valuing the relationship or your worth as a consultant and expert in business branding and promotions. It's a paradox – you want to delight customers but may need to help them rethink their ideas occasionally.

Advantages spoke with sales reps about how to tactfully say "no" and increase their importance in their clients' marketing efforts as a result.

Steer Them in the Right Direction

Sales reps may need to nix an idea due to quality control, short timeline or poor fit with the customer's brand. When an insurance customer asked Denise Graziano, president of Graziano Associates LLC (asi/213121) for a polo shirt for an event, their price point was not consistent with the quality of their brand.

She told the client: "If you want people to remember this and not have it be something they clean the house in or clean the garage in, you want to make it a better quality product."

Graziano searched for alternatives and found a high-quality shirt at a low price because it was discontinued. Fortunately, production went smoothly, resulting in attractive shirts on budget and without reducing quantity.

"They were appreciative of the fact that we didn't want them to hand out shirts that would ultimately make them look bad," she says.

One sales pro convinced a real estate client that a tote bag would be a better option as a giveaway at an outdoor event than the pen they had their heart set on. "Their goal was to increase their brand visibility throughout the community. But people are going to take a pen home and put in a drawer," says Brian Waligora, senior account director at Pure Marketing Group (asi/302553).

Graziano says that while sales reps may feel uncomfortable giving a thumbs down to a client who's excited about their idea, position your approach so they know you want their ideas to be received by their target markets in the best possible way. "Whenever you approach any of these situations by giving them an explanation that makes sense and an alternative, really it's always a win-win – I've never had it not go well," she says.

Explain What They Pay For

Another promotional products company has had to turn down customer requests for lower prices. PromoPros/IncentPros Inc.'s (asi/300654) business model is to sell items at fair market value and provide a high level of personalized service. That could entail meeting FedEx on a loading dock on a weekend or delivering to a customer's house. The company doesn't "play the price game" or order items that they know are not well-made or from a reputable vendor.

"They do listen to us because we've become consultants instead of just selling things," says Leslie Roark, president. She also likes to build "wiggle room" into the project timeline so her company can fix problems if anything goes wrong.

For example, one client wanted a Red Carpet premier launch of their new corporate program to employees. They wanted to give microwave popcorn, candy and a Redbox movie voucher, all from different suppliers, in a cute package. But when the client gave the go-ahead, the event was only one week away. So Roark suggested an alternative – a pre-packaged striped "movie theatre" popcorn box with treats already in it. That reduced time by using one supplier and a ready-to-go package. Her team made one enhancement by adding Redbox ticket vouchers to the outside of the boxes.

"The client ended up saving in packaging and labor costs too," she says. "The event was a huge success, and our client was extremely happy."

Another sales pro says it's fairly common to have to veto price expectations when customers reach out to him after cruising the Internet, because they haven't noticed the hidden costs. Customers have one price in mind without knowing it's actually higher due to delivery, setup charges and other production fees.

"If you have buyers who like to source on their own, you typically have to steer them in another direction on occasion," says Noel Garcia, managing director at Boundless Network (asi/143717) in Austin, TX.

When a longstanding client told Garcia he could get a product cheaper, he was skeptical. The client, in the funeral home industry, had already placed a couple $250,000 orders for custom keepsake photo albums, but later told Garcia another rep could get the album at a much lower price. Sure, but was it the same high-quality piece he supplied?

He told the customer he couldn't meet the price and advised him to obtain a prototype before placing the several-thousand-item order. A few weeks later the client called saying the cheaper album was indeed inferior quality. Garcia gave him a discount and made the sale.

"Sometimes people feel if they say 'no' that the business is gone forever," he says. "But there's a situation where it ended up coming back."

Position Yourself as the Expert

Garcia factors in how well he knows the client to determine the best approach to such conversations. With clients he's worked with for a dozen years, their respect and trust allows him to recommend alternatives easily without offense. However, with new clients, he approaches with care by asking questions and listening first. "When you're dealing with someone that you don't know that well, you've got to take baby steps," he says.

