Learning to Say No, So You Can Say Yes

Most people want to say “yes”, to be helpful, most of the time. In sales, there’s a lot of pressure to say “yes” to the prospect.

However, sometimes saying “yes” not only kills the deal, it means you’ve actually said “no” to more important things.

So, how do you know what to say?

First, you have to know what’s important, what really matters. If you don’t know this, in a sales cycle, in your business, in your life, the rest of it doesn’t matter. As the cliché goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads will take you there. This is the simplest, but hardest step, especially as we rush around with overbooked calendars and beeping phones (and that’s just at work).

Next, understand whether a particular request helps you get to “yes” on the important stuff, prevents you from getting to the important stuff, or really doesn’t matter either way. If it prevents you from getting to the important stuff, say no, politely.

Greg McKeown, author of the great book Essentialism, notes one way to do that:

Dear Mr. Adams,

Thanks for your letter inviting me to join the committee of the Arts and Sciences for Eisenhower.

I must decline, for secret reasons.



When I say no like this, to something that I do care about, I like to mention that not only would my other commitments suffer, but that I wouldn’t do a good job.

Sometimes we can help people in a way that doesn’t directly impact our goals, but doesn’t distract from them, either. Taking five minutes to introduce two friends who can help each other is something most of us can while waiting in line somewhere.

Sometimes we don’t know if we can help. Got a meeting invitation to something related to one of your projects? Is there an agenda? If so, and it makes sense to go, by all means attend and contribute. If there’s no agenda and 10 people are going to lose an hour of their lives for no good reason, you don’t have be the 11th.

In sales, prospects make a lot of asks. This is a reasonable thing for them to do. I like to ask for things when I’m buying, too. However, before you automatically say “yes”, understand the real reason for the ask, and whether it helps both sides figure out if/how they should work together. Many companies use lower level people to gather lots of data on markets and strategies to get free consulting from sales people. Understand what’s really happening. There’s nothing wrong with some level of free education, but you don’t want to spend 5 hours on a deck that’s never going to lead to a sale.

And at a certain point, sales reps who say “yes” to everything lose credibility. Imagine going to your doctor because you have heart problems.

“Can you make it so I still eat bacon double cheeseburgers every day?”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“I need to reschedule. Can I see you on Saturday afternoon?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Can you throw in those cheeseburgers for free?”


Unless you’re an all-powerful dictator, you’re not going to have that conversation with your doctor.

The first way to avoid saying “yes” in the wrong place is to disqualify prospects who are not a good fit. Too many businesses and sales people say that they can help everyone, which leaves them without a compelling reason to help anyone. Apple’s market for phones isn’t everyone who wants to make a phone call. Tesla’s market isn’t everyone needing a car. You can say that I’m cherry picking 2 very successful companies, and that’s true, but part of the reason they are so successful is that they focus on their true market, which is a much smaller segment of the overall market.

Glenn Stovall, CEO and founder of Concordant Solutions, does web and software design. That’s a big market. But rather than actively pursue everyone in that market, Glenn wrote a post telling people specifically when they shouldn’t use him, when a cheaper software-based alternative would be more appropriate. Instead of wasting a lot of his time, and his prospects’, trying to shoe horn in a “yes” when the answer should be “no”, Glenn can focus on saying “yes” the people he can help the best, and who will help him grow his business.

(Another way to do this with Mimiran is to set up a lead capture widget and supply some “starting from…” pricing information. If you don’t do business with people for less than $100,000, why waste time on someone who’s budget is $10,000? Sometimes sales people think they can sell the value, but this is rare, and takes valuable time away from better prospects.)

If you can’t say “no” to the stuff that doesn’t matter, or prevents you from getting to what does, you’ll never get to truly say “yes” to what does matter.




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