How to take no for an answer

When Kathy Cotney first inquired about a sales job at the computer giant where she now works, the company basically said, "Thanks, but no thanks." This up-and-coming enterprise wasn't interested in Ms. Cotney's 15 years of experience in the computer industry and solid liberal arts background. It hired only people with engineering degrees -- even for sales jobs.

Too often we get discouraged when companies say we're not exactly what they're looking for. But with tact and persistence, you can turn a "no" into a "yes," or at least use a turndown to turn up other job possibilities.


Ms. Cotney certainly didn't stop at the first rebuff. After a company representative gave her the brush-off over the phone, Ms. Cotney sent the manager a resume and cover letter. She asked the company to keep her in mind for future openings.

Like all good job hunters, Ms. Cotney had researched the business. In the process, she learned that the company was trying to expand into new markets. Her letter highlighted a skill that could help: Ms. Cotney's experience in her prior job, at IBM, making sales calls to high-level executives.


Sure enough, one month after sending the letter, Ms. Cotney heard from the same manager who had held out no hope in the first conversation. This time it was to invite her for an interview because the company was doubling its sales force. Four months later Ms. Cotney got an offer.

As a rule, this sort of storytelling is a great way to turn the tables on any kind of turndown. Choose an illustration that shows you solving the kinds of problems that arise on the job, says Martin Yate, author of the best-selling job-hunting guide, "Knock 'em Dead" (Bob Adams Inc.). For someone in customer service, it might be how you dealt with an irate consumer. For a dock loader, it could involve coming up with a way to get through an especially busy period.

Even if a particular position doesn't pan out, each person you contact can lead you to others. In response to the stock answer, "We're not hiring," ask about when needs might change, Mr. Yate says. Then add, "Do you know of any other companies that might be looking for someone with my background?"

No matter how capable you are or how well you've done in interviews, few things feel worse than not making the next cut. If you had a good rapport with the interviewer, you can artfully probe for hints: "I'm sorry I didn't get the job. Is there any advice you could give to help me do better?"

Whenever you can, leave the door open. Write a letter reiterating your excitement about the company and the job, and ask to be considered for future positions. Periodically send a note updating the contact on your whereabouts, or enclosing a recent newspaper article that relates to the person's work.

Take a cue from advertisers, who call this building "top-of-mind awareness." It ups the odds that the next time a position opens, you will be the one the company calls first.