Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Knowing when to say ‘No’

In my life these days the issue of having to say “No” is raising its head in many different contexts. The most recent one came about as I was interacting with the general manager of a company’s service department, where we got talking about how to deal with customers who are so difficult, so unreasonable, that one considers no longer doing business with them. Indeed, on just the previous day he and a colleague were handling just such a case.

The problem was that they were unable to meet the customer’s expectations. But not because of under-performance. Rather because for some strange reason he completely refused to take any advice from them.

As a result, they reckoned the work that would be required to keep that customer happy would by far outweigh the level of business already received or expected, never mind the profitability of such business.

Fortunately, the customer had only acquired a relatively small item and was unlikely to ever become a major buyer. So the risk of losing him was not so great. Sure, he might well never return for future purchases, and also talk ill of this supplier and of the break-up that separated him from them. But the cost of holding on to him seemed likely to far outweigh the downside risks.

The decision of a supplier to part ways with a customer is never easy. Never mind if the customer is a major one and has been with you for a long time. One can live in the hope that the relationship will improve, perhaps that the unreasonable player or players there will give way to more reasonable ones.

One can also justify holding on to unprofitable and unsatisfying clients by considering them as “strategic investments”, prudent to hold on to for other than pure commercial reasons. But sometimes it must come to divorce.

My service manager friend asked me if I had ever had to tell a customer I no longer wanted to do business with them. As I thought about it my mind immediately turned to a different, admittedly much easier to answer, question: what kind of customer would I not wish to do business with in the first place?

Such a question was very important in my days of selling high-end IT solutions. For if the prospect looked like they lacked the competence to see the project through, the blame for its at-best delayed implementation and at worst its failure to take off at all would too easily and most likely be displaced onto us.

Indeed it was this kind of behaviour that led me to coin “Eldon’s Law”, which states: “The more incompetent the user, the more they blame the supplier.”

In my exceptionless experience, however, incompetent or uncommitted the user may be in handling the inevitable disruption that installing transformative IT systems involves, they certainly do not lack the savvy to know how to pass the buck.

As I have shared Eldon’s Law with others who deliver large complex solutions, whether in IT or any other field, no one has ever seen it be disproved.

The question is how to identify such potential clients. One criterion is the way the terms of reference are expressed, and what opportunities exist for supplier and customer to align as responsible partners, each playing their role as they should.

Then, how does the prospect come across in seeking the best value for money as opposed to simply looking for the lowest cost option? No need to spell that one out, right? We also don’t need to delve into the specifics of prospects whose main objective is to benefit personally from any transaction.

Whether one is dealing with an awkward prospect or an existing client, my best advice is that there should be discussions between colleagues in the vendor organisation, as there was in the case I mentioned.

So pessimists can engage with optimists, risk-takers with risk-avoiders, for them together to ultimately toss the coin as to whether to say “No” or not.

Another prudent move is to escalate to higher levels in the organisation, to those with more experience, and more scars from previous wounds, who can look down from their balconies and advise. If appropriate also intervene at higher levels in the prospect or client hierarchy, to nurture a more win-win approach to the relationship.

In conclusion, don’t rush to say “No” prematurely, but accept that sometimes it’s the least bad way forward.