by Tom Panaggio, author of “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge“
At 65, Colonel Harland Sanders set out in his car to promote his fried chicken recipe and to sell franchises. Col. Sanders had to endure more than a thousand rejections and travel thousands of miles, before he finally sold his first franchise. That franchise, of course, became Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today, there are more than 17,000 locations, and KFC is an institution of American fast food. But if the Colonel had decided to quit after the first 5, or 20, or 999 “noes,” his now-beloved recipe would be an anonymous footnote in history.
The lesson? Rejection (after rejection, after rejection) can still lead to success… if you keep going. The problem is many entrepreneurs aren’t willing to take that risk.
One of the main reasons why hopeful business owners don’t succeed is not because they don’t have a worthy product or a well-thought-out business plan, but because they’re afraid of rejection. They don’t approach the right people the right amount of times because they don’t know how to handle a simple little word: ‘no.’”
Consider these statistics: Just 2 percent of sales occur during first meetings. Often, it takes five follow-ups for a “no” to turn into a “yes.” But only 8 percent of salespeople stick it out that long. In fact, 44 percent throw in the towel after the first rejection. That’s a lot of potential success that isn’t being realized.
The same pattern can hold true for interactions with banks, vendors, distributors, and other strategic partners. Entrepreneurs miss out on opportunities because they give up after one ‘no’ when the second or third or sixth request might have yielded a ‘yes.’
Fortunately, fledgling entrepreneurs with thin skins and fragile egos can become more comfortable asking for the order over and over again. Here are eight tips to help you get past the fear of “no” and start making friends with (possible) rejection.
1. Stop assuming you know what the other person is thinking.
Often, our assumptions are our own worst enemy. We use them to justify our decision not to ask for what we want, thereby assuring our own failure. For instance: “Their current vendor seems to be meeting their needs—why would they want to transfer their business to my company? I might as well not waste my time.” Or, “I’m sure that distributor has its pick of brands to carry. They won’t want to take a chance on a new, untested product like ours.”
Stop psyching yourself out! Maybe your reasoning is correct and the other party will give you that ‘no’ you were expecting…but maybe they won’t. You have no way of knowing for sure until you ask. Someone had to take a chance on every successful product or brand that’s out there today. And somewhere out there, there’s a buyer, vendor, or other strategic partner who’s willing to take a chance on your fledgling business. But they can do so only if you give them the opportunity to say ‘yes.’
2. Get real about your procrastination strategies.
In my book, I tell the story of a salesperson who did extensive research on each sales lead she got. Some of her research files contained more than a hundred printed pages of material. Her reasoning? She wanted to know as much as possible about a potential client before she called them. On the surface, this level of dedication sounds admirable. But the salesperson in question was really procrastinating in order to put off the moment of truth. She was afraid of being rejected after making her pitch, and her research was a form of risk avoidance.
Are you living out a similar scenario? Are you using other tasks to put off the possibility of being rejected? If so, you need to identify what they are. And when you notice yourself placing too much focus on them (and be honest, you know how much ‘too much’ is!), you’ll know it’s time to suck it up and approach another prospective client or partner.
3. Spend some time on your positioning.
Aside from asking for what you want in the first place, how you ask is of utmost importance in determining the answer you’ll receive. Not all requests and pitches are created equal! When you spend time crafting a proposal instead of blurting out your question, you’ll reduce your chances of being rejected.
Entire books have been written on how to effectively position business requests. But there are a few general principles that have worked for me. Here are a few tips:
• Don’t just ask for what you want — figure out how to highlight why your product or partnership will help the other party. What’s your value proposition?
• Embrace the risk of being specialized and present your business’s unique identity.
• Think about probable reasons why the other party might reject you and prepare convincing rebuttals.
• Keep your pitch conversational — no one likes a hard sell.
4. Ask for what you want.
Believe it or not, many salespeople do their research, craft thorough proposals, make the big pitch… and then stop. They never actually utter the words, “So, can I help you place an order?” or, “Would you like to partner with me?”
Yes, when you make a pitch, it’s certainly implied that you want the other person’s business or partnership. But it’s a mistake to stop just short of asking for the order. Many potential clients will admit that they want you to ask for their business. And others who are teetering on the fence might be swayed by a straightforward request; after all, it’s just easier and more comfortable to say ‘yes.’ You have to learn to ask the question if you want to receive a favorable answer!
