Salespeople are all about saying yes: Yes, we can help you. Yes, we can solve that problem. Yes, we can meet that deadline. But what if you can’t? How can you say No to a customer or prospect and still maintain a relationship that will allow you to say Yes in the future?

Say yes … with an asterisk
When customers ask, “Can you do it?” the true answer is seldom an unqualified yes or no. Customers know this as well as you do. (In fact, a too-enthusiastic yes may hurt credibility and cost a sale.) Give customers realistic odds and they may decide it’s worth the risk.

Provide context
If you don’t tell customers why you’re saying no, they’ll assume the worst. Don’t make excuses, but briefly offer the reasons behind your no: “I wish we could say yes, but a custom order would make it impossible for us to meet our commitments to other customers.”

Make it personal
Don’t deliver a no by e-mail, fax, voice mail or letter. Face to face is best; a phone call is next best. And don’t delegate the dirty work to someone else. Imagine how you’d feel if your boss promised you a raise and the assistant told you it wouldn’t be forthcoming. You’d probably be looking for a new job.

Encourage dialogue
A no without dialogue is like a slap in the face. It communicates that your customer isn’t worth your time or trouble. The dialogue may be heated or unpleasant, but it’s better than the customer stewing.

Source: Al Golin, founder and chairman of Golin/Harris International, a public relations firm. Adapted from “Trust or Consequences,” published by AMACOM Books.

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