|CWB August 2000
Candor with Customers
Beyond 'I don't know' and 'I was wrong' lies the most important word in any business owner's vocabulary — 'no.'
By Anthony G. Noel
After I finished writing last month's column on "cultivating candor," I had a conversation with an associate which reminded me of one more crucial word whose use is too often avoided, particularly by business owners.
Backing up for just a minute, you will recall that last month's look at candor examined the benefits of admitting that we don't know something or that we are wrong. We learned a truth, namely that the practice of admitting mistakes or ignorance is a powerful way to shift an organization's progress from the "same-old same-old" towards true innovation and heightened productivity.
The stigma around allowing ourselves to admit our humanness is a strong one, even though no human can know everything and we all make mistakes. It takes bravery, initially, to overcome that stigma. But with a little application, it gets easier all the time, and practice pushes us to do better or, at a minimum, to engage the resources (be they people, equipment, materials, whatever) that will help us do better.
But as powerful as the words "I don't know" and "I was wrong" are, there is one more word too few of us use, due to a stigma even more powerful than that which surrounds those two other phrases. It's easy to spot those who have learned to use it. They manage their time better, produce more work in less time than "the unenlightened" who hold comparable positions, and exude an aura of self-confidence that infects everyone around them.
The word is "no."
For too long, there has been a twisted school of thought that says nothing is more important than a "can-do" attitude. I submit that, while a strong sense of confidence is a key to the success of any individual or organization, a "can-do" approach in the face of things which clearly can't be done is death. And, quite frankly, it drags down the reputation of custom woodworking and other trades as a whole.
How does adopting an unwavering, can-do attitude hurt your life, your business, even your industry? More easily than you might think. Let's begin with the broadest example, the industry-wide effects of the practice.
Say you are looking at a job for a potential customer and they ask if you can have it done in four weeks. You know that will never happen. But instead of saying, "no," the word "sure" pops out of your mouth. Eight weeks later, when the job is still not finished and the customer is not happy, you can bet your bottom dollar that he not only is complaining to you, but to all his friends and acquaintances. And rest assured, at least some of those friends will respond with a similar horror story they suffered at the hands of a "contractor." (So now, you are not even a custom woodworker — you are just a "contractor.")
It doesn't matter if you are Sam Maloof. If the piece is late, the customer is unhappy. I guarantee it. (Okay, maybe Maloof can get away with it. But Maloof you ain't, and don't ever forget it.)
So, thanks to your can-do attitude, "those darned contractors" have another black eye, while custom woodworkers lay dying from loss of pride.
You have to remember to look at things from the perspectives of everyone involved. While to you, saying "sure" was a way to land the job, to the customer, it was a promise.
Customers aren't concerned with how busy you are, except to the extent that it will negatively affect their own project. Nor should they be! Managing your time - be it production time, office time or personal time — is your job, and until you learn how to say no, you will be unable to manage your time effectively.
Saying "yes" instead of "no" also hurts your own business. Here's another example: The customer asks if you can knock five percent off your price.
Now, you would really like to get in the door with this customer. He is constantly remodeling his offices, and you have been currying favor with his architect for months. You even priced the job a little closer than you normally might, knowing that the gain in work over time which landing this first job will mean will more than make up for your slightly reduced pricing. So this contract has so much riding on it...
Remember this well: Discounted work breeds more discounted work. If you agree to drop your price the first time, you will be asked to do it on every job which follows. It is okay to set your sights on a given sale or client. But if your desire to land the work is so strong that it clouds your sense of reality, it's time to learn how to say "no."
The reality is this: No one knows better than you what it costs you to do work. Anyone who even asks for a discount on custom work, well, I guess you can't blame him initially. But the best defense is a careful review of how you arrived at your price. Show him that there is no fat. And learn, if they persist, to say "no" (or maybe, "I have shown you my pricing: what part don't you understand?").
All right, maybe that is a little over the top. (Maybe, though, in some cases, he still won't get it!) But if you patiently explain that this is what it costs you to do work and that, if you don't get this price, you may not be around to do work tomorrow, one of two things will happen: the customer will agree and give you the contract, or he will decide he "wants to think about it" (meaning, he will shop the job around, complete with your price as the price to beat).
And so we arrive at the basis of people's fear of saying "no" in a case like this: Someone else will get the job! Gasp!
Well, no kidding. Get used to it. Other shops get jobs all the time.
If you are landing every job you bid, you are working too cheap, period. Your goal should be to always do jobs you know you will make money on. If a particular job looks like it is not right for your shop, trust that instinct and say so - or at least price it high enough to compensate for the process changes and/or learning curves it will bring with it. Then, if the customer won't accept your price, turn the job down and recommend anyone whose alley you think it might be up, and get on with your life.
Which bring us to your life. Until you learn to say no, you will have no life, at least, not outside of work.
Nothing fills up your life more quickly and less profitably than saying yes to everybody - customers, vendors, employees, you name it. Just consider the ramifications of saying yes in the two cases we have just cited: a money-losing job with the potential to produce a whole series of money-losing jobs (yummy!) and a disgruntled customer who is telling everyone they trip over what a bum you are.
"But," that little can-do gremlin inside argues, "What if I can make them work? What if I play with my schedule and get the quick-turnaround job out? And what if I can make money at the lower price?"
Well, then, I guess, good for you. But I would just have one question for that gremlin: How long do you think you can keep this up?
Isn't it more logical to plan for the long haul? To structure your pricing, the work you do, and everything about the way you do business on the basis of reality? Knowing your limitations is the first step on that road.
The second is saying "no" when you are being pushed to exceed those limitations before you are ready to do so.
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