How Companies Can Break Out of a Culture of Saying No

The cost of saying “no” is greater than you think.

Global companies keen on cutting costs are trying to make their processes more efficient any way they can. Many firms have created highly engineered systems that drive toward simplicity and unwavering consistency. But what happens when a customer calls with an unusual request that doesn’t fit into a neat, tidy, little box?

Until just a few years ago, what Grainger’s customers got was a big, fat “no” from the company’s customer service associates, admits Deb Oler, a vice president at Grainger, a global distributor of maintenance, repair, and operating products, and it has invested heavily in streamlining its internal processes.

“Big, complex companies with millions of customers doing $250 sales at a time generally have a pretty standard way of billing people,” says Oler. “You can’t, all of a sudden, change it so you have 57 different ways of doing it. So how do you do it in a way that’s cost effective and still allows you to do what you do as a business?”

Grainger employees had grown used to telling customers “no” when they couldn’t find solutions that met their needs. To Oler, the problem was clear: Grainger needed to change from being a “no culture” to a “yes culture.”

But rigid processes were only part of the problem. “So here’s this company that’s great at flexing during the Ebola outbreak,” says Oler, referring to Grainger’s role in serving customers, including hospitals, transportation hubs, and the government, to provide protective gear and other safety products. “But if you’re a regular customer who does business with us all the time, and you ask for something a little different, we would frustrate everyone.”

At a glance, the cost of saying “no” didn’t seem too steep at Grainger. The number of customers calling the company with uncommon requests was pretty small—maybe two per day. But some of the individualized requests represented the potential for much bigger business than the company’s $250 average sale. And some of those customers were giving their business to competitors because Grainger couldn’t stretch to meet their needs.

Many companies struggle to be flexible, particularly in the face of the increased pressure to grow more efficient and customer-centric, wrote Mark Pearson, head of operations consulting at Accenture, in an article for Harvard Business Review. His team’s research on the topic, which was featured in a book they published titled Value-Driven Business Process Management, found that less than 20% of business processes make a company stand out among its customers—yet, processes risk becoming obsolete if companies don’t collect customer feedback and make adjustments based on that information.

What Grainger needed, Oler realized, was a central place that would quickly, and more flexibly, respond to customers’ unique requests. This led to the birth of the “Yes Desk” in late 2012. Whenever a customer wanted something that couldn’t be done within Grainger’s streamlined systems, it was forwarded to the Yes Desk. This team was charged with looking into the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of responding with a “yes” to a customer problem within 24 hours.


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Keith Ferrazzi

Keith Ferrazzi


New York Times best-selling author, speaker

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