May 1, 2011

Rejection: A part of success


Rejection is a part of success as much as it is a part of life. If we never experience rejection, it is because we never take a chance. If we never take a chance, then we never succeed. Those two words, rejection and success, have a symbiotic relationship.

Rejection exists in many forms. As teenaged boys, we learned of rejection quite quickly when we asked a girl out and she declined because, "I have to wash my hair on Friday night." It didn't feel good, but we got over it. We learned a basic lesson of life. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no.

What started me on this column was a conversation with my long-time friend, the landscape designer Heather Lowe. Heather has been in the trade for 30 years now, and through good fortune and diligent work, she has never been dismissed from a job. She has never had a client tell her that a plan was unsatisfactory, or terminate her services before finishing a job. That was until a few weeks ago.

She had a client who was easy to get along with, and a professional. She prepared her first sketches, a concept plan as a starting point. The customer was polite, asked questions about her choices and appeared to understand those choices when explained. She made it clear that this was a starting point and that changes at this stage were easy to make and expected. She left the plan with him for his wife to inspect. She had never met his wife.

The next morning, Heather received a curt email stating that she should submit a bill for the work done, as they had "decided to go in another direction."

Heather was at first surprised by the email, as there had been no indication of dissatisfaction the day before. Then there were those terrible, initial thoughts that all of us experience in this type of situation: What have I done wrong? What is the other direction they have decided to go in? All of those doubts we have that affect our confidence, even after all of these years.

Improve your odds
My first reaction to Heather's situation was that she was indeed fortunate. She had gone 30 years and had never experienced a form of rejection that most of us have had to deal with, and more than once in our first year in the trade. To have gone that deep into a career with little or no client conflict was a testament to her skills and abilities. It also set me to thinking about rejection, conflict and more importantly, how we deal with it.

For most readers of this column, success is a result that we experience on a regular basis, as well as one we seek. You tend to be motivated individuals, who have done very well. Quite simply put, the people who have not done well are not reading this, either because they have given up, or because they believe they already know everything. I have always maintained that of all the attitudes we can possess, arrogance is the most expensive.

I have seen people within this trade who are barely surviving in their professional careers, and yet they refuse to grasp that they can change their personal outcomes. They do not have mentors, attend conferences and trade shows, or examine what it is they should be doing to improve their level of success. They do not read trade journals, as their arrogance leads them to the false assumption that they have nothing to learn.

As we follow our roads to success, we learn that we can improve our scorecards. Equally important, we learn there are many things that we should not do, ever again. We come to understand the classic quote that insanity is when we repeat the same behaviour and expect a different result.

The value of learning
In my own career, as the years progressed, I experienced more success and less failure, which meant that I was learning. I learned to sell at a higher level, because I learned the importance of meeting and exceeding a customer's needs. I also learned that sometimes I had to hold them and sometimes I had to fold them, an old Kenny Rogers song. Sometimes, but not always, it is in our best interest to walk away from a job.

I learned that certain people out there will ultimately cost you time, money and emotion. They are the same kids that your mother warned you not to play with in the sandpit. Those kids never learned to play nice. They view a contractor or a greenhouse/garden centre operator the same way a hungry wolf looks at a baby lamb. To them, you are nothing more than fresh meat.

I learned it was in my best interest to avoid those people, and their friends. I found one of the best opportunities to separate the good prospects from the bad was in the initial conversation. When they would call on the telephone asking for an estimate, I would ask a few questions in a conversational voice. Those questions were:
a) How did you hear of us?
b) What are your expectations? and
c) What are your time lines?

I never gave priority to a caller who answered the first with, "I was just going through The Yellow Pages and calling everyone under landscape contractor." I never gave priority to anyone who answered the second with,"I want an award-winning garden complete with a waterfall for under five thousand." And not surprisingly, I was never thrilled to hear someone say, "I need you to stop everything right now, and start my job tomorrow."

I learned to ball park an estimate over the phone, not for actual contract negotiations but to eliminate the unrealistic. After the caller would tell me what they were looking for, I would say something such as, "What you have described to me is somewhere in the $20 to $30,000 range." Some would respond, "I thought it would be around that much," and I would continue. Others would say, "Oh no, I just was talking to El Cheapo Landscaping and they said they could do it for under $12,000." And that would tell me to bow out. There is no advantage in trying to convert a low baller into a quality prospect. It is not going to happen.

The reason I have mentioned the telephone screening is that it reduced my rejection rate and increased my closings. Always try to do business with people who allow you to be a success.

The next strategy to avoid rejection and improve success is always being clear with clients about what they are getting. Misunderstandings are a common result of not being clear. Explain it to the client, twice, and then write it out. This should reduce complaints such as, "I thought it would be bigger," when you have a written contract that the spruce trees will be six feet tall, and they are.

Recently, a nonprofit group in my city was holding a fundraiser. I sold a lot of tickets for the event, 79 out of the 160 that were purchased. How did I do it? First, I only asked those I thought would have an interest in the event. That saved me lots of time. Second, I asked a lot of people. I spoke to 300 people to get 79 sales. I had 219 people who rejected my purchase request, and so what? Rejection is a part of sales. And the next time there is a fundraiser, I will ask all of those people who said no because this time, they might say yes.

Blessing in disguise
Back to Heather's situation with the clients who "were going in another direction." I suspected the wife might have been behind the decision. I ran into a fellow who had worked for the wife for five years. I explained the situation and asked for his insight. He was frank. He told me that every contractor who had worked for her had either quit or been fired. He said that Heather had dodged a bullet. His take was, "If she hired God to be her contractor, she would not be pleased, because she knows better than He does."

At that moment, I thought to myself, sometimes rejection is just a blessing in disguise. Put rejection into its proper place. Learn from it and stay on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.