The Best Question to Overcome Rejection

Published on August 16th, 2019

In a past business, my co-founders and I had the perfect product for The Bob Dylan Archives. With Kairos, they would get an iTunes like interface to search, sort, modify and export any one of the thousands of assets they managed. Before Kairos, this was a tedious process that involved a lot of manual searching and digging through analog tapes. Making the switch would not only reduce their operational costs but open up new opportunities to make money licensing content.

Sadly, they said no.

Rejection sucks. This is especially true when you are an emerging startup trying to get initial traction and, more importantly, revenue. These initial deals are critical to keeping the lights on to develop the product and business further. Of course, rejection is not limited to startup life. We face this possibility every time we attempt to sell something, buy something, apply for a new job, etc.

Fortunately, we were able to turn this deal around by asking a simple question.

"What Would It Take to Say Yes?"

The worst part of a no is that it feels like a dead end. However, that's not always the case.

A "no" can mean a person doesn't have enough information to make an informed decision.

A "no" can mean the person doesn't have enough time to focus on this right now.

A "no" can mean the person isn't willing to take the time to make a change.

A "no" can mean they don't trust you yet.

A "no" can mean they already have a better alternative that they are not willing to disclose.

A "no" can also just mean no, and that's OK.

There are many reasons why this deceptively simple question is so powerful. The biggest gain is that it helps takes a nebulous no and converts it into actionable objection. Is cost a problem? That's negotiable. Is trust an issue? That's fixable. Do they need more time? That's addressable. Is it never going to happen? OK, that's on them, not you.

95% of the time, I feel better getting these objections on the table. Not only does it introduce new possibilities, but the rejection no longer feels personal. They might not have the time, willingness, information, etc. That's not an issue related to you, that's just the facts related to them.

Additionally, they may surface objections that highlight this would be a terrible situation for both parties. In that case, a "no" maybe a blessing in disguise. Example: if your product or service costs thousands of dollars, and yet they only generate hundreds of dollars per year, it might not be a great fit.

They Said Yes

Returning to the story about The Bob Dylan archives, Peter asked the question about what it would take to say yes. The manager thought for a moment and gave very specific criteria. "I'll only do it if you 1) Do it for free and 2) If you start, you must finish." Damn. We needed paying customers, but we did see the value of having a recognizable brand using our software. Ultimately, it would be worth it. The 2nd criteria was equally insightful. Apparently, he had gone through previous experiences where a vendor abandoned a project mid-stream, costing him a lot of time with no result. He wanted to make sure we were serious.

Ultimately, the team decided that both criteria were doable, and we proceeded! We overcame rejection.

Be Careful Not to Harass

It's one thing to be resourceful, but it's another not to accept a no and end up harassing somebody. If upon the 2nd question, you get an even stronger no, take the hint. Do not press it any further, lest you lose any goodwill you had with the other person. As always, read the room correctly and know when to move on.

That said, this question has served me well in the business world. Even if we don't end up finding a way to work together, I get to surface valuable information that I can use for the next opportunity and sharpen my skills and approach.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.