About once a month, I have to tell a high-profile, Fortune 1000 client they are wrong. This is counter to what we're taught in business. We're all drilled with the notion that the "customer is always right." At all costs, no matter what, keep the customer happy.
If I followed that approach, I could send over a contract and just "book em and cook em." But selling a bad product for a short-term gain is not how you build long-term relationships and a lasting business.
So what do you do when the customer is wrong and how do you tell them "no" without losing a huge commission?
When the customer is wrong
The first thing you must know is when your customer is wrong. There are two situations when a customer is typically in need of a reality adjustment.
The most obvious situation is when the customer is being rude and obstinate. While this is the easiest situation to recognize, it is also the hardest to manage. And there are plenty of tips on how to handle irate customers.
The other, more subtle, situation you need to know how to handle is when customers are acting on incorrect information or have decided on a solution that is "best" for them but which you know, from your education, experience, and expertise is not the best for them or their organization. This situation involves a little more finesse to keep the client happy.
The fine art of telling your customer "no"
The key to telling your clients "no" is to disagree gracefully and then artfully weave an alternative solution into the conversation.
Take my Fortune 1000 client, for example. Often, the client is so sure (read: overconfident) that a certain celebrity or bestselling New York Times author will be amazing on stage. Their team has sold the name/concept internally and they expect us to "fill the order."
From our experience and expertise, we know that certain athletes, actors, or rock stars aren't necessarily great on stage. Just because people are famous doesn't mean they have mastered the art of public speaking. Many celebrities are poor keynote speakers. Sometimes, they're not even all that entertaining or informative in moderated "fireside chats."
When you're in this tricky situation, the best solution is to listen to their request, explain their option is a great one, you understand why they've chosen it, and then ask permission to explore alternatives. Say something like, "I really like this idea. Do you mind if I share a few alternative ideas?"
For example, we'll explain that someone famous isn't necessarily a person who can "connect the dots"--the way Steve Jobs did at his Stanford commencement. Then we'll explain that over the years, we've identified the best celebrities who can engage and inspire an audience while also connecting the dots.
So the next time you encounter someone dead set on a decision, practice the art of alternative solutions: Ask permission, and then explain why there are better options.