Coalitions with co-travelers: Making delays negotiable

I’ve experienced a lot of flight delays, but never arrived at an airport seven hours before a delayed flight departed. Such was the case on a recent trip from St. Louis to Baltimore. Thanks to some substantial snowfall somewhere else, the plane that was supposed to return me to Baltimore was arriving in St. Louis two hours from 6 pm, 7 pm, 8 pm, 9, and 10 pm. Thanks, snow.

Clearing security at about 5 pm and receiving an email about the impending delay, I held out the distinct hope that this situation could be averted by standing by on an earlier flight that departed around 5:20. At the desk for that flight, however, I encountered another traveler from my own delayed flight trying every tactic in the book. “Can I pay you some money to get on the earlier flight?” she asked the agent. “Let me tell you why I need to be in Baltimore right away.” “My boyfriend is gonna be so sad!” Ten minutes later, seeing the conversation continuing, the agent growing beleaguered, the earlier flight boarded, and my own chances of getting on it falling by the minute, I realized that I had to break up this conversation to make life negotiable.

So what could I do? Well, I could’ve gotten angry at the annoying traveler or interrupted the conversation rudely, asking whether she was planning on letting anyone else talk to the agent ever. In other words, I could’ve formed a coalition with the Southwest agent, teaming up against the annoying traveler to make both of our lives more negotiable. But would that’ve gotten me on the flight? Probably not, as the traveler would’ve trained her monologue on me, delaying us all a lot longer.

So instead of forming a coalition with the agent, I thought, I need to form a coalition with the annoying traveler. Only by aligning myself with the force interfering with my goal could I hold out any hope of attaining it. And that is what I did. “Oh, are you on the delayed flight to Baltimore too?” I asked her, knowing full-well that she was. “Yes,” she opined woefully, “you too?” “Yes,” I opined in return. And then seized the opportunity, albeit brief, to address the agent: “May I get on the waitlist too?” And thus I did.

Now, full disclosure, getting on the waitlist did absolutely no good whatsoever. There was one seat available on the earlier flight, meaning that lucky #6 on the standby list (Mr. Gunia / BC) did not quite make it. (Nor did annoying #5). Still, had there been six seats available, this tactic of forming a coalition with the disputant rather than going to war with her—well, it would’ve paid off in spades. So I still think it’s worth recommending as a means of making life negotiable.

When we have to negotiate with multiple parties, we’re usually tempted to join forces with the person who seems most supportive—in this case, the friendly Southwest agent. By doing that, we think, we’ll be able to overpower any annoying impediments. In fact, when we do that, the annoying impediments often take exception, trying everything in their power to stymie our aspirations. So, assuming we have a serious but not a mortal difference of opinion with the people standing in our way, it’s often more effective to form a coalition with them. By doing that—by expressing empathy with another passenger’s plight, for example—we can often flip them from adversaries to supporters, or at least to less serious impediments.

With the airlines, it often seems that few tactics can make life negotiable. But forming a coalition with the co-passengers impeding us is one tactic worth a try, to practice our negotiation skills if not to arrive in Baltimore any sooner.

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What they want and why they want it: Providing exceptional customer service

May I ask you to complete a difficult task? Please take a second and recall a recent experience in which you received exceptional customer service.

Tough as that task may be, I’m sure we can all recall at least one time when we, the customer, felt like we were exceptionally well served. And I’m willing to bet that many of our experiences share two common features:

  1. Our friendly customer service agent fulfilled our main request
  2. But our friendly customer service agent went beyond our main request by trying to understand our underlying needs and how to satisfy them even better

An example: I once asked a Verizon customer service representative whether she could extend a promotional period on my phone bill. “Why yes,” she said, and did so. “But let me also check something,” she added, apparently surmising that I wanted to cut costs. “Based on your typical usage, I have plan that meets your needs and costs even less. Better yet, it’ll never expire. What do you think?” Obviously, I considered that a great idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if Verizon was full of such employees, the company would probably go out of business. And you’re right. Nevertheless, from the customer’s perspective, this was exceptionally good service—and not just because she saved me a bunch of money. It was exceptionally good service because she cared enough to understand what was important to me, then attempt to fulfill it even better.

