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How to grow from "no": Listen to rejection to become more persuasive

Rejection can be soul-crushing, but what if there was an upside? Here's how really listening to the word "no" can make you more successful.

Matt Dixon: When I think about the job of being a salesperson—and there’s so much great work out there, you know, Dan Pink’s book 'To Sell Is Human' is a great piece that really speaks to the fact that we’re all salespeople, whether we’re teachers or we’re actually salespeople for a living or we’re business leaders or community leaders, we're selling, we’re selling ideas, we're trying to motivate others to take action. We’re all salespeople as Dan would argue, and I think he’s right.
And one of the things we’ve seen from great salespeople is that they are able to take rejection and kind of roll with the punches. They don’t take it personally. And that is a unique attribute of salespeople, but it is something that can be learned.

And it’s hard, it’s hard to come into a sales job where you are going to experience a lot of rejection—a lot more rejection than acceptance. If you just look at it statistically a great salesperson is not going to convert at 100 percent, they’re going to convert well south of that, which means 70 to 90 percent of the time they’re hearing “no”.

They’re hearing, “No, I don’t want to spend time with you. No, I don’t want to buy what you’re selling. No, we like your competitors instead; we’re doing business with them.”

One of the things I always tell salespeople is that it’s important to not turn a deaf ear or ignore that “no,” because it’s important to understand why.

If we think about, “No, I don’t want to spend time with you,” or “No, I don’t buy what you’re saying,” that response says that the insight we’re trying to use to capture that customer's attention, or the story we’re trying to tell in the sales meeting, needs work.

Maybe the insight itself is not resonating, maybe we’re not doing a great job telling that story or customizing it to that customer. So it’s important that you actually hear "no" and that you learn from it. But it’s also important that you don’t take it personally, because oftentimes customers say no for lots of reasons.

They say “No, we don’t have a budget; No, we don’t see any value; No, we’re in execution mode, we’re not going to move forward.”

And it’s important that we don’t see that as a reflection on us personally, but it’s also important that we see it as a reflection of the fact that maybe the thing we’re teaching them, the insight we’re bringing to the table isn’t that compelling or provocative, it’s not worth their time. Maybe it’s a reflection of the fact that we haven’t really learned to tell that story in a compelling way and there’s things we can do, maybe with our manager, or things we can practice in a safe place back in the home office to get ready for the next sales conversation that we can really make that story resonate in a powerful way for that customer.

Maybe they’re saying no because what we’re trying to sell ultimately is not that unique or valuable or credible to the client and that’s insight we’ve got to take back to the organization.
It’s important, therefore, to kind of really differentiate what’s personal and distinguish that from what’s professional and what’s about the company. It’s great to hear no so we understand how to get better. It’s great to hear no so that we understand what feedback we could take back to our organization, whether that’s marketing—'hey, we need help really sharpening this insight'—or its product, 'gosh our competitors are kicking our butts out in the marketplace because their product does X,Y and Z and ours doesn’t, and we really need to add this functionality if we want to be competitive.'

The “no” I find is almost never personal for a salesperson—it’s typically a reflection of a lack of insight, a lack of compelling delivery of that insight or a lack of product or service capability. It’s not about you as a person, it’s typically about what you’re there to say or how you’re saying it, what you’re there to sell or how you’re selling it in the eyes of the customer.

But you’re going to hear no a lot as a salesperson and you’re not going to get very far in sales unless you get comfortable with that and really separate it out from, again, the personal versus the professional “no”, if you will, and learn from those nos to get better over time.

So when I think about this idea of 'What can we learn from salespeople?', the best salespeople we look at get told no 90 percent of the time, so how are they able to separate that from, again, the professional versus the personal?

“I’m not taking this personally but it doesn’t mean I’m not learning from it, it doesn’t mean I’m not sharpening my message, it doesn’t mean I’m not sharpening my technique and it doesn’t mean I’m not going to take those insights, those rejections, back to the home office and try to pattern recognize: what are we hearing from customers, why are they saying no that we as a company can learn from?”

Now, what does that mean for the rest of us? As we talked about before we're all in the job of selling at some level and I think that when we hear no, when we see an audience, when we see other people reject our message, let’s say I'm a teacher and I'm trying to compel a group of students to embrace a topic or to pursue a project with passion and with excitement and it’s just not working, they’re saying no, they’re rejecting my message—there’s a lot of stuff we can learn about that. Is it what we’re saying? Is it how we’re saying it? How do I break through to that individual? How do I customize my message? How do I sharpen that teaching or that insight? How do I make the thing that I’m ultimately trying to get them to do or to buy more compelling?
There’s a lot we can learn about this. How do we pitch things? How do I pitch my boss on giving me a raise? How do I get my students to actually do the work that I need them to do, that I need them to get excited about? How do I get my kids to take out the garbage? That might be a tough one. But we’re all selling and there’s a lot we can learn from when the customer says no—or the recipient says no, the counterparty.

One of the things we always say in sales, you know customers will often use a budget as an excuse, they’ll say, “No, I don’t have the budget to buy your solution or your product” and salespeople hear this all the time.

One of the best salespeople I ever worked with told me, “Budget is never the reason. It is never the reason. If your insight is sharp enough, if it’s delivered in a compelling enough way and if what you’re selling really does address an unseen opportunity that is going to change the way the client does business, they’ll find the budget for it even if there’s no budget allocated.”
So when the customer tells you no because it’s budget, they’re throwing up a smokescreen. You’ve got to push harder and you’ve got to ask the really hard questions to really dig deep because ultimately it probably does come back to what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, what you’re ultimately trying to get them to do.

And that’s true as well when we’re communicating messages to others, to our boss, to our students, to our kids. When we think about their smokescreen answers, they’re generic answers: I’m too busy, I’m not interested, et cetera.

Let’s ask ourselves those questions, let’s be introspective and understand: is it what we’re trying to get them to do and I haven’t really sharpened the edge of why it’s worth doing? Or is it the way I’m delivering it and what can I learn from that rejection to sharpen of the way I tell that story, to sharpen the way I message that to the other side moving forward?

We're not all salespeople, but we're all selling something, whether you're a teacher, parent, team leader, or you're your own boss. Looking at how the best salespeople cope with rejection—which is happening about 70-90% of the time—can be an inspiring model for how to view failure as feedback. Matt Dixon is the Global Head of Salesforce Effectiveness at Korn/Ferry International, and he advises everyone to take a step back from rejection and analyze the reason it happened: "One of the things I always tell salespeople is that it’s important to not turn a deaf ear or ignore that "no," because it’s important to understand why," he says. Look for patterns of rejection: what could you be doing better? Why isn't your message coming across? Your response to rejection actually determines your future success. Will you nurse a bruised ego, or will you use this information to become more persuasive, and more successful?

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