How to Turn a NO into a YES!


Initial "no" triples success rateCan an initial rejection actually help you get the “yes” you really want? Surprisingly, if you create the right first and second requests, it can. Persuasion expert Robert Cialdini conducted a classic experiment that demonstrates the technique by soliciting volunteers to work with troubled kids.

(I’ll put in a plug for Pubcon Las Vegas, now just a few weeks away. Cialdini will be the main keynote, and I’ll have a spotlight presentation on boosting conversion with techniques from my book Brainfluence. Plenty of persuasion and influence!)

When college students were asked to volunteer to spend two hours accompanying boys and girls from a juvenile detention facility on a trip to the zoo, less than one in five – a mere 16.7% – agreed to participate. Then, one change was made to the solicitation, and the positive responses jumped to 50%.

How did the experimenters boost the rate at which people volunteered so dramatically? They started by asking for a much larger time commitment – two hours per week for two years of unpaid volunteer effort in a juvenile detention facility. Needless to say, not a single student agreed to the lengthy stint of service. But, having rejected that request, they were more than three times as likely to agree to the two hour commitment.

Cialdini dubbed this the “door in face” technique since it involved an initial rejection. It reminds me, too, of the wildly successful Girl Scout cookie sales technique I described in Cookie Framing. In that case, the young lady asked for an outrageous donation amount, and then moderated her request to purchasing some cookies.

Several psychological factors may be at work here. Framing is one – the second request seems small, or even inconsequential, in scale compared to the first one. The main effect may be “concession reciprocity” – when the first request is moderated to a much smaller request, there’s a social expectation that the second party will give a little, too.

Get the Sequence Right

The boost in conversion occurred when the requests were made in a specific order. First, the large request was made and then was rejected. Only then was the second, much smaller request made. The experimenters tried offering both the large and small requests at the same time, and that produced only a small increase in signups: from 16.7% to 25%. So, merely offering customers or donors two choices of greatly different magnitudes won’t be particularly effective. The requests must be sequential, and the first request must be rejected before offering the second option.

Business and Non-Profit Uses

It’s clear this technique can apply to non-profits seeking donations or commitments of time. That’s the situation Cialdini tested, and there’s an inherent motivation for most of us to help a worthy cause. But what about business use? Can a salesperson increase the chance of getting an order?

For this to be an effective business strategy, there has to be some level of motivation on the part of the buyer. The buyer must need the product, or one like it. If I have no interest in buying life insurance, backing off from a costly $5 million policy to a modest $50K policy isn’t likely to have any effect at all. A good relationship between the buyer and the salesperson will also help a lot – positive social factors are more likely to come into play if the buyer is favorably disposed toward the seller.

In that context, a salesperson could begin by proposing a two-year exclusive agreement to purchase their product, knowing that the probability of acceptance is near zero. Then, when the buyer rejects that, a small trial order request might well be successful.

Of course, this isn’t just for salespeople – the buyer could demand major concessions from the seller in price and exclusivity, and after rejection make a much more modest request for expedited delivery on the next order.

The neuromarketing takeaway is that you shouldn’t fear rejection – it can actually pay to seek it!

Have you turned rejection into a positive result? Share your success story in a comment!

  1. Chris Johnson says

    We track the heck out of our proposal to close ratio.

    And, we started doing a “resend” at the end of each month, with the SAME ask, no changes.

    We close roughly 40% of our proposals on the first pass, and then we are able to pick up another 15% (total of 55%) on subsequent dickering. That’s held up for months now, same proposal, ask later.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      You might try a small concession, like a bonus item, on the second round to see what happens, Chris. It wouldn’t mimic this experiment exactly, but it would represent an effort to narrow the difference and might boost the response rate. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Blue says

    I need a lot more experience and some tutoring from Robert Cialdini 🙂

  3. Chris says

    I get that nearly every day it seems, it is a big tactic for charities calling for contributions (or perhaps it is just one marketing company that handles many charities). I get the “can you match your previous donation” at X level first immediately followed up with a smaller level. If I wasn’t so put off by being contact so often it would probably work. 🙂

  4. Meet your business goals says

    Nice post! if we’re in sales,we can easily apply these strategies and tactics to improve our skills. We can also use these tactics in campaigns, in presentations to potential partners, and in our day-to-day business conversations. After all, everyone wants to hear a “yes!”

  5. Jon says

    This is a bit like the story which goes

    Son: “Dad Dad, I just wrote off your car”

    Dad: “WHAT, you are in so much trouble young man….”

    Son: Actually, just jokes dad but I did dent the rear fender a little”

    Dad: “Oh phew thats good news”

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great framing/anchoring example from real life, Jon!


  6. Caelan Huntress says

    This is clever. It makes the second option seem like a compromise.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      That’s a good way of putting it, Caelan. Our brains like compromise, and when the other person “gives” first we feel a need to reciprocate. We compromise on products, too. Hence, adding a high-priced version to a lineup can make the previous top-of-the-line model seem like a reasonable compromise between cheap and expensive.


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