I know it's cliché, but I am going to say it anyway, just so we are all on the same page: Times have changed. Five years ago you would have asked — and received — the "going rate" (whatever it was) for the slick appearance and profitable exposure a partnership with you and yours would generate. Now? You’re lucky to get a URL and a handshake. But just because we are desperate to see our logos intertwined with those of other reputable companies doesn't mean we have to be partnering doormats. Quite the opposite; it's important not to give away too much milk, because you run the risk of passersby whispering, "That cow will sleep with anyone."
Imagine that a company with a reasonable reputation — perhaps even a company that turned you down in the past — comes forth with a too-good-to-be-true partnership proposition. You might feel giddy, like the high-school quarterback just asked you out; you might feel pissed, like the high-school quarterback just backed you into a corner. Either way, you have something they want, they want to give you something other than market value for it, and you'll have to consider the variables before giving them a "no, thanks" or "let's do it."
Why Should I Say "No"?
Probably the most important reason to say “no” is when it is clear you are receiving far less than the other party. Sometimes you want to be someone's minion; Microsoft’s, Coca-Cola's, or Starbucks’, for instance. If any of these brands, or their equivalent in your industry, offers you the short end of the stick, take the end. Take a splinter. Otherwise, insist on getting as good as you give or walk away. They approached you, remember?
Another reason to say “no” is that your customers simply won’t care. Who knows your customers better than you and your team? If your answer is anything other than “me and my team,” you might want to call a meeting. When a well-meaning marketing exec tells you what your customers need, want, or should have — and promises that a partnership will deliver it — then spend some time analyzing whether the “receivables” are actually desirables. Will your customers want or use 15% off all orders before Friday? Do your customers have any interest in newsletter subscriptions? Are your customers going to travel to Winnipeg for an industry summit, no matter who the keynote speaker is? If your customers don’t take advantage of or even notice the partnership offerings, is the partnership worth the energy?
How Should I Say “No”?
For the people-pleasers among us, the most difficult part of the equation is how to say no, especially when the company approaching you has an honest-to-goodness stellar reputation. If you had the money or manpower, you would be jumping at the chance to work with them. But you don’t.
First, get the stars out of your eyes. If we can take comfort in anything, it’s that the majority is just trying to stay afloat. No matter the company (even those mentioned above), if they didn’t need you — your networks, access to your customers, your reputation — they wouldn’t be asking. Few, if any, benevolent marketing directors devote their hours to approaching companies they just really want to help out.
As you would under any circumstance, be straightforward and savvy with your words. If you never want to hear from the company again, tell them you’re overcommitted and aren’t considering any proposals at this time. If you are interested, just not now, say so: “I can’t do this now, but I’d love to revisit the possibility in the future. Can you contact me in six months?”
When Should I Say “No”?
If you know the day you receive the email that you can’t commit to a partnership, respond definitively within 24 hours. If you need a few days, tell them you need a few days, and stick to your timeline. Don't string the other guy along. You know how that feels.
Most importantly, say “no” when the other guy won’t budge. If you’ve negotiated, debated, and asserted yourself and you are still getting the short end of the stick, disengage. Partnerships are partnerships. Don’t let anyone, even the big dogs, bully you into an unfavorable arrangement. Respect yourself, your brand, and your team. Respect the quality of your milk.
Maureen Green has worked in trade and educational publishing, small business PR, and event planning. She is currently the Web editor for Script magazine and teaches writing.