How “No” Can Make Your Customers Happy

Seth Godin recently cleared up a years-old mystery for me.

Photo by Innovated Captures

Photo by Innovated Captures

Greg, The Relentless Nibbler

Greg was an advertising agency client when I sold radio. Two or three times a year, he would send me an RFP, I’d respond, and we’d work out a deal. He was a tough negotiator, but he was fair — until the end of the process.

After we agreed to terms, I’d send him the paperwork. A few hours later he’d call and ask me for one more thing. Usually it was some bonus commercials or news sponsorship mentions.

In negotiation, this is called “The Nibble”. Negotiation Trainer Bob Gibson describes the classic version of the tactic this way:

The same way a mouse might nibble at a piece of cheese with small bites until it’s completely gone, ‘nibbling’ is asking for small items, one at a time, and getting agreement on each until you’ve gotten a lot… Nibbling can be particularly effective near the end of the negotiation, when a salesperson is eager to reach a final agreement, and at the beginning when it can set the tone not only for the negotiation – but the relationship as well.

In Greg’s case, the request always came after we’d made the deal. I always said no.  It was a matter of principle for me. As far as I was concerned the negotiation had ended.

He’d push a little and then accept my “no”.

It drove me crazy,  because it never mattered how many times we’d already gone through the dance with the same result. He never actually got anything extra from me, but he was going to ask again the next time regardless.

I could never figure out why he continued to do this with me when it never worked. What did he get out of the exercise?

Years after I left radio, Seth Godin has finally given me the answer.

What’s really happening here is that people are seeking the edges, trying to find something that gets a reaction, a point of failure, proof that your patience, your largesse or your menu isn’t infinite…

They’re not looking for one more thing, they’re looking for a ‘no’, for acknowledgment that they reached the edge. That’s precisely what they’re seeking, and you’re quite able to offer them that edge of finiteness.

I’ve written before about the power of “No” — there are times when it’s necessary to refuse a demand simply to maintain, or regain, control of an interaction.

But Godin has pointed out something that seems counterintuitive: sometimes that “No” can actually make a customer happy by convincing them that they’ve nibbled everything there is to nibble.

In sales, sometimes “No” can really mean “Yes.”


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