A Manual for Dealing with Rejection

NO! Now what? After getting a thumbs-down response in business or sales, an open-minded approach can lead you into exciting new territory.
September 4, 2014

Tom Hopkins is having another unbelievable day. Just ask him.

“I tell people in sales that you can be having the worst day of your life, but no one has to know it,” says Hopkins, a sales seminar dynamo and the co-author of When Buyers Say No: Essential Strategies for Keeping a Sale Moving Forward. “When people ask you how business is, just be honest and say, ‘Unbelievable,’ and they will assume you mean it’s great.”

Whether you spend your days making sales calls, pitching to clients or investors, running a company, or just navigating through life, failure and the word no will inevitably dog you. Successful people are the ones who understand what a no moment means, how to put it into perspective and how to work toward the next yes.

Related: How to Deal with Critics and Rejection

History is rich with such lessons.

Winston Churchill, the World War II-era British prime minister who navigated his country through a series of disappointments and hard times before the Allied victory, realized that “success is stumbling from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Author Stephen King tossed the opening pages of his first published novel, Carrie, into the trash after publishing houses rejected him. His wife, Tabitha, retrieved the manuscript and urged King to finish it. Eventually Carrie became a best-selling book and a successful movie, and King’s ensuing books have sold more than 350 million copies, with myriad others being made into profitable television and film projects.

Another story often told in motivational training exercises is of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school’s varsity basketball team. After that setback, Jordan once noted, he went on to experience failure throughout his playing days. At one point during his amazing career, he reckoned he had missed more than 9,000 shots, lost almost 300 games, and on 26 occasions missed what would have been a game-winning shot. And that doesn’t even count the disastrous attempt at a baseball career.

“I have failed over, and over, and over again in my life,” Jordan said in a memorable Nike commercial. “And that is why I  succeed.” The six-time NBA champion was voted Most Valuable Player five times and used his on-court success to build a worldwide brand.

The game is different, but the process is the same for becoming successful when selling or in the face of business rejection.

“The first realization is there’s no magic bullet for closing every deal,” says Hopkins, who first cut his sales teeth in real estate. “Sometimes you know you have to walk away empty-handed. The key is to realize that no isn’t an automatic failure.”

Likewise, rejection and the miserable feeling it leaves occur in a variety of work-related situations on a daily basis. But if rendered correctly, they actually drive a healthy system of competition and ensure a high standard of work. These instances are often painful, but many moments of rejection are opportunities for learning, notes Susan Heathfield, an organizational development consultant since 1987.

“Rejection sends a powerful message, so you need to make sure that you are reading the right cues in any rejection you experience,” says Heathfield, who has worked as a human resources director and co-owns a software company with her husband. “You can only accomplish these two tasks: learning and responding to the intended message. If you are willing to practice personal courage and seek out feedback following your rejection, you can do both.”

Let’s Make a Deal

“The average American won’t say yes—meaning yes to spending money—until they first come up with some type of no,” says Hopkins, who ran the leading Coldwell Banker Real Estate office in the country for several years. “You learn to handle that concept, learn the dialogue and keep them moving toward the yes. I  found, over the years, that the guys who made the most money got rejected the most, and they didn’t take it personally.”

Hopkins has written 18 books, including How to Master the Art of Selling, which has sold more than 1.4 million copies. In 1976 he founded Tom Hopkins International Inc., through which he produces seminars, books, and audio and video training programs. More than 4 million people have attended his seminars worldwide.

During the course of his sessions, he connects with the audience by saying that if they ended up with good kids, they had to have done some selling in the process of parenting; if they get a promotion over other candidates, they have done some selling that led to the promotion; and if they stay married in the world today, both spouses are doing great sales jobs to make it happen.

“My goal is to try to convince them that, hey, selling is not bad,” he says. “It’s not luck, wit, charm and a smile, like most people think. It truly is a science. The foundation is getting over the fear that you will be told no, and then learning what to say to cope with no.”

A no can come in different forms, he explains. “ ‘I want to think it over’ can be a no, or it can be a stall tactic,” he says. “It may be that the people need more information, or that they really need to go home and think it over, and they’ll call you back. Each no is just a fork in the road, and you need to see where that new path leads you. Is it a dead end, or is it yet another road that goes somewhere else?”

Here are some of no’s alternate definitions and what that preliminary “nope” on a sales call can mean:

  1. I’m confused. Perhaps the customer or client hasn’t had all of his questions answered yet. Keep going. The client education process is inherent to selling. “If the buyer consistently asks for more information after your initial closing attempt, then it is time to make an adjustment in your presentation,” says Hopkins. “Investigate further to determine what aspect of your presentation isn’t clear.”
  2. Now’s not a good time. The buyer’s no might just be a way of slowing the sales process down. Some people initially turn down all offers as a defense mechanism. They may just be buying time to think. Give them some breathing room.
  3. There’s something you’re missing. Perhaps the buyer hasn’t told you everything about his or her circumstances, needs and price range.
  4. Not quite. The buyer’s no may mean, “not in that size or color.” Or it could be financial. Ask questions to clarify what the potential clients mean.
  5. Not from you. Sometimes you just don’t make the personal connection needed in sales. It’s critical to make a strong first impression to buyers—be sincere and be polite.

Handling rejection is not a test of will, but a matter of preparation, perspective and attitude, Hopkins says.

The Five Moves

“One of the statistics most people don’t realize, and I’m now really talking about sales, is that the top producers don’t accomplish the final closing until they’ve had five attempts—meaning they’re five different moves into the close. This is why you have to learn to transform the no into the maybe, then transform the maybe into the yes, and of course most of this is done by the words that we communicate,” Hopkins  says.

