The Strategic Power Of “No” In B2B


“Yes” is such a beautiful word – and it can be an unexpectedly limiting one, too.

Short, sweet and positive, it typically signals agreement and, in a business setting, a sale. But too much emphasis on learning why B2B customers say “Yes,” (that is, only telling you their priorities for a positive purchase decision), may misdirect a company, cause it to lose competitive relevance and ultimately prohibit it from gaining new customers. Instead, asking those who say “no” to explain why they decided against a purchase may be more revealing of where your opportunities truly lie.

Customer research, both formal and informal, all too often focuses only on the reasons people decide to buy – why they’ve said “yes” to a purchase – or at least why they plan to say yes at some future purchase decision date. “What do customers say they want? Let’s give it to them!” This mindset is usually justified as being responsive. It’s also lazy – it puts the onus on the customer to think imaginatively about their situation, and consider what innovations will be required to bring them the value they are searching for. This responsibility belongs with the brand – not the customer.

There are several downsides to simply asking customers what they look for in order to say “yes” to their next purchase or vendor relationship:

  1. “Yes” Only Produces “Table Stakes” Strategies
    Asking customers what they like or want causes them to reflect on the known and the available. Even digging into their pain points will result in a list that you probably could’ve recited yourself. The problem is, each buyer will mentally place you in a category, and will typically give the known category antes that are necessary to compete for that “yes.” Even when they report a desire for best practice, it’s current best practice. At most this will leave you at parity, with a table stakes offering – hardly the stuff of the brand differentiation you so sorely need.
  1. “Yes” Lacks The Friction Required To Light A Fire Under Your Strategy
    Niels Schillewaert of the research firm Insites Consulting says that “The art of research is to bring interesting frictions to the surface.” Just staying with yes, with the positive, doesn’t explore those telling points of friction and dissatisfaction, doesn’t force you to explore new ways to smooth them out, and doesn’t get you below the surface to bring up what the customer really needs.
  1. “Yes” Affirms The Past And Present, But Sheds Little Light On Future
    According to a Gallup report, asking customers to affirmatively describe what will solve their problems and meet their needs may inherently be a non-starter. It states that B2B “customers do not always clearly communicate what they want. Many customers wish to have more strategic relationships with their key vendors, fueled by innovative ideas the company can offer to help the customer attain a particular objective. What can be frustrating is that customers often have trouble defining what their vendor needs to do.”

In short, just asking customers what they want frequently doesn’t work, because they simply don’t know.

How “Getting To No” Propelled 100% ROI

What your customers do know is what they don’t like and what’s not working for them. But they won’t readily tell you. You need to initiate a dialogue.

That’s exactly what one tech company did when it couldn’t figure out why its new enterprise-level operating system was floundering in the marketplace. Their customer research had explored buying criteria – performance and speed topped the list – and so the new OS delivered category-topping performance and speed.

The product was launched with considerable marketing support and great expectations, but it wasn’t selling. Thankfully, the company went back into customer research mode, first verifying the buying criteria. Performance and speed once again topped the wish-list for getting prospects to say yes, so the launch team first assumed it was a communications problem.

But then they decided to dig deeper to find “the non-buying criteria” – why customers were deciding against the purchase – and the answer was transformative.

The new OS was a dream system, but migrating to it, or to any new system, was a risk-filled nightmare. IT managers had seen too many predecessors lose their jobs over a problematic migration process that could negatively impact entire organizations­, and they weren’t about to recommend upgrading unless absolutely necessary. The OS was considered excellent, but migrating to it was just too professionally risky, no matter how much performance might be improved. The problem was both a functional and an emotional one, and no one had yet come up with a way to overcome it.

This insight led to a fundamental strategic shift, from performance superiority to process reassurance. To give it some real teeth, a guarantee was offered, assuring a smooth migration, (and implied job security) and a new marketing campaign was created.

The result? Several new enterprise customers were acquired, producing a campaign ROI of 100%.

It was only by delving into the complex B2B buyers journey, talking one-on-one with customers, and pinpointing the rational and emotional nature of the “no” that was derailing the launch, that sales were eventually resurrected.

Three Things To Consider When Searching For The “No”

As leveraging the negative can seem positively counter-intuitive, a few recommendations are in order:

  1. Budget Enough Time And Money For Sufficient Research
    To dig deep enough to get to a truthful “no,” you often need to probe. Ask sales personnel, as well as customers and prospects that you haven’t been able to snag, what obstacles get in the way of a potential sale. Ask them to be candid about a real-life situation in which they said “no,” as opposed to only reciting a list of attributes that they desire. Say you’re concept testing — don’t just expose your preferred choice or even your top choices; provide a range for reaction, and probe what prospective customers do and do not like, and then find out why.
  1. You Can’t Delegate Understanding
    Make certain that anyone key to building the strategy behind your brand and marketing personally participates in at least a few of these customer encounters – no amount of reading the reports will provide the same visceral sense of what motivates, or de-motivates, the human beings to whom you’re selling.
  1. Remember To Get Real – Going Digital Isn’t Usually Enough
    From simple store visits to sales ridealongs and deep-dive ethnography, put your research into real-life situations that allow you to pick up the articulated as well as the unarticulated, the positive and negative, the rational and the emotional, the yes… and the no.