For Operations Teams, Saying No Is a Critical Skill


One reason ops teams struggle to be heard is because they don’t feel comfortable or empowered to say no to requests.

Ops professionals can fall into the trap of taking orders rather than serve as trusted experts on operational best practices. If the ops team can’t own operations, this means nobody is thinking about how each request fits into the big picture. As processes splinter off due to random requests, seemingly small data changes eventually bubble up to the surface as funnel leaks and revenue loss.

When to say no

The main reason to say no to a request? Say no if the request is to complete a task, not solve a problem.



In this instance, you’d be adding data to your CRM without knowing the business case. It’s the job of operations professionals to safeguard data quality, so needing more information before moving forward with a request is 100% reasonable.

By asking follow-up questions, you could eventually uncover the real need: “We need help understanding how many of the inbound leads each month are submitted by competitors.”

This deeper questioning allows the ops team to understand the business case, devise and implement the best solution and establish new governance procedures.

Other times to be comfortable saying no:

Keep the peace by setting ground rules early

Saying no isn’t fun. Most of us try to avoid conflict at all costs. By laying the groundwork, ops teams can stay ahead of the fray.

Educate your team on how they should view your role

  • You own all processes and systems for the client team(s), which means you are ultimately responsible for how well they work.
  • You can’t own operations if you’re simply given a list of tasks and not allowed to guide decision-making.

Create a ticketing system

  • Ticketing introduces a small hurdle, which makes frivolous tasks less likely.
  • You can enforce the format that you want for requests.
  • Having an SLA for tickets gives you time so people don’t expect you to complete requests immediately.

Focus is core to success, and focus often means choosing not to focus on things. Clients occasionally make requests that may not have the desired impact or that will get in the way of more important projects, which makes it important to say “no” or “not now”. If we said yes to everything, we would never end up making clients happy.

Techniques to help you say no, but still stay collaborative

To help sales professionals achieve the art of saying no, we asked Dr. Sara Weekly, a board certified psychiatrist, how to say no while still maintaining a collaborative nature.

Dr. Weekly has spent thousands of hours teaching people how to say no. She put together the following guide for operations professionals who need a bit of help knowing the right way to say no without fear of alienating colleagues or frustrating executives.

Get grounded

If you’re feeling anxious, take a couple of long, deep breaths before starting or continuing the conversation. You can always ask for a minute: “Hmm, let me think about that.” Or, “Interesting, hold on a second.”

Sit or stand up straight with your shoulders squared, and try to relax. When we brace for what we fear will be a confrontation, we might hunch or close our posture or even take an aggressive physical stance (leaning forward, tensed grip, etc). This discomfits whoever we’re talking to instead of conveying the openness and confidence that would put everyone at ease.

If it’s an obvious no:

Aim for simplicity and directness. Out of discomfort or irrational guilt, we can end up tripping over ourselves trying to justify or over-apologize for our decisions. Stay away from vague or ambivalent statements (“I’m so sorry, I really wish I could, but…” or “Maybe, but I don’t really know if that makes sense…”).

Make it clear that you’re saying no to their request, not rejecting them as a person. Express your appreciation for their thoughts, highlight any useful aspects of their ask, and welcome further feedback.

Keep your tone warm and neutral. If you’re talking in person, make friendly eye contact. For example: “I reviewed your request for [show them you understand what they wanted]. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I’m not going to be making that exact change due to [briefly stated reason to show that you’ve thought through the situation], but I want us to keep thinking together about how to address your problem.”

If it’s a painful no:

Sometimes the simple approach doesn’t work. The other person gets defensive, or you see an argument brewing. In those cases, consider using techniques from a motivational interviewing approach.

The idea is to identify and validate their pain point and ask open-ended questions to gently guide them towards your point of view (provided your point of view is also what is ultimately going to be best for them).

Express empathy

  • You: “This has clearly been frustrating for you, and I see how [the change] might help with that. Ultimately, you’re in charge of tracking your sales, and I can’t tell you what’s going to work best for you. Only you know that. My job is to make things flow most efficiently for the company, which includes you.”

Highlight discrepancies

  • You: “So you want to speed up the process of entering a lead, but I also know that it’s really important to you to have your metrics be accurate.
  • Them: “I guess that’s true. It’s annoying when my numbers don’t come out right.”
  • You: “I hear that. It sounds like you also want to be sure that you know how you’re doing and you can track your activity correctly.”
  • Them: “Definitely.”
  • You: “As the ops person, I can see that this change is going to cause some redundancies that might mess with your metrics.”

Roll with resistance

  • Them: “Yeah, but we can figure out how to fix that later. Just make the change, this seems more important now.”
  • You: “I can tell this is really bothering you.”

Support self-efficacy

  • You: “Even though it’s going to be a no from me right now, I want to make sure that we figure out how to take care of this problem. I want to hear all the ideas you have, and I’ll be thinking of my own so that this issue isn’t so frustrating. Please continue to come to me and update me about what’s not working.”
  • Them: “Okay, you’ll definitely hear from me.”
  • You: “Thanks, I genuinely hope to.”

If it’s a maybe:

Ask for more time to consider. Only do this if you actually need more time to work through their request – no one appreciates being jerked around. Try to give them a time frame or, if possible, go ahead and set up a follow-up meeting. This does wonders to inspire trust and make people feel they’re being taken seriously.

Volunteer a compromise if you already have one in mind.

Hash it out, either in that moment or at a meeting you set up for the future. If more information is needed to make the decision, decide which of you is responsible for gathering what data before you meet again.

  • You: “That’s an interesting question. I’m going to need a couple of days to think that through. Could we meet again on Friday? In the meantime, I’m going to think through the downstream effects, and I’m going to ask you to get a feel from the rest of the sales team how this might impact their workflow.”

Always end with gratitude

Saying no and sticking to it can be difficult, especially when sometimes it feels people have been thoughtless or shortsighted in their request. Because just as it was my role to explain to the surgeons why “don’t know, he just looks kind of sad” is not a valid reason for a psych consult, it’s your responsibility as an operations professional to help your coworkers learn how to use your services appropriately.

We thank them for listening, we thank them for understanding, and we thank them for being a part of the team.

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