If you are in customer service—if you in any way serve a customer—this is a strategy that can make life negotiable. Try to not only do what the customer is asking. Try to understand why they are asking for it, then ask yourself how you can meet that need even better. This is kind of the inverse of a previous post when I advised you, as the customer, to try and understand what’s motivating a stubborn customer service representative. As the customer, that can be the only way to get things done. As the customer service representative, it’s the way to go above and beyond.

Now, I still know what you’re thinking. Many customer service agents are incentivized to concede as little as possible to demanding customers. If you, as customer service representative, went above and beyond on every request, wouldn’t you probably get fired? If all such requests were about money, maybe so. But anyone in customer service can tell you that customers have many needs, only one of which is money. Indeed, many customers, having received exceptionally crummy service in the past, simply need to vent. If you, as customer service representative, can understand that motive and satisfy it by simply expressing some empathy, you’ve satisfied the underlying need and thereby provided exceptional customer service.

But I still know what you’re thinking! As a customer service representative, won’t the customer get mad if you do anything other than exactly what they’re asking? Well, if you ignore what they’re asking and do something completely different, then probably so. But if you do what they’re asking for and then do something extra—well, it’s hard to imagine anger over a bonus.

So here’s the bottom line: When serving a customer, it’s helpful to ascertain not just what they want but why they want it. By doing that, customer service representatives can go above and beyond basic expectations and make some small portion of their lives more negotiable—not to mention their customers’.

Let them choose! Idiosyncratic preferences at home or at work

Over the course of many dinnertimes, many parents notice a pattern in their young children’s preferences. Shortly after sitting down at the table, and whatever the color of the child’s plate (fork, placemat, cup), the kid decides it’s the wrong color. Pink plate? Oops, they wanted the green one. Green plate? Guess tonight was a pink night. And dare the parents resist the demand to switch plates (forks, placemats, cups)—that demand meaning the need to delay everyone’s meal and wash another dish? Let’s just say it’s not pretty.

Notice such a pattern often enough, and you start to devise a countervailing strategy: Let the child pick their own plate before dinner even starts! That way, they can never complain that you, the parents, picked the wrong one.

I think this is more than an idiosyncratic dinnertime pattern. It’s an example of a common strategy that can help make many corners of life more negotiable—at home, but also in the workplace.

At home or at work, we often interact with people who care passionately about a particular issue. We know their pet issue, and we know they’ll throw a stink if it doesn’t go their way. At home, it’s the plate, but at work, it might be the wording of a particular section in the report or the font size of their name on the cover.

Whether it’s the plate color or the font size, we can’t understand for the life of us why they care. Is a pink plate going to poison the food? Is a 14-point font going to produce the long-awaited promotion? Facing this situation, we can choose to react in at least four ways.

  1. Ask them why they care
  2. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then negotiate over it
  3. Wait and see whether the issue comes up, then let them take charge
  4. Proactively let them choose beforehand

At home or at work, most of us have probably learned to avoid the first strategy, which tends to elicit about the same reaction from small children and coworkers. And most of us probably avoid the second, given the incredible unimportance of the issue. I’d venture that most of us choose the third, letting them choose their own plate or font if and when it becomes an issue—whatever.

I’d like to suggest that option #4 can make life more negotiable. By proactively giving somebody a choice about something they care passionately about, and doing so before the issue ever comes up for discussion, you’ve signaled that you understand and care about their input, and you’ve already helped them achieve their most important objective. In a word, you’ve now earned their trust and support for the duration of the upcoming discussion.

Sounds silly, and to you, it is. But to them, it’s not. For whatever unknown and unknowable reason, they really cared about the plate color or font size, and you gave them just what they wanted. Effectively, you let them make a choice in order to avoid a future negotiation or conflict. In so doing, you’ve not only saved the time associated with the negotiation or conflict; you’ve also created an ally, albeit one with very strange preferences.

The bottom line? If you know somebody cares a great deal about a relatively unimportant issue, it can often help to let them decide that issue before it ever comes up. Have you ever used this strategy at home or at work?