How to Say No Without Getting Fired

Product professionals are inundated with requests for all manner of marketing collateral, requirements, roadmaps—and the list keeps on growing.

You struggle to say no to requests you know are frivolous, because sometimes it’s just easier to go with the status quo than make waves. Admit it: You (and your team) work on stuff you know is a waste of time and resources.

And when you do push back and say no, it’s often met with displeasure or disdain. Usually the person with the most power or most senior job title decides the priority, and the others are powerless to defend their positions.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon said it so eloquently: “The great thing about fact-based decisions is that they overrule the hierarchy. The most junior person in the company can win an argument with the most senior person.”

So more power isn’t what’s needed, it’s the facts:

  • What are the goals that matter most to the CEO?
  • Who are your buyers?
  • What are your buyer’s processes for making purchase decisions?

Having a good grasp of these can help you travel down the path to saying no.

Unclear CEO Goals Mean Unclear Priorities

You need to be clear about how you support the goals of the business—particularly, the goals that matter most to the CEO. Without a clear understanding of the most critical goals the CEO values, you are left without a compass to guide you. Understanding the goals that matter most is the first step in saying no without getting fired.

Unfortunately, the goals of the CEO aren’t always translated in a meaningful way. Or you and the CEO may have different interpretations of the goals, based on your agendas. Your job is to clarify the goals and use them as a center of gravity to help you make better decisions.

According to the 2012 Pragmatic Institute Product Management and Marketing Survey, product professionals (on average) support three products. It’s time for a dose of reality about what that means. You can’t, for example, market each product equally and expect them all to deliver top results Your mission isn’t to provide unlimited marketing support; it’s to help achieve the goals of the business.

Questions you need to ask yourself are: Which products support the CEO’s goals the best? How do you know? Who will you need to talk with to know for sure?

Understanding Buyers Isn’t a Desk Job

Another fact to keep in mind is this: Companies don’t buy products, people do. That was sage advice given to me early in my career and it still applies today.

So, who are these people? How well do you know them? I’m sure you could tell me their job titles, but what else? What are their annual salaries? How do they get compensated? Who are their bosses? What are their personal wins? What keeps them up at night?

In any market, there are patterns. And we call a pattern relating to buyers a “buyer persona.” A buyer persona helps you identify likely buyers in the wild and how to get inside their heads.

Getting a full appreciation and perspective of your buyer personas requires field work. You can’t make it up, and you can’t rely exclusively on your salespeople or the one subject matter expert in the company. Think like an anthropologist. Find time to interact with these real potential buyers in the wild. Observe them in their habitats: how they eat, raise their young and forage for food.

Building an understanding of your buyers takes time and it takes perseverance. But the payoff is huge. Saying no is especially empowering when backed by market evidence.

The Process to Purchase

Why should you be concerned about how buyers buy? Your sales team takes care of that, right?

As the Corporate Executive Board points out: “57 percent of the purchase decision is complete before a customer calls a supplier, providing a large opportunity for marketing to influence the early stages of the purchase process.”
And while salespeople are expected to know how buyers in an individual deal make a purchase decision, marketing should know how buyers in a market segment make a purchase decision.

First, you should know the logical and predictable patterns (steps) in the way buyers in a market segment arrive at a purchase decision. Second, know the different buying roles that get involved in making a purchase decision, when they get involved and for what reasons. The information gained from those two items helps set the stage for identifying marketing gaps that can facilitate a purchase decision. It enables you to prioritize marketing projects and empowers you to say no.

Next Steps

Remember, there are three pieces of information that you need in order to confidently say no to frivolous requests—without getting fired:

  1. Business goals and how they relate to what you do
  2. The people who influence purchase decisions
  3. The purchase decision process

Having that information and aligning your efforts with it arms you in the battle for your time. Saying no without getting fired is about knowledge, not power. And it makes it much easier to say yes with confidence too.

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