Why we never start with “No” and instead ask “Why?”

When you’re scoping out a new technology for your business, you often ask for features the product doesn’t already have. These requests can take on a life of their own — we call them Things.

Some Things are predictable. At Avochato, we provide businesses a text messaging line that helps them cut down on call volume by interacting via text message instead. In sales conversations, potential customers ask questions like, “Can I have an auto-reply to an incoming message?” or, “Can I create templates if I need to send the same messages over and over again?”

Answering these is easy. These are Things we already have covered. But for Things we don’t have, we run into three problems:

  1. There are a lot of non-standard Things
  2. These more out-there Things tell us nothing about underlying problems the customer is trying to solve
  3. We’re way too nice, and if we build every Thing people ask for then everyone loses

Problem #1: Too many Things spoil the broth

First, there are always a host of non-standard Things. Companies use our product in radically different ways. We have festival organizers using it as a tip line for security. We have logistics companies dispatching their agents. And we have advertisers using our number to let people text them from a Google Ad.

One prospective customer wanted to know if we could build a map overlaid with all their contacts. Another wanted our service to integrate extensively with other software that’s only used in their niche industry. Another even wanted us to create a bot to automatically reply to text messages from her boyfriend.

Some of these Things might be totally worth our time. Some might not. And on their own, Things tell us nothing.

Problem #2: Things don’t tell us about problems

The second problem: Things, on their face, don’t always reveal the underlying interest or need that’s driving them. A customer might have a very specific solution in mind, but what’s the problem?

Don’t come to the table with overly specific Things in mind

Problem #3: We’re way too nice

The third problem is that we’re way too nice. We’re people pleasers. We hold the door for others, but then get stuck in one place for five minutes.

When people contact us to use our service, we want to make them happy. Isn’t this why we invested in a great engineering team? We could build anything! Why not this Thing?

We want to say “yes” to every Thing. But we know that doing so would be a mistake, because it would detract us from a thoughtful, long term product roadmap that gets us to the best possible solution for the greatest number of businesses, including the one we’re talking to.

But it would be equally mistaken to say “no.” Instead, we ask: “Why? Why do you want the Thing?”

Digging for interests, not positions

The book “Getting to Yes” is a fascinating look at how successful negotiations happen in everything from maritime treaties to used car dealerships. One of the central tenets is to “negotiate on interests, not positions.” In other words, don’t focus on specific demands while judging success by how many of your original demands are met. Instead, expose the underlying motivations that lead you to desire those positions. Instead of digging a trench, dig in on the reason you want the Thing.

By digging down into the underlying reasons for a requested Thing, 95% of the time we’ve thought of ways to fix the core problem already and have them on our roadmap. That other 5% provides critical nuggets of wisdom that we discuss, often reworking our roadmap on the spot to accommodate.

There’s a flip side to this, too: asking “why” is just as important to us when we’re saying “yes” — instead of congratulating ourselves for predicting it correctly, we have to discover whether or not they like it for the reasons we’d predicted.

Granted, there are (and will always be) unreasonable or unworkable Things. If there’s a “no” there — and truth be told, there are sometimes misguided and highly specific Things — then the “no” is directly only at the proposed solution. There are hard “no’s” for the underlying pain point. And we make a point of recognizing, validating, and solving for these problems, even if it involves proposing solutions that aren’t ours. If every prospect that approaches us comes away with at least one useful idea, it’ll be a long-term win for our business.