5. Learn that “no” doesn’t mean “never.”
In business, “no” doesn’t always mean that a door has shut forever. Often, it means, “Now’s not the right time,” “I’m not convinced,” “Butter me up some more,” “Ask again when I’m in a better mood,” “Try a different approach,” “Ask someone else,” or, “Come back when you’ve worked out a few kinks.” Remember, it often takes five (or more!) follow-ups for a “no” to turn into a “yes”! And if you’re willing to tough it out and earn your place in the ranks of the 8 percent of salespeople who don’t give up after four “noes,” you’ll get to share in 80 percent of the business.
Persistence is the name of the game. Opportunities are out there, but most won’t be served up on a silver platter. You’ll have to chase them down and wrestle them to the ground. Just ask Colonel Sanders! If you don’t think you have it in you to approach the people you need with your request again and again and again, entrepreneurship may not be the right fit for you.
6. Know how to respond to “no.”
One reason rejection is so hard to take is because it’s difficult to know how to respond. Do you slink off with your tail between your legs? Do you kick your sales pitch up a notch to your hard sell? Do you smile, shake the person’s hand, and tell them you’ll check back with them soon? And what do you do if the person seems irritated or is just too busy to talk to you? These swirling questions only add to the level of anxiety that comes with asking for someone’s business.
Before any meeting with a potential client, visualize the different scenarios that can play out. Think about the best way to respond if you get a firm ‘no.’ What can you say to keep the door open with that person? How can you keep the conversation going if it feels like they still might be considering your offer? And remember, you can always ask if they’ll mind if you reach out to them again down the line. That way if you do get a ‘no’ that day, you still have the opportunity to get a ‘yes’ the next time you speak. When you go into a meeting with a planned set of responses, you’ll be much more comfortable and confident.
7. Seek out honest feedback on the why behind the “no.”
You’re convinced that your product would solve the prospective client’s needs better than the competition, but you keep hearing “noes.” Or you don’t see any reason why the distributor wouldn’t want to work with you, but you can’t get them to agree to carry your product. What do you do?
If you keep hearing ‘no’ when you know the answer should be ‘yes,’ ask someone else — a mentor, a friend, a colleague, or even a family member — to assess your presentation. The common denominator in the string of mystifying rejections you’ve racked up is you — so odds are, you need to look in the mirror if you want to change your luck.
Maybe your demeanor is too timid or aggressive. Maybe you’re using too much technical jargon. Maybe you sound like you’re giving a lecture instead of having a conversation. Maybe you’re not making it clear how working with you would help the other person. An honest third party can help you to identify and correct these weaknesses.
8. Don’t be afraid to say “no” yourself.
Entrepreneurs who struggle with persistently asking for the order often have trouble saying “no” themselves. This is true when they’re on the receiving end of a sales pitch, as well as when they realize midway through a conversation that the deal or client isn’t right for their business after all. These entrepreneurs might empathize with the person making the pitch and want to help, or they may want to avoid the discomfort and awkwardness that often accompany saying, “I was wrong.” But make no mistake: Saying “yes” too quickly can be just as deadly for your business as not pressing on after hearing a string of “noes”!
Being willing to say ‘no’ and being willing to press for the ‘yes’ are two sides of the same coin. When you practice one, you also hone the other. I’ll admit that saying no to others can be hard, but your first priority has to be yourself and your business — otherwise your doors won’t stay open long. If a prospective partner isn’t a good fit or if you don’t think a vendor’s services are worth the cost, verbalize that decision. Remember, if you change your mind down the road, you can always approach the other person and give them your business. But it can be much harder to extricate yourself from a bad deal that’s already happened.
Talk to any successful business owner or salesperson, and I guarantee that getting comfortable with rejection will be part of their success story. Rejection is an unavoidable part of doing business, so don’t take it personally. Instead, look at each ‘no’ as an opportunity to learn and improve — and remind yourself that you’re one request closer to hearing ‘yes’!
Tom Panaggio, author of “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur’s Unexpected Edge“, has enjoyed a 30-year entrepreneurial career as cofounder of two successful direct marketing companies. In 1983 he cofounded Direct Mail Express (DME) in Daytona Beach, Florida, with his siblings Mike and Kathy. As CEO of spin-off RME in Tampa, Florida, Tom headed a company that created the most effective lead-generation program in the financial services industry.