This post was originally published on February 8, 2012 on Forbes.com.
In an effort to not hurt someone's feelings or have to defend the finality of their answer, I have observed and been victim to the ever frustrating tragedy being told "Maybe" when everyone involved in the situation knows the answer is actually "No." Sometimes it's a friend not wanting to commit to the evening plans and using "Maybe" as a way to stall until their preferred plans are finalized. Or other times it's a potential business partner or client saying "Maybe" in the hopes that I'll eventually forget about them and they can go on about their day without the guilt of having shot me down. In both cases, saying "Maybe" when the answer is actually "No" shows disrespect and wastes everyone's time.
For anyone trying to close down an opportunity or a deal, hearing "Maybe" tends to initially be something that brings a smile to their face. In their mind they're thinking of the famous words of Lloyd from Dumb & Dumber, "So you're saying there's a chance? YEAH!" The excitement that comes from not hearing "No" and having a possible close still on the books feels good. Having 11 open opportunities is far better than only have 3. But, that smile on their face always turns to frustration and a question of "Why won't they just tell me 'Yes' or 'No' and let me move on?"
Tara Hunt, Founder and CEO of Buyosphere, told me about her experience with the curse of "Maybe" during their recent seed round of funding. "'Maybe' was the bane of my existence. With everything else I had going on, the last thing I needed was to chase someone down who was just going to eventually tell me 'No.'"
For the person saying "Maybe," the motivation is usually to stall while other options are considered; or worse yet, delay the eventual pain of giving the disappointing answer of "No." But, for anyone making the ask, the goal is to get to "Yes" and they'll keep coming back until they get that answer. The best thing that can be done is to make the break quick and clean and not prolong it more than it needs to be.
Here are three quick responses to being told "Maybe" in an effort to get an honest understanding of what it will take to get everyone off the fence:
- What are the factors that will give us the chance to get from "Maybe" to either "Yes" or "No?"
- Do you have a time frame for gathering some further clarification on this matter?
- Since it looks like this is not something that you can make a decision on right now, I am going to go ahead and assume the answer is "No" for now. If that changes, please do let me know.
For those being asked, it will save everyone time, effort, and energy if you avoid the curse of "Maybe" and let your yes be yes and your no be no. For the person making the ask, the best answer is "Yes." The second best answer is "No." But the worst answer possible is "Maybe."