“That’s policy”: First offers from our friendly customer service representatives

We’ve all heard it a million times at a million retailers: “That’s policy.” It’s policy you must present a receipt, policy you must return it within a month, and policy you must bring a paper copy of the coupon. Policy being policy, the conversation usually ends there. But I’m here to tell you that policy is not necessarily policy. Policy is often an opening gambit—the first offer in a negotiation. And making life negotiable requires recognizing as much.

Let’s bring it to life with a story. My family was recently shopping at one of our favorite purveyors of home furnishings—let’s call it Dock 2—and we weren’t sure which of two pictures would look better in our house. So we decided to buy both, hoping that the answer would become patently clear at home. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it home with both pictures—we didn’t even make it out of the parking lot, as one of them would’ve required a vehicle five times as large to haul it. So we were forced to leave the ginormous picture behind the register, saying we’d come back with a Mack truck later. Having arrived at home, however, we discovered that the smaller picture—the one that actually fit in a passenger vehicle—was just fine in the space. So we no longer needed nor desired to return to Dock 2 to formally return the larger one, especially with two kids under the age of five. And why would they need us to do that, they being in possession of the picture?

“Because that’s policy,” they said when my wife called, at which point she did what most people do: hung up, considering the negotiation utterly over. But was it really over? Was there really no way Dock 2 could return a large picture located approximately two feet from their own register? Stepping back from the situation, it seemed obvious that we could not swallow this particular policy as the end of the negotiation—that, for the sake of two small kids if not our own sanity—we had to treat it as a first offer. But how exactly to do that? How to convince them to reconsider, having just learned their apparently immutable policy?

Reflecting on past posts—especially the ones on “no” and rigid rule enforcers—we decided we needed to understand the concern underlying this particular policy. Why would anyone need to present themselves in vivo to make a return in our virtual world? Presumably to guard against fraud, we surmised—against those bad hombres who might somehow call up Dock 2 pretending to be someone else, thereby racking up a few dollars on their credit cards at the expense of the store. And this, of course, pointed the way toward a solution: call back and make a counteroffer in which we immediately promised to fax or email in the receipt, along with a drivers license if necessary to prove our identities. So that is what we did, and, lo and behold, the immutable policy, previously etched in granite by the immortal leaders of Dock 2, suddenly melted away like better. “Let me talk to my manager,” the associate said, followed shortly by “no problem; just tell me the credit card number needed to make the purchase.” And that was that. Our return was accomplished without dragging any irascible kids to a faraway store, and no receipt or ID were even needed.

So this is just a simple story to illustrate a simple point: “that’s policy,” while seeming like the end of a negotiation, is often just the beginning. It’s the easy answer—the obvious line that any untrained, unmotivated, or just plain unhelpful employee is all-too-eager to give in order to return to their cyberloafing. But it’s not the final offer so much as an invitation to you to step back and think through their interests, then call back, the added benefit being that you might get a more helpful associate the next time. Now I’m not promising that it’ll always work—sometimes it won’t. Sometimes policies are policies, and people just don’t have the will or authority to override them. But I am suggesting that “that’s policy” is not always the be-all and end-all that most of us think it to be; instead, it’s often the opening gambit that most of us would really like it to be.

Have you ever seen a policy magically reversed upon discussion?

Exceeding expectations: Yet another opportunity to just stop talking

My last post discussed the dangers of continuing to talk—particularly after others have accepted our recommendations. Having convinced the people around us, I argued, it’s time to curtail the monologue.

And now let’s consider another situation in which most of us are ill-equipped but well-advised to zip our traps: when a workplace colleague, to our unmitigated amazement, promises to do something better or faster than needed. It can definitely make life more negotiable.

Imagine you’re expecting your colleague to send an important report by the end of the following week, for example, but she unexpectedly tells you that, “I’m working really hard to get it done by tomorrow.” Caught so substantially off-guard, how would many of us respond? Probably by admitting that, “Oh, I actually don’t need it until next week.” Or imagine another colleague who tells you he’s staying late to prepare an unbelievably persuasive presentation on your behalf. Wouldn’t many of us politely thank him but tell him it doesn’t have to be perfect?

Upon reflection, I think most of us would admit having made such a statement. But why? Why would we tell somebody who wants to do something quickly and excellently to instead do it slowly or poorly? Seen in that light, such statements appear to have little logical basis.

And there’s a strong logical basis for avoiding them! By not telling other people to take it easy, for example:

  1. You’ll probably (and obviously) get a better or faster product.
  2. You’ll probably, but less obviously, set a useful precedent for the quality or timeliness of future work products.
  3. You’ll probably, and least obviously, help the other party feel better about their own hard work. Why? Because people like to think they are acting rationally and efficaciously. If they’ve been working their tail off on your behalf and you tell them at the last minute that you didn’t actually need them to do so, how will they react? Probably by thinking: “Why in the world have I been working my tail off?” Or “why didn’t they tell me that two weeks ago?” A last-minute revelation that we would’ve actually accepted a slower or poorer product is not likely to leave them smiling.

