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How to say “no” as a Product Manager

Raffy Banks • March 25, 2020

As a Product Manager, it’s inevitable that opportunities will come your way that, in your mind, make absolutely no sense in pursuing and you will want to say “no.”

However, people don’t respond well to words like “no” because it triggers the “fight” sensor in their brain. Think back to the last time someone told you “no” when you were presenting them with what you thought was a legitimate opportunity. You most likely were taken aback and felt off-put or confused.

This is why knowing how to say “no” is an important skill to learn. However, the goal is not to get to “no.” What you don’t want happening is for people–whether customers, management, or team members–to lose faith in your abilities. If the default answer is “we’ll add it to the queue” then people will stop coming to you–or they’ll start questioning your capability as a PM.

Here are a few ways to handle situations where you think a “no” is appropriate:

Dig into the Problem – but Do Not Dig Too Far

Figure out how far you need to dig into the problem to understand it. E.g. The sales team is getting feedback about a feature that they’re pushing you to implement.

The stages you should take are:

  1. understanding the problem. What’s the opportunity.

  2. If they’re pressing hard, then chat with them, they’re pushing it for a reason. Is it because they think it’s the reason they’re hearing “no” from prospects or is because they just think it’s a good idea?

  3. Give them a sense of where it would fall in the priority list. Is it a hard “no” or a “later” or an “unknown.”

Have Guiding Principles

While strategies are good they are ever-changing, principles help guide your decisions AND help you say “no” since they are well understood by the entire company. If a principle is to be customer-focused and an opportunity comes along that could harm customer experience, well then it’s an easy “no” and it should be easy to persuade others of this.

Discover the Key Information You’re Missing

It’s sometimes easy to jump to the end and assume you understand what it is that being presented. However, you’ll often times discover that your interpretation is off. Therefore it is best if you fully understand what is being presented.

Go to The Source

Unless you’re hearing it from the source it’s difficult to grasp the full weight of an opportunity. Third parties can filter out crucial information or even tone. If a customer mentioned something to an onboarding specialist who then chatted with you about it, well determine whether it’s worth getting the customer on the phone to hear it in their own words. You’ll be surprised as to how much you’ll find has been left out.

Understand the Desired Outcome

Would it increase sales? Increase customer satisfaction? Reduce time? Eliminate a task? Please management? Etc. Knowing the outcome will help drive your decision-making process. If you’re an organization that is customer-driven, then a customer-focused opportunity would get priority over an internally-facing nice-to-have.

Discover Whether There’s an Opportunity or Not

I’ve had this happen a number of times. I’m on the call with a big client who suggests a feature. Maybe it sounds interesting so I ask them to explain a bit more. They go into some detail about how the feature would work but neglecting to tell me why it’s important. As I push a bit on what it is they’re trying to do or what business-facing problem this solves they often don’t have an answer. They discover, on their own, with a bit of back and forth question, that the feature wouldn’t move the needle for them. It would just be a nice convenience or a “one day if we change our workflows” type of feature. In these cases, the customer convinces themselves that their suggestion is not worth the time or effort.

Agree on the Problem

Often it’s not that you disagree on the core or root problem but the specific solution or implementation that’s being presented. People want to be heard but it’s important to understand what’s actually being presented. If it’s just a solution to a problem that you don’t agree exists or has been long disputed through data, then say that. If the problem has not been identified, ask questions until you understand the problem. In this case, share that you’re on board with the problem and that the solution is up for grabs. It’s not a hard “no” approach. It’s a “let’s understand this thing together” approach.