Also, you can prepare with a pep talk. Roark says the greatest hurdle when she hires new salespeople is to get them comfortable in their role as an expert and a consultant. While it's a complex industry, even beginners know more than the customer about the back-end processes involved in embroidering on fabric, placing a logo on a mug or printing on paper.
  "They are coming to you for your advice," says Roark. "So if you think of yourself as a consultant, as an expert no matter how long you've been in the industry, it comes across as if you really believe it."

When you need to move a client in another direction, trust in yourself first. "If you don't believe in yourself, if you don't believe in your knowledge and your experience, then whatever you tell them that is close to a 'no' is not going to come out as believable," says Roark.

Waligora agrees it's important to remember you are the specialist. After all, customers have no idea about the tens of thousands of products that exist or how they can be used most effectively. Also, be sympathetic to the pressures the customer may be facing – such as budget limitations or dictates from their boss – so they feel you're on the same side.
  "My goal is to get them to spend their money wisely," says Waligora. "I try to put myself in the customer's shoes and make their vision my vision."

Frame the Conversation

Denise Knierim, account manager at Show Your Logo, Inc. (asi/326179), has trained about 75% of the company's sales team. Knierim says sales reps can usually tell within the first few minutes of a conversation if they can make the customer's project happen or not. Yet, there's one little word she tells them to never say.

"I don't like the word 'no.' I never start a sentence with 'no' even if I can't do it," says Knierim. "You can always help your customer in some way." Instead, she asks for more detail about the event and marketing objectives, does her research and responds quickly with doable options.

Also, these pros recommend keeping the Golden Rule in mind – speak to others the way you like to be spoken to. "Sometimes how we say 'no' is not the two-letter word 'no,' it's 'let me show you something better,'" says Waligora. "As humans, 'no' will automatically throw up a defense shield."

He tries not to completely rule out the customer's idea. After all, a customer doesn't want to hear their ideas are no good any more than you do. "If you close the door to their idea, they're going to think you're closed-minded," says Waligora. "How you say it should revolve around a sincere desire to help them find a better solution."

Graziano recommends giving the client a reasonable answer and one or two alternatives so that they feel they are still part of the conversation. "Obviously nobody wants to be told what to do, but if you give them at least two options, they feel they are still part of the decision," she says.

Build Stronger Relationships

Order takers say yes. Strategic partners bring ideas to the table. So in a consultant-style sales relationship, suggesting alternatives, even when they have their hearts set on something you know won't work, strengthens the relationship.
  "One of the best things that any salesperson can do is position themselves as a partner and an ally – because that's what clients want," says Graziano. "They don't want a salesperson or a vendor."

Graziano says if sales reps are truly looking out for the clients' best interest, it "builds a relationship and deepens it because they see you as somebody who has their back." She encourages reps to position themselves as problem solvers by taking their knowledge of promotional products, the customers' industry and business trends to offer clients the best solution.
  Waligora helps customers understand he can add a lot more value than simply putting a logo on an item. He seeks to understand the customer's goals and the response they are looking for, an approach he has found that builds loyalty and long-term partnerships.

"I truly look at my customers as friends, as peers, as partners," he says. "I want to be there for them. Because they know I've said 'no' to them in a creative way, they know that I have their best interest in mind."

Roark lets clients know she's looking out for them so they don't get a product they're unhappy with or makes them look bad to their boss. Also, she strives to protect their budget and timeline. "The whole goal is to make your client look good," she says. "Once they realize that's our goal no matter what, then they really do start to trust. They don't even need to see as many options in the future and they don't put things out to bid unless they are forced to, they just email you."

These experts know that fair and honest interactions are key to any successful long-term partnership. As Garcia points out, "You can't be honest without saying 'no' on occasion. I think that's part of what builds a relationship."

Knierim strives to build long-term relationships even when clients ask for something her company doesn't provide. Once a client asked where they could find display counters – she found the right resources to refer her client to. "That continually gives you trust with the client – you're their go-to person even if they know you can't do it," she says. Susan Thomas Springer is an OR-based contributor to Advantages.