The Power of ‘No’

By Sarah Sain, CAE • March 17, 2017

Sarah Sain
Sarah Sain, Naylor Association Solutions

The customer is always right. Give the customer what they want.

We’ve all heard those lines before. Well, the customer may always know what they want, but whether it is right may be up for some debate. And sometimes giving them what they want may not get them the best results.

Most associations, especially those with smaller staffs, partner with third-party vendors as a way to accomplish more with less people and possibly even bring in new sources of non-dues revenue. It’s a solution that makes sense: Find an area where your association needs help and bring in an expert. The right vendor partner will become an extension of your staff and value your success as much as you do.

While it’s easy to think that saying “no” could ruin that association-vendor relationship, the opposite can be true. In order to help an association exceed its goals, sometimes a vendor needs to say “no,” particularly if what’s being requested is costly, doesn’t provide your members with a return or isn’t a service that it offers in the first place. By providing honest feedback about a request, an association will begin to see its vendors as trusted advisors who have their best interest in mind.

Here are some others things to keep in mind when it comes to saying “no,” whether you’re a vendor or association.

Vendors: Don’t Say ‘No’ Without a ‘Yes’

It’s important to set boundaries and standards at the beginning of a partnership – whether that’s a clear budget or deadline – that both sides agree to follow. Be upfront about what will happen if those guidelines aren’t met; after all, you don’t want to promise something that you can’t deliver. Plus, if you do have to say “no,” it won’t come as a surprise.

If you must say “no” to a request, no matter how big or small, don’t let that be the end of the conversation. Take a closer look at what you can do along similar lines. If you must say “no,” come to the table with a solution that will help get you toward the same eventual end goal. This might sound something like, “While we can’t do this, here’s what we can do” or “A better solution might be …”

Coming up with an alternative might take time or brainstorming with your team, and it may force you to be creative or step out of your comfort zone, but it will show the association that you’re willing to work with them toward a successful outcome. Plus, by creating a new solution that solves a problem for one association, it may create a new product or service that you can offer to others as well.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have to tell a customer “no,” make sure you do the following:

  • Respond quickly, usually within 24-48 hours.
  • Empathize or apologize. A simple “I’m sorry” or “I understand” goes a long way.
  • Provide an explanation about why you have to say “no,” including the possible consequences. Be honest.
  • Stay positive and polite.
  • Offer a compromise or alternative solution.
  • Look for changes that can be made in the future so both parties are satisfied.

Associations: It’s OK to Take ‘No’ for an Answer

As hard as it is to say “no,” it’s also just as hard to hear a vendor tell you “no” to a request. We’re often taught in business not to take “no” for an answer, but there are in fact times when you should take “no” for an answer – say, for instance, when a request could add to a large unexpected cost.

Of course, how you hear “no” is going to depend on who is delivering that message and your relationship with that person. This is why the relationship between an association and its vendors is so important. If the relationship is built on trust, then the word “no” doesn’t have such a negative connotation.

It’s important for both sides, associations and vendors, to be honest about areas where compromise is possible and where it is not. There will be certain areas where you just can’t budge, and that’s understandable. Like a vendor should be honest about what they can do, so should you.

Keep an open mind when a vendor offers alternative solutions. You’ve partnered with that company because of its expertise, so take full advantage of the solutions and resources they can offer. If they offer a solution that’s a little out of the box, consider it. That initial “no” could lead to some innovative solutions that put your association on the forefront.

Finally, try to remember that your vendor is a business itself. They need to succeed in order for you to do the same, so be open to solutions that create a win-win for both sides.


About The Author

Sarah Sain is a senior content strategy and development manager with Naylor Association Solutions, working exclusively with society of association executive and meeting professional clients. Email her at [email protected] or follow her as @ssain7 on Twitter.