The three basic activities in any sales situation are making statements, asking questions and remaining silent, Hopkins says: Be comprehensive in the pitch, ask probing questions about the buyer’s needs, request that the buyer take action, and then remain silent until the speaker talks again. “Silence is simple but powerful,” he says.

“People will say yes based more on your belief and conviction than on your product knowledge or technical skills,” Hopkins says. “A while back, I played golf with Wayne Gretzky, and I asked him why he thought he did so well in hockey. He told me he had a true passion for every aspect of the game, for winning, for responding to his opponents chasing him around the ice, all of it.”

Not listening to client reaction is one of the worst things a salesperson can do in the heat of a proposal, Hopkins says. “I teach that there are three types of listeners—the poor listener, who doesn’t hear most of the words because his or her whole focus is on what to say next; the average listener, who hears maybe half of the words; and the empathetic listener, who is so focused that he or she hears even the messages hidden behind the words, many of which are defense barriers because people are nervous and afraid of being sold to, so they come up with these things.”

Heathfield notes that perceptive listening can inspire creative thinking. “If you discover the no you received is because your pricing is not competitive, go look at your pricing and see if there is something you can do,” she says. “Instead, a lot of people just give up at that point.”

Hopkins tells the story of a man who came up to him after a seminar and said that attending one of his sessions two years prior had changed how he worked and dramatically improved his fortunes. “He told me that he was a retired colonel in the armed forces, and he did terribly in sales at first because he was still trying to command his customers to buy what they needed,” Hopkins says. “He took to heart what I said at the previous seminar about listening, and he became one of his company’s top  producers.”

If the Answer Is Still No

Understanding when no really means no is critical. Not doing so can damage any future business with a prospective client, Hopkins says. “I like to tell people that no is just the first part of nothing, as in, ‘If you say no to me tonight, Mr. Johnson, then I feel you’re gaining nothing from the benefits we have to offer.’ Then let Mr. Johnson ponder that without any further pressure.”

In any event, remain positive, Hopkins says. If three unsuccessful sales calls in a row leave you frustrated, don’t let it color the fourth pitch. One formula Hopkins recommends is connecting the fruitless sales calls to deals you close.

“Using your own closing ratio, figure out how many contacts it takes, on average, to make one sale,” Hopkins says. “For example, if you close one out of every five contacts and you earn $1,000 per sale, that means each of those four rejections gets you one step closer to your $1,000. So tell yourself they are worth $250 each in the process. When you hear that definitive no, think to yourself, Thanks for my $250.

Each sales call is a new chapter in negotiation.

The Harvard Negotiation Project, created at Harvard Law School in 1979 to consider global issues that involve conflicts between nations, has spawned books such as Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fisher, William Ury and Bruce Patton. Getting to Yes advanced the theory of “principled negotiation”—how to separate pre-existing and underlying relationship issues from the discussions at hand and focus on each side’s interests, how to develop options for mutual gain, and how to use independent standards of fairness to avoid a bitter contest of wills.

Being the Boss

The Harvard Negotiation Project’s process of compromise is based on three criteria: It should produce a reasonable agreement, if agreement is possible; it should be efficient; and it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties.

“I think the damaging relationships part is particularly important in workplace issues,” Heathfield says.

The key factor to remember for entrepreneurs and other managers of people is that when an employee comes up with an idea, you need to respond to it, she says. If your answer is no, “Tell them, ‘I’ve heard you. Yes, there are aspects of that idea that I love. It’s not practical at the moment for these reasons,’ and give the employee an actual response for why their idea is not going to be implemented.”

Too much of the time when employees present their ideas, the concepts fall into a black hole, Heathfield says. Because there is a fear of hurt feelings, “no one responds. The employee is left totally up in the air and doesn’t know what’s going on, when simple responses would have solved and cured that whole problem.”

When employees receive no feedback, they don’t know what to do, so they become repetitive, Heathfield says. “They keep putting forth the same idea, hoping that they can batter down the resistance. They often turn into whiners, because they bring it up, and they bring it up, and they bring it up, and they drive you crazy. But if you’re a manager or a business owner and you’ve got a person doing that, understand it’s your fault. You haven’t allowed that person to understand that you really did hear them out and listened to them, you objectively considered their idea, and you’re rejecting it for reasons X, Y and Z.”

Being open to that feedback, soliciting it, and then being able to deal with and address it is crucial for an employee with an idea, or anyone trying to sell, Heathfield  says.

“My husband and I have 300 employees, and there are a few that need some serious feedback from me,” Heathfield says. “One of them is having lunch with me on Tuesday, and he is going to get it. That’s part of the honest appraisal. It’s my duty to let him know that he isn’t succeeding at the level that I honestly believe he can succeed at in our company.”

The Bottom Line

Accurate self-appraisal, the ability to respond to feedback and keeping rejection in perspective: These are all powerful tools when on sales calls, whether you’re out on the entrepreneurial limb or in a leadership environment.

History has proved this time and again.

Robert M. Pirsig spent over four years writing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the wee hours of the morning before going to work at his day job as a contract writer, only to have publishers reject the book 121 times, which landed him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for most rejections by a best-seller. The University of Southern California turned Steven Spielberg down at least twice for admission (the prolific filmmaker eventually received an honorary degree from the school in 1994 and two years later became a trustee). And legend has it more than 1,000 restaurants rejected the secret chicken-seasoning recipe of Harland David Sanders before someone finally accepted it (the “colonel’s” legacy is KFC).

As with most things, Dr. Seuss explains it best. In Oh, The Places You'll Go!, the legendary author of children’s books wrote optimistically, “You have brains in your head. Your feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” This was the insight of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who had his first book rejected 27 times before he closed the deal to get it published.

There's also sage advice for employees struggling with rejections. Find out 5 steps for effectively coping with workplace rejection.

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