Persistent negotiation: An inoculation against crummy customer service

It’s a sad feature of the world we all inhabit: Most customer service representatives seem surprisingly unequipped to serve us. “I’ll have our technical department call you back when this matter is resolved.” (No you won’t). “Your internet service will resume by Tuesday.” (Try Friday). Like it or not, an excessively large proportion of our customer service representatives could not serve a tennis ball, let alone a customer with complex questions.

We can let it get to us, and sometimes we do. Or we can deal with it, most notably by steeling ourselves to negotiate, persistently, for the very things we have been promised and deserve. I’d suggest the latter, which can make life substantially negotiable.

Allow me to offer an anecdote from my own life that illustrates, the background being that I have long dreamed of owning a canoe, and it concerns a store we’ll call Rick’s Sporting Goods. As you read, notice the five unnecessary errors that necessitated five negotiations.

  1. Shortly before Christmas (and this part has nothing to do with a canoe) I realized I hadn’t purchased my daughter a critical Christmas present sold at Rick’s. Visiting a local Rick’s, I was told by several teenage males engrossed entirely in their iPhones that I could order it online. “Will it arrive by Christmas?” I asked. “It should,” they replied unconvincingly and without lifting their eyes from ESPN.com. Thus, I had to negotiate with them to pull up a new website on their iPhones—namely, Rick’s—then verify their own shipping policy and add some text to the order guaranteeing it would arrive by Christmas.
  2. Checking the order status online that night, I discovered of course that it wouldn’t. So I went on Rick’s chat platform and exchanged a couple messages with Suzy Helps-a-Lot, resulting in some sorrys but not a lot more. “Can you offer anything more in recognition of my frustration and the fact that I’ll now have to find the item somewhere else?” “Yes, we’ll take 20% off your next order,” she assured me.
  3. Having bought the Christmas gift on Amazon, I then visited the same Rick’s store in January to buy a canoe with said discount, only to discover that a different set of teenage iPhoners knew nothing about it. Furthermore, they knew very little about their own inventory, as they directed me to examine some canoes in the back when in fact no canoes would arrive for another two months. “How can I use the 20% I was promised (and that is printed on this chat record) when the canoes arrive in March?” I asked upon returning to the teenage iPhoners. And that negotiation finally convinced them to set down their iPhones and call their own customer service department, which sent me a promotion code valid for online purchases.
  4. Trying to use the promotion code to buy a canoe online in March (the first time one could do so for canoes), I discovered that it had expired. Calling customer service and explaining the whole situation again, including the fact that I was promised the ability to use the coupon for a canoe, I again asked what they could do—specifically, whether they could send a new code. Luckily, this negotiation led them to do so.
  5. Trying to finally buy the elusive canoe online, wouldn’t you know it, their website was broken! But a new Suzy Helps-a-Lot directed me to make my “online” purchase in the store and assure them she said it was ok. Of course, since Suzy had not recorded her recommendation in the system and the promotion code was restricted to “online” purchases, this necessitated yet another negotiation, just to use the promotion code. And finally, oh finally, I convinced them to do so and found myself with a canoe.

Now, few experiences with customer service are quite that bad. But it’s a sad fact of life that many are quite bad indeed. We can let it get to us, and often we do. But I’d suggest persistent negotiation instead, combatting crummy customer service with redoubled resolution.

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Negotiation as entrepreneurship

When we hear the word “negotiate,” we often think of ourselves in a “negotiation,” staring down an unscrupulous car dealer or intransigent HR representative. Only infrequently do we treat “negotiate” as what it is: a verb.

That’s a shame because it leads us to forget that negotiating is an action people choose to take. Someone has to decide to negotiate. Remembering that can help us see negotiation for what it really is: an entrepreneurial attempt to achieve our own goals by helping someone else do the same. And seeing negotiation as entrepreneurship can make life more negotiable.

A quick, simple, real-life story to illustrate what I mean: I hate and I mean hate putting away all my clothes after they’re washed. I’m not sure what it is: perhaps it’s the press of other priorities, e.g., the need to publish or perish. Or perhaps just laziness. Regardless, I despise few chores more than folding and hanging. My wife, in turn, hates and I mean hates cleaning the cat box. And her reasoning is a little more sensible: it stinks and spills all over the place, and the cat inevitably decides to resolve his indigestion at just that moment. Loving my boy cat to pieces, however, I don’t really mind it.

Now, this looks nothing like a negotiation—particularly the kind with the car dealer or HR rep. But it clearly presents the opportunity to negotiate—and did in real life. Talking through our respective hates one day, she expressed confusion over mine: “What’s so bad about putting your clothes away?” And herein lay an entrepreneurial opportunity.

No, I wasn’t launching a Silicon Valley startup, seeking VC funding, or even setting up a corner store. But I would like to think I was being quite entrepreneurial when I proposed the simple and obvious trade: How about you put my clothes away if I clean the cat box? It’s not rocket science, and my end of the bargain may even seem silly if you like folding or dislike cat excrement. But it made sense to both of us at the time and made us both better off over the long run.

It’s a silly story, I know, but it has a point: the real purpose of negotiation is not to bend a car dealer into submission. It’s to create value by meeting your own needs and someone else’s at the same time. Since doing that is the same as being entrepreneurial, we’d probably all benefit by starting to see negotiation as entrepreneurship rather than conflict.