Now, like any piece of advice, this one has definite limits. Indeed, there’s at least one situation in which you’d want to completely ignore the preceding advice: If you see someone working themselves to the bone, missing out on family time, or letting their blood pressure rise to dangerous levels, you’d probably want to intervene in the interest of honesty, health, and wellbeing. But in the majority of cases, when someone is simply trying to do something quickly or excellently and not harming themselves or anyone else, it’s probably in everyone’s best interests to simply let them exceed your expectations. And what if you feel a bit guilty about letting them do so? Well, you can always reflect your appreciation in their performance review or a glowing letter to their boss.

Continuing to talk

In important business settings, many A-types suffer a serious physical problem: we cannot stop our mouths from moving until our point is completely and convincingly made. Any fewer words, we reason, and we’ve failed to fully persuade. Hence the penchant to keep talking until we consider our points completely and convincingly made.

There’s just one problem. The individuals around us often agree to our point well before we consider it convincingly made. We often keep talking because we feel the need to do so—not because we actually need to do so. Overcoming the temptation to keep talking can make life substantially more negotiable.

To see why, imagine yourself making an important business decision with two other members of your organization. You’ve been discussing the issue for awhile, and a set of substantially differing opinions have emerged. But you now find yourself on the soapbox, with an important and impressive line of reasoning that should take the discussion to its obvious and compelling conclusion. About halfway into your logical tour de force, however, your counterparts feel the irresistible sway of your reasoning and unexpectedly agree to your recommendation. Do you stop talking and decide move on? Most of us A-types would not, finding ourselves unable to conclude our comments without taking them to their logical conclusion.

What’s the harm in continuing to talk? Well, I see three big risks:

  1. They might get annoyed. Continuing to talk creates the serious risk that your counterparts may grow increasingly irritated with your monologue and distinct lack of listening ears. “Why does this guy keep talking? Didn’t he hear us agree?”, they might wonder, checking their watches and reiterating their agreement with increasing levels of urgency. So you might drive your counterparts crazy by continuing to talk.
  2. You might undermine your argument. Is it possible that Clause H, sub-clause IV, sub-bullet 16 in your complex and nuanced line of reasoning might somehow undermine your overall point? Sure as we all are in the airtight nature of our own reasoning, there’s always the possibility of a logical contradiction or at least a compelling counterargument lurking in the shadows of our own reasoning. So you might undercut your logic by continuing to talk.
  3. They might change their mind. Even if you don’t undermine your own argument—even if the argument, in all of its rhetorical force, fully supports your point—there’s always the possibility that your counterparts might inexplicably change their minds. Humans being humans with minds being minds, there’s always the chance that people given the time to think will decide to change course. So you might actually undermine the emerging consensus by continuing to talk.

In sum, we A-types face the distinct challenge of knowing when to declare victory and move on, even when the full force of our intellect has not been fully revealed. Though difficult and disappointing given the full sweep of our intellect, accepting other people’s agreement can ultimately win us more battles—that being the ultimate goal of our intellect.

The real meaning of no

Sometimes it seems like our negotiation counterparts know only one word: “no.” Before we snicker at the size of their vocabulary, though, let us all appreciate the amazing diversity of meaning masked by that one small word. Since negotiators say “no” for all kinds of reasons, many or most of which have nothing to do with negation (but something to do with negotiation), making life negotiable involves understanding the remarkable conceptual richness lurking behind those tiny two letters.

So this post will seek to decode what our counterparts really mean by “no”—in particular, five common messages lurking behind that one common word. While these messages can only scratch the surface of our counterparts’ rich and multifaceted minds, I do hope they demonstrate the importance of looking behind the spoken word in negotiation. So here, without further ado, are five common meanings of no:

