Why I Tell You ‘No’

By Colleen Walton
Marketing Strategist
Brand Acceleration, Inc.

The origin of the popular saying “the customer is always right” is disputed.  Some attribute it to Chicago retailer Marshall Field.  Others believe it started with either hotelier Cesar Ritz or Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the eponymous Selfridge’s department store.  In the end, who coined the phrase is irrelevant.  Its message was clear – always say yes to the customer.

In the decades since, this sentiment has become the cornerstone of customer service.  It’s eagerly shouted from the stage at training seminars, printed on signs hung in the backroom of stores, and even carved into giant rocks.

Unfortunately, the saying has one major flaw.

It’s wrong.

The customer isn’t always right, and it can actually be detrimental to not tell them so.  We have a running joke in our office that I “tell people ‘no’ for a living.”  It isn’t because I get some sick satisfaction out of shutting people down.  And it isn’t because I don’t want to make you happy.  It’s quite the opposite!  Here are three reasons why I tell you ‘no’ (and why you need someone to tell you ‘no’).

1. It’s why you hired me.

I want you to be happy, but not at the expense of effectiveness.  You hired me to help produce a high-quality marketing effort that will get results.  It’s my job to know what that effort needs to entail.  There’s a reason you hire an expert.  You don’t go to a doctor and then tell them what to do to you.  You trust that they know what they’re doing and will make the right decisions.

2. It’s in your best interest.

Marketing resources – especially in a cash-strapped economic development department – can be hard to come by.  While many people would love a top-to-bottom marketing overhaul, it’s not always a feasible option.  So, when you have to choose which marketing elements to pursue, how do you decide?

That’s the intro to my presentation “Doing a Lot with a Little: How to Best Spend Your Marketing Dollars.”  That’s right.  I have a whole conference presentation on which marketing pieces are worth the money and which are not.  For example, I know that emailers are a far better use of your money than traditional mailers (you can read more about that here).

I don’t want you to waste your money.  While I do love getting paid, I’m not going to let you waste your money on something bad – bad design, bad messaging, bad distribution, etc.  You need someone who’s going to tell you that something is a bad idea.

3. Your “solution” may not solve the real problem.

When a client calls and says they want [insert marketing tactic here], the first word out of my mouth is “Why?”  Marketing should help solve a problem, so what’s the problem you’re trying to solve?  Are you trying to promote a property to site selectors?  Reach potential workers?  Appease your mayor who wants to see the town name in a magazine?

I have had people ask for a marketing piece that they think solves the problem they had instead of telling me the problem and letting me suggest a way to solve it.  For example, a community-who-shall-not-be-named asked me for a printed brochure to promote its quality of life assets to attract potential workers.  They wanted to put it in the brochure rack in the lobby of the economic development office.

How many people in the target audience are going to come into the economic development office?  Roughly… zero?  The real problem is workforce attraction.  I can help you with that, but I’ll do it in a better way than a printed brochure in your lobby rack.

Telling clients ‘no’ isn’t about ego.  I’m not on some power trip where I enjoy crushing your dreams.  I work in economic development because I want to see communities thrive, and I want to contribute – in my small way – to their success.  That means I need to make sure you’re marketing your communities as effectively as possible.  Sometimes, that means I have to say no to your ideas.  But I do it because I care.