Eddie mows my lawn every other week. I was one of his earliest customers that helped start his business 12 years ago. Now he has more than 50 steady customers and contracts regularly with local landscaping companies. He is doing very well. He has also helped me on little projects inside and outside the house over the years and charged me very reasonable fees.
I was spoiled.
He had never said no to me until two days ago when I asked him to trim the trees growing over to my side of our yard over our neighbor’s fence. He politely and apologetically said: “Miss Pam, I am so sorry that I have projects until mid-September. I won’t be able to do it now, but I can recommend someone else to do it for you.” I was a little disappointed and annoyed, but I understood.
Working in the corporate world, I have had a lot of stakeholders and business unit partners. Some of them were my internal customers that I worked with to create strategy and be their liaison lead for collaborating with other marketing functions. Some of them were my internal partners that I needed for their support and help to get things done. In general, I never wanted to say no to them, but I often had limited budget, time and/or resources. You know how it is sometimes; you just can’t please everyone.
The trick is to actually say no, yet be respectful of their concerns and needs to retain a productive relationship. Over the years, I found the following five tactics to work well for communicating bad news and still getting things done with internal stakeholders and partners:
The best way to take emotion out of an argument is to present statistics, facts, and data. Let the numbers speak for themselves. This works well for technology companies with data-driven corporate cultures or stakeholders with analytical mindsets. Use the stats as supporting points to explain your decisions.
Several years ago, I told local marketing teams to move 100 percent of their media dollars from print to digital. The China marketing team didn’t like that decision and presented solid data confirming that print still mattered to their target audience. I made an exception to allow a healthy percentage of Chinese media budget to remain for print.
This often happens in top-down communications when management makes a decision to do things in certain ways without consulting every person or department that will be affected. They may not have explained the reasons or logic and may not even be able to for legal or other reasons.
For example, a CMO says no to a multi-region advertising campaign and decides to focus on one or two key growth countries due to reduced budget and resources. You should communicate this to other team members, explaining that this is a hard decision for management to make, but it’s the right thing to do in the circumstance.
I usually come up with a couple of alternatives for my stakeholders if I can’t do things exactly as requested.
When I needed to say no to the local teams that requested headquarters create specific content for their countries, I made sure that I proposed other finished content options for them to edit, translate or localize. I also worked with them to ensure they received the support they needed. It’s not ideal, but they understood. Although I couldn’t give them A, I would try to find B and/or C to ensure their needs were taken care of.
Another way to say no is to let them know that this can’t be done now, but the request will be completed at a later time. This may work well for non-pressing deliverables such as content creation for secondary target audiences or products without paid media support.
I let my stakeholders know that I can’t do it this month, but I should be able to complete it next month. Eddie was busy until mid-September but he also made sure to let me know that he is available to do it after the second week of September.
Saying no with a plate of homemade cookies does minimize stakeholders’ ire. My stakeholders simultaneously detested and loved me when I brought desserts and food to meetings. They immediately knew that I had bad news to share, yet they loved to eat the goodies. Filling up their tummies helps to distract or mollify them a little and make the ‘no’ go down a bit easier (sometimes).
Even if you do everything you can, you may still end up with bitter or grumpy internal stakeholders. Yes, you should expect to hear an earful of complaints, protests, and occasional shouts. The key is to be sincere, honest and be willing to lend a hand (or ear) when possible.
I am very happy that Eddie is doing well. He works hard and deserves it. I know he won’t have time to do small projects for me anymore. It’s time to find a good handyman who will say yes.