Three subtle strategies for correcting others’ screw-ups

Life presents many difficult situations, but few more difficult than the need to highlight someone else’s screw-up—actual or potential. Although identifying another person’s error is often the only way to correct it, many of us are so conflict avoidant as to ignore the issue completely. Unsuccessful car repair? Memo riddled with mistakes? Wrong color iPhone? Oh well…

Why so conflict avoidant? In part, because we think we have to mention the issue explicitly and fear the other side’s angry response. But the savviest among us know many subtle ways to highlight a screw-up without angering anyone at all. Just three such strategies that have made three accompanying situations in my own life more negotiable:

  1. Play dumb: We recently bought a fixer-upper and have had to do substantial fixing-upping, including a replacement of the heating unit. The company that did the replacement did good work, but we noticed one nettlesome issue: the master bedroom got a whole lot warmer than any other bedroom. No one was particularly eager to confront the owner of HVAC company, seeing as we liked him and otherwise appreciated his work. So we played dumb: “This is our first time replacing a heating unit; is it supposed to emit a lot more heat in the master than the other bedrooms?” Anyone could see that it wasn’t. But this innocent question offered an easier way of broaching the topic, and he responded by apologizing and adjusting a simple setting. So playing dumb can help, but only in cases like these when you trust the other party to offer an honest answer.
  2. Ask a related question: I recently took a work trip to Houston followed by a personal visit to my grandparents, who live in a suburb called The Woodlands. Having visited them before, I know the way to The Woodlands. Hence my alarm when the car service seemed to go in the opposite direction, as confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPad. It’s gonna be pretty uncomfortable for a visitor to ask a professional driver if he knows his way around his own town, I thought. So I asked a related question: “How long will it take us to get to The Woodlands from here?” “45 minutes,” he answered, “since this way isn’t as jammed as I-45.” Phew. Asking a related question certainly helped, though it did carry the risk of leaving the main question unanswered. What if he thought I was asking about The Woodlands out of idle curiosity, answering the question even while transporting me to Louisiana?
  3. Ask someone else: We have a favorite gastropub, which we visit as often as little ones allow. And we love the free biscuits dispensed before the meal. The only problem is that the biscuits don’t always arrive, sometimes because the server forgot. And it’s kind of uncomfortable to raise the possibility, particularly when interacting with the same server who’s served us a hundred times. So sometimes, while ordering in the presence of the server and the absence of the biscuits, I turn to my daughters and ask: “Do you want any biscuits today?” The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—and the server generally gets it. But there’s always the possibility that he won’t pay attention, the question being directed to someone else.

Bottom line: life occasionally requires us to address someone else’s goofs, actual or potential. But the prospect of implying that they goofed can petrify us into a state of frozen inaction. But it really doesn’t have to! Life also affords a variety of strategies for conveying our point implicitly. So don’t remain “frozen”—“let it go!”

Negotiating like Disney

Flying home from a magical week at Disney World, I found my wallet empty and my pocket bursting with receipts. Looking into the mirror of the airplane lavatory, however, I nevertheless found myself smiling. How could Disney walk away with all my money and still make me feel like a winner? It struck me that Disney must’ve mastered some major negotiation principle.

Reflecting on what that principle might be, it seemed to me that Disney has discovered how to help people satisfy some of their most important needs, thereby making them more than happy to pay. Considering how to implement that principle when we too are selling something can make life decidedly more negotiable.

What the heck am I talking about? Anyone who has visited Disney World knows that the experience allows people to:

  1. Connect with their past. Many people who visit Disney World as adults also visited as kids. So when they experience the magic once again, they inevitably connect with an innocent and carefree past—a time when they weren’t troubled by $20 parking and $10 hot dogs. Disney allows people to connect with a lost past.
  2. Escape the present. A visit to Disney World entails a diversion into a parallel universe, a trip across the threshold of spacetime. Stepping away from our daily stressors, we encounter a world of smiling characters wishing us a magical day. Stepping away from politics, terrorism, and tweet storms, we encounter a world of garsh at worst and Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah at best. Disney allows people to escape a less-than-pleasant present.
  3. Connect with their future. Many people who visit Disney do so not to savor the pleasure of multi-hour lines on 87-degree February days. They visit to pass their own childhood experiences on to their children, which represent their own personal futures. They want their children to ponder the possibilities of a Small World without the dissonance of “America First,” to experience the elephants at Animal Kingdom before they disappear. Disney allows people to share some unadulterated magic with their kids, and thus shape some aspect of the future.

I make these points not because I’m particularly interested in high-fiving Disney’s marketing department. With an empty wallet and exploding wad of receipts, I’m not. I make these points because we can all benefit from them in our own negotiations, and thus potentially claw back a few lost dollars.

In many of our negotiations, we want to motivate others to pay money for something we own—an item like a used sports car or a service like our labor. And we often go about the sale by overwhelming them with persuasive and rhetorical force. “It’s in amazing shape!” “My unmatched analytical skills…” But what if we instead portrayed our offerings as a means of satisfying other people’s needs—be they the above needs or others? As just one example of the above needs, what if we portrayed our sports car as a means of connecting with lost youth, an escape from present reality, or an opportunity to share the joy of driving with our children? Just a simple example of one offering serving three potential needs, but it illustrates how a simple shift in focus—from our own amazing offerings toward others’ unfulfilled needs—might produce a little negotiation magic.