Derek Jeter can’t say no. At least, not the right way.
During the ceremony at Yankee Stadium to retire his jersey number (2), Jeter’s nephew, Jalen, asked if, when he plays for the Yankees, he could wear his uncle’s number. Jeter said, “No.” The exchange was recorded in a widely-viewed video.
As soon as Jalen started to whimper, Jeter realized he’d made a mistake and tried to explain that no one can wear his number because it’s being retired. Too late. The emotional tide for Jalen had turned.
Because he doesn’t have children, Jeter didn’t know the proper way to say “no” to a child. It’s a powerful word that literally can change emotions in a heartbeat. That’s why saying “no” the right way to a client can make all the difference in how you work through difficult issues. I have found, for example, that instead of saying “no” I can often solve the issue by giving the client the option to see what “yes” would look like. For example:
Client: “Can you cut the price by 10%?”
Me: “Yes, I can, if we make some adjustments to the proposal. I’d have to reduce the number of managers I am using on the engagement, which may increase the risk of a delay. That means we’d have to revisit our milestone commitments. I know you said hitting the schedule was the most important concern for you, but if price outweighs timing we can figure out what a revised schedule looks like.”
Rather than hearing “no” in this exchange, the client, instead, is hearing “I have to weigh my priorities.” The client actually gets to choose which direction to go in, and giving options is a powerful way to work through an issue.
But, I have learned, sometimes you do just have to say “no.”
During an engagement I had with a large telecommunications company, we were negotiating rates for our consultants. The client was pressing for a rate reduction for a specialized group of technology experts. We said we couldn’t cut those rates. The client persisted. They wanted everyone at the same rate. My colleague, Russell, who had been the delivery lead for this client for several years, was getting frustrated. Russell was of a size that he could have had a successful career as an NFL linebacker had he not chosen consulting.
I tried to show them what “yes” would look like. They ignored me and pressed their demand. I tried to reason with them. Russell sat by quietly fuming, growing frustrated by their persistence and my inability to just deliver the answer. Finally, Russell had enough. He raised his arm and brought his fist crashing down on the table and bellowed, “No!”
That’s all he said. The client was startled, then relaxed. It was the answer the client was waiting to hear. Russell’s decision to deliver a fistful of “no” ended the discussion.
The lesson I learned that day was that delivering a “no” requires tailoring the answer for both emotion and custom. I had the experience to know different ways to deliver a “no.” Russell was familiar enough with this client’s usual negotiation style to know which way would actually be effective.