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How I learned to see no as an opportunity

One entrepreneur shares the valuable business lessons he learned after facing a series of rejections.

How I learned to see no as an opportunity
[Photo: Ramdlon/Pixabay]

We all like to think of ourselves as pretty smart people, and we go to work each day feeling confident and competent. That said, we all have our moments when we feel inadequate and unsure of our abilities. For the self-employed among us, that nasty voice appears more often than we’d like. When you hear no every day from potential clients–or they completely ignore your emails and calls–it’s far too easy for crippling self-doubt to take over.

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Your brain is biased toward focusing on the negative–so to an extent, your tendency to dwell on the no’s is a biological one. That said, it does nothing to improve your bottom line. As an entrepreneur, you need to figure out how to bounce back, or at least accept it as a part of life.

Recently, I was in a patch where I heard a lot of “no thanks” or something similar. I’d spent hours preparing for a request for proposal (RFP) for a potentially large contract–putting together a dynamic, customized presentation for the client, not to mention practicing the pitch and anticipating questions. The day before the presentation, I got a note from the managing partner: “We’ve actually decided to go another route. We’ll need to cancel our meeting tomorrow.”

I felt crushed, demoralized, and everything in between. Naturally, I wallowed in my self-pity for a few minutes as my wife (also an entrepreneur) listened patiently. When I finished, she asked me, “Okay. What’s next?”

I realized that giving up wasn’t an option, and I needed to focus on improving my future interactions with leads. Here’s how I got past those negative chatters, and how I learned to see those no’s as opportunities.

I created a template presentation to use for future pitches

I’d come to terms that I’d spent hours prepping a presentation that I’d never use. So much of the data in each slide was customized for that client, and I knew I had to scrap it. But I realized that I could still use it for future pitch meetings. If I can cut down the hours I spend preparing for a meeting (while still maintaining the quality), I can free up time to pursue more leads. After all, sales is a numbers game—to get a yes, you usually have to hear a lot of no’s.

As I was building out the presentation, I realized that I enjoyed working with the types of firms I was pitching (namely, larger engineering firms). I also realized that a lot of the firms have many of the same pain points.

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So rather than throwing out the presentation entirely, I tweaked it so it could serve as a template for future pitches. I knew that every subsequent deck would need the same branding, a place to introduce my company, a way to present the client’s problem, and a compelling way to illustrate that I could provide the solution they were looking for.

When I had this realization, I stopped feeling sorry for myself about the number of hours I spent preparing to pitch that client. What I had inadvertently done was build out a reusable template that I could use to plug-and-go for all future pitches.


Related: Use these 5 sales tactics to overcome your fear of rejection 


I identified that I needed to be proactive, rather than reactive

After the slide deck epiphany, I was able to look at my “failure” objectively and see where I went wrong. I retraced the steps that got me close to a presentation, but ultimately missed out on getting a seat at the table.

I started by reviewing my past notes and emails with this firm. What had I said? Was there anything that was unprofessional or off topic? Was I talking about myself too much instead of talking about them?

Nothing really jumped out at me. Then it hit me. Even though I was cordial and professional in my interactions, I wasn’t proactive. I’d said “I can do X, Y, Z for you,” but I didn’t show them what that would look like. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit that I could have plucked and sent their way (free of charge) to give them a taste of the quality of work I provide my clients. I didn’t do that.

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I also reacted rather than anticipating their needs. I waited for them to tell me their pain points rather than ask probing questions that may have given me more clues to the root of their needs rather than the symptoms.

When we want something badly, it’s natural to focus on not screwing up. But I learned from that experience that you can lose a job just as much as by what you don’t do or say as what you do say and do.


Related: These 4 things kept me sane as I bootstrapped my company 


I decided to build relationship first and sell later

After I took my lessons learned, I set out to change my next interaction with a potential client. In this case, I set a brief meeting without planning a pitch. Why? I wanted him to get to know me. Not my company, not what I was trying to sell him. Just me.

When I look back on my career–I can trace most of my successful interaction to being genuinely interested in what people have to say. When I make them the center of my attention, they become a lot more relaxed. In the case of recalibrating with this next prospect, I proactively set another meeting before I left his office five business days later where I could pitch him. That meeting went great, and I’m still waiting on a final yes or no. If he says yes, then it will all have been worth it. If I get a no, thanks, then it’s back to “What’s next?”

I love hearing yes, but as an entrepreneur, I can only make progress if I see no as an opportunity, rather than a barrier.

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Joe McDonald is the founder and creative director at Open Road Consulting.

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