The jaw-dropping power of telling the customer "no."

The jaw-dropping power of telling the customer "no."

Gary CoferOne of the most attention-grabbing and change-producing surprises you can use with your clients might also be the simplest. And it can be delivered with as little as a single word. Consider the following examples from Gary Cofer.

Stopping the CEO in his tracks

At the time, Gary was executive vice president at dunnhumby USA, an analytics consultancy specializing in retail sales data. In 2010, he was in a meeting with one of his clients. As they were walking out, the CEO asked him what Gary describes as an “affirmation-seeking” question. You know the type—the kind of question people ask in hopes you’ll say yes and reaffirm whatever flattering notion they have about themselves. In this case, the question was: “I understand we’re best-in-class among your clients at using your data. Isn’t that right, Gary?” It’s a pretty safe question for the customer to ask the supplier. After all, the customer is always right.

Gary’s answer stopped the CEO in his tracks—literally.

No.” Gary told him directly. “You’re not.”

The CEO stopped walking, turned and looked at Gary with wide-open eyes. A sheepish “Oh” was all he could manage at first. And then he followed with, “What do you mean?”

Gary’s response was equally surprising. “Actually, I don’t even think you’re getting your money’s worth out of us.”

The CEO couldn’t believe what he was hearing! “Really? That sounds like something I should be complaining to you about, not the other way around.”

Gary explained that in addition to basic sales and loyalty data, dunnhumby offers dozens of advanced analytical services to help its clients make better pricing and promotion decisions. Many of them are included in the fee they were paying already. But for some reason, they just hadn’t been using them.

The lesson

Thirty years of sales and general management experience have taught Gary there are two ways that clients typically find out they’re not getting enough value from one of their agencies.

  1. They figure it out for themselves, and complain about it.
  2. A competing agency approaches them and points it out.

Either way, it usually ends up with the agency losing the account. Gary prefers a third option: Tell them about it yourself, and then fix it. And in this case, that’s exactly what he did.

In a similar situation with another client, Gary was even more direct. He told the client, “You should fire us.” Can you imagine a more arresting statement from a supplier? Me, neither. But for Gary, it prompted the same kind of conversation that led to the client better leveraging the capabilities his company had to offer.

In both cases, business for the client and dunnhumby increased significantly. And in both cases, it was due in large part to Gary Cofer’s jaw-dropping candor and telling the client “no.”

Try it yourself and see what you can make happen.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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