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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 has been the Global Head of Salesforce Effectiveness at Korn/Ferry International since June 2017. He served as Group Leader of the financial services, customer contact and customer experience practices at CEB, and held various management positions, including leading its sales and service and new product development groups. Dixon holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as a B.A. in International Studies from Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
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?
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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