Don’t accept no from someone who can’t say yes

I’ve been meaning for some time to write a post about my experience in the Navy and what it’s meant for my life. This isn’t that post, but I was recently reminded of something that a senior non-commissioned officer told a group of us once about navigating bureacracy. Being a large government organization, the Navy has its fair share of bullshit and nonsense, which makes it difficult to get anything done. Especially anything out of the ordinary. So here’s the advice I got about trying to get something done:

“Don’t accept no from someone who can’t say yes.”

This stuck in my mind and has served me well ever since. Bureaucracies are built on the back of rigid rules and hierarchical structures, but even the most rigid systems need room for exceptions. But empowering individuals at all levels to make those exceptions is the antithesis of what bureaucracy stands for, so these organizations only give the exception-making ability to those at the top. But the hapless victims of the bureaucracy constantly want more exceptions than those at the top have time to handle, so the solution is simple: have the minions at the bottom just turn down any requests for exceptions to the rules as a matter of course. It doesn’t matter that those minions couldn’t approve the exception if they wanted to, because the victim asking for the exception probably won’t push it.

But if you do push, even a little, you can often get what you want. I left the Navy with about a year’s worth of college credits, across a hodge-podge of subjects. They didn’t fit the requirements for my degree at the University of Colorado, so they told me I’d lose some of them and have to take other classes instead. Unacceptable. So I fought and cajoled and bugged them until I got the decision-makers and got them to accept every last class. I didn’t lose a single credit.

Another example of this is customer service call centers. Roughly 90% of my interactions with customer service agents are negative, because I avoid calling unless there’s a problem. And they almost never solve the problem to my satisfaction. So I request to speak to their manager, at which point they balk and explain how there’s nothing better that can be done, that’s their policy, blah, blah. About 50% of the time when I get the manager on the phone, they offer me a better solution than the customer service guy at the first level did. If that’s still not good enough, I go to *their* boss, which is almost always very difficult. They very often just refuse to connect me, in which case I have to do some digging and cold-calling. But when you get that person on the phone, they’re completely empowered to solve your problem, and they often do. Kind of sad that corporate America has this kind of relationship with their customers, but that’s another story.

So decide what you want and ask for it. And don’t stop when they tell you no, especially if they’re not able to tell you yes.