Why No Response Doesn’t Mean Not Interested

Like it or not, life is sales. Even if you aren’t anywhere near the sales department in your work, I’d bet that almost every day you need to persuade, convince or find an agreement with another person.

A key sales (and life) lesson is simply this: just because you don’t get a response, that doesn’t mean the other person isn’t interested. Although we all dislike the pushy salesperson who goes for the hard sell at our expense, I’d say the majority of people are too passive. The assumption usually is: if people don’t respond immediately or come to me, it means they aren’t interested in what I have to offer.

I can think of countless examples where this kind of flawed thinking plagues people:

  • The person who assumes nobody wants to talk with him because he sits quietly in a corner during a party.
  • The person who thinks that her offer is not wanted because the email wasn’t replied to.
  • The person who believes he isn’t wanted at an event, because he didn’t receive an invitation.
  • The person who feels the customer isn’t interested because she didn’t reply to the first sales message.

I think there are some reasons people are biased towards being too passive (more on that later), but I think the effect can be dangerous. By misunderstanding the feedback given, many people give up too early in going after what they want, and assume a lack of encouragement is a sign of failure.

Lessons in Fundraising

I spent the past summer as a volunteer, seeking sponsorship dollars for University events. In many cases I needed to call, email or voicemail a dozen times before I would hear a response back. However, when I finally did reach the person I wanted to speak with, that person was often happy to participate in the program.

My instincts told me not to step on toes. If I left one voicemail, missed call or email message, that should be enough to compel the other person to want to speak with me. I felt it would be rude to contact multiple times without hearing a response.

My instincts were wrong. People are busy. Unless something is a personal priority, it can often take several messages, several contacts before you can get a response. And, when you do reach the person, they aren’t angry at your persistence, they are usually thankful for your extra persistence.

Although I learned this in fundraising, I believe it applies almost anywhere. How many times can you remember yourself stopping because you didn’t immediately receive a, “yes”?

How Not to Be a Spam Artist

I’ll admit, there is a danger here. Be too aggressive and you become a spam artist. You become the guy (or gal) who invites himself to parties where he isn’t wanted. You become the obnoxious Lothario who won’t back off.

I don’t think the solution is to just go in the middle ground. Whenever there is a compromise, you lose something, and I think this is no different.  I think if you follow just a few simple rules of thumb, you can have the enthusiasm and zeal to go for what you want, while respecting the interests of other people.

Here are a few of my personal rules:

Never invest less in an interaction than the other person.  If you want something, commit the time. Sending a bulk email to 100 recipients is easy, and that’s exactly why most people ignore them. Handwritten notes, personal calls and emails you write individually all show you care about the interaction and not just the success percentage.

No means no. While no response doesn’t mean you should give up, always allow the option of a clear no. I suspect most people wouldn’t care as much about spam if the “Unsubscribe” links actually worked. When fundraising, I would be persistent in my calls, but I backed off as soon as I had an unambiguous answer.

Provide an exit. Don’t corner people. Give them a polite, socially acceptable option of refusal. Some marketers and salespeople twist the social norms to make it difficult to get out of an interaction. Success coerced isn’t success at all.

Always provide a fair deal. In an equal transaction (where you offer as much value as you take), there should be no need to feel guilty. It’s the times when you offer less than you’re asking for that being pushy isn’t ethical.

Beyond Selling

I think this idea has merit beyond the world of sales and persuading other people. I believe it is an idea that fits with how life often works.

Think about the last time you gave up on a project because you were getting mixed feedback.  You assumed that a lack of response meant a lack of interest. When often, a lack of response simply means a lack of persistence on your side. Many goals, even those you eventually achieve, have moments where it seems like you aren’t making any progress.

The people who succeed in life are the same people who don’t give up before they hear a clear “no”. Even if you aren’t remotely involved in sales or marketing professionally, be the kind of person who doesn’t leave before a decision is made. If you want something, go after it, and don’t let mixed feedback stop you.



Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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