  1. You’re talking to the wrong person. People often say no simply because they don’t have the authority to say yes. When talking the cable company, for example, the person who answers the phone is usually not the magical “supervisor” who can somehow extend your promotional rate. In this case, your job is to talk to the magical supervisor—or at least convince the phone answerer to do so on your behalf.
  2. I don’t feel like doing my job today. People often say no because they’re simply too lazy to say yes. I’ve often encountered this one among associates in a big box store. During a recent trip to Walmart, for example, I made the ill-advised decision to try and return a purchase from Walmart.com in-store. “We don’t sell that in the store,” was the unhelpful associate’s response. “Ok,” I answered, “so how can I return a purchase made online—can I return it here and get a gift card to use on the website?” Amazing, that one simple question did enough of the associate’s job that she suddenly found a way to process the return. When the no stems from laziness, your job, sadly, is to do their job for them.
  3. I misunderstood your request. Perhaps the most common reason for saying no is a simple misunderstanding of the request. When you ask for a work colleague’s help with an important task, for example, their no often reflects a simple misconstrual of the task—and especially how much work it requires. In this case, like any case when you want someone to do something, your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to comply.
  4. You haven’t asked enough times. Experienced negotiators sometimes feel like they need to test your mettle by repeatedly rejecting your demands. It’s not that they’re unwilling to accede to those demands—oh no! It’s simply that they want to see how far they can push you before you eventually cave. Consider your last visit to the car dealer—everyone’s last visit to the car dealer. Responding successfully to the repeated no, of course, simply involves repeating the request—politely, perhaps differently, yet repeatedly, until they see undeniably that you’re serious.
  5. This is how my culture negotiates. Whereas we Westerners, on average, tend to negotiate by exchanging information on our needs and desires, negotiators from several Asian nations are thought to negotiate by exchanging and politely rejecting a series of offers. Implicit in the offer exchange, it seems, is an exchange of information about the importance of the various negotiable issues. If you’re negotiating across cultural boundaries, then, a “no” may mean something entirely foreign—namely, that this is my culture’s particular negotiation dance.

Now, in conclusion, I’m not suggesting that no always means otherwise—and certainly not that it means yes. No can certainly mean no. But negotiation research suggests that an initial no often stands in for a plethora of alternative meanings, many of which mean something closer to “try again” or “try something new.” So the overall point is this: the next time you hear a no, disengage your English language skills and consider the no an opening gambit—an invitation to find an alternative pathway to yes.


Stop wasting food! Kids and contingency contracts

The world sometimes seems populated with two types of children: those who refuse to eat anything you put in front of them, and those who want to eat everything in the fridge—or at least say so. Previous posts have considered the former type, but I haven’t yet considered the latter. In the interest of getting 2017 off on a negotiable foot, I thought I’d consider the overeager eater now.

Consider the following, common pattern—not that I’ve experienced it recently or repeatedly. A young child, say four going on five, is offered an array of dinner options. She responds by saying: “I want pizza, apples, and a hotdog.” Now, the child speaks with such confidence that you can see she’s certain she will consume all of these foods. But you know—based on many or even innumerable prior experiences—that she will not. She’ll get halfway through the apples, freshly heated hotdog steaming on her plate, and say, “I’m full.”

Faced with this situation, the common impulse is to argue. “You won’t eat all that, little Petunia.” To which little Petunia will surely retort: “Yes I will!” And thus begins a pattern of disagreement and dissension that will carry all the way through dinner, spoiling everyone’s meal.

Luckily, negotiation research offers a better way: the contingency contract. In plain English, contingency contracts are bets about future events—agreements to be settled when the fickle hand of fate eventually casts its die. Negotiators use them when they disagree about an uncertain future event—next quarter’s sales figures, perhaps, or the performance of a particular piece of technology being purchased.

But can’t you, the frustrated parent, also use a contingency contract to deal with little Petunia’s obstinate insistence on the three dishes? Can’t you say something like: “Little Petunia dearest, I’ll heat up the pizza and cut up the apples for you, as requested. And I’ll take the hotdogs out of the fridge and place them right here next to the microwave. If I see you gobble up the pizza and apples and hear that you’re still hungry, why, then I’ll happily heat the dogs. It’ll take just a minute. But if you start feeling full sometime before the dogs, then I’ll return them to the fridge for future consumption.”

Voila! Based on Petunia’s sheer certainty that she will eat all three items, she should be more than happy to oblige, sure as she is that this solution will result in her eating the coveted hotdogs. And, given your comparable certainty that the apples will fully satiate her, you should be more than happy with this solution too, sure as you are that the dogs will go right back in the fridge, unspoiled and unwasted. That’s the great part about contingency contracts: both sides think they’ll get exactly what they want.

Of course, they won’t: the fickle hand of fate will cast the die. Petunia will either have room for the dogs or she won’t, and she’ll get what she initially wanted or you will. So one of you will eventually have to admit you were wrong. Seeing as the consequences of that admission are either a comfortably settled stomach or a fully satiated child, though, neither of you should be particularly unhappy with that admission. And both of you should be happy that you avoided pre-dinner warfare.

In short, contingency contracts offer useful end-runs around debates about the future. Faced with differing predictions, don’t waste time and energy arguing—no one ever wins. Instead, let the fickle hand of fate cast a die, then agree to settle up later.

Have you ever used a contingency contract, with a child or otherwise?