There will be plenty of times in the early days of a business when you'll ask for something you want, and the answer will be no. For most people, that no is the end of the conversation.

For you, though, a no can open up a wealth of opportunity, according to sales legend Tom Hopkins, who recently co-authored "When Buyers Say No" with longtime sales pro Ben Katt. Here's what he told me:

1. A no means that a yes is possible.

Most people won't say yes to an idea without saying no first.  In fact, studies show that the average customer says no an average of five times before saying yes. This is because decision-making is an emotional process, not an intellectual one.

Most people will do more to avoid pain than achieve pleasure, so the first impulse most people have when asked to make a decision is to find reasons not to make that decision. That usually takes the form of a no when what's actually meant is maybe.

2. There are three generic types of no.

Assuming you're asking the right person (that is, someone who ought to say yes), a no usually means one of the following:

  1. Wrong information. You didn't explain well enough why yes is a good decision for the other person. Therefore, you must now do a better job of explaining.
  2. Wrong timing. The other person needs some time to ponder and thus is saying no to stall. Therefore, you must now be patient and ask for the yes later.
  3. Wrong circumstance. There's something over which the other person has no control that's blocking him or her from saying yes. Therefore, you must now work with the other person to transcend the block.

3. Be curious rather than persistent.

The old adage "never take no for an answer" is usually misinterpreted to mean "keep pestering customers until they say yes." This doesn't work; in fact, it only hardens the no.  For example:

  • You: "Can you provide an initial funding of $2 million?"
  • VC: "No."
  • You: "Are you sure?  It's not a very big amount."
  • VC: "Yes, I'm sure." (i.e., "No.")
  • You: "How about only $1 million?"
  • VC: "Please leave now."

By contrast, if you become curious about the no, you can continue the conversation and find out what it will take to get to yes, like so:

  • You: "Can you provide an initial funding of $1 million?"
  • VC: "No."
  • You: "If I understand rightly, though, you are looking to make investments of this kind. What is it about my plan that isn't working for you?"

4. Move the conversation forward.

Depending upon what you learn (as the result of being curious), move the conversation so that it gradually opens up the possibility of a yes. For instance, in the example above, your question might get any of three responses:

1. Wrong information.  In this case, you roll back to that part of the discussion and clarify the misunderstanding.

  • VC: "I don't understand how you're monetizing."
  • You: "I apologize for not explaining it well. Let's go over that part again, and I'll try to make things clearer."

2. Wrong timing. In this case, you focus the conversation on making commitments to meet again to discuss the matter.

  • VC: "I need to think about this for a while."
  • You: "I understand. What are the areas of uncertainty that we should clear up before we meet again?"

3. Wrong circumstance. In this case, you suggest a creative approach that overcomes the blockage.

  • VC: "We've already invested in a competitor."
  • You: "Maybe we should be thinking in terms of a merger. What can you tell me about them?"

Needless to say, there's a lot more that you can do to turn a no into yes (you might want to invest in Tom's book when it comes out), but the above contains the essence of what you'll need in many business situations.

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