Don’t take no for an answer! (Ask a question)

One of the most common words any negotiator hears is “no.”

“Can you do X?” “No.”

“What if I offered you Y?” “No.”

“Would you consider Z?” “Sorry, no.”

Most negotiators, hearing the fateful word, conclude it’s time to concede. But negotiators who have read my previous posts know that the temptation to concede is actually the opportunity to ask a question, in disguise. Indeed, transforming a no into a question is often the only way to make the no negotiable.

Consider the following three questions, which are particularly pertinent after a no:

  1. Why? When counterparts say no, they’re typically saying no to your position. That is, they’re denying the specific request you just made. They’re not saying no to your underlying interests—not denying their willingness to meet your objectives in some other way. Asking why can often surface the third way. Consider an employee who asks for a salary bump, gets denied, asks why, and learns that such a bump would disrupt established salary bands. But do these salary bands have anything to say about bonuses, benefits, or non-pecuniary rewards? Perhaps not.
  2. What would you recommend? A denial is often a golden opportunity to enlist some help. So you won’t accept my specific request? Could you at least help me solve my underlying problem? Such is the point of this question. And here’s the wonderful thing: the other person, having just crushed your dreams, often feels at least somewhat compelled to lend a helping hand. I recently asked a repairman if his company could fix my jigsaw, received a flat-out no, asked what he would do in the face of a broken jigsaw, and suddenly found him asking 20 questions about my jigsaw and actually offering to take a look at it.
  3. [Same question, later]. Denials are often visceral responses—emotional reactions to a request initially seen as unfair, greedy, or inappropriate. With time, though, many people come to realize that the initial request was actually quite reasonable—that they should’ve actually said yes. Such was the situation when I asked a sofa salesperson about the possibility of free delivery, received a denial, let some time pass, then asked whether she was sure they couldn’t offer free delivery. Full disclosure: she still said no. But I’m pretty sure she left out some other wasteful and useless fees that she otherwise would’ve thrown in, thereby effectively saying yes.

So a “no” is often the start of a conversation, not the end. Treating it as such can turn a depressing denial into a negotiable opportunity.

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“That’s not negotiable.” (Yes it is)

Many an aspiring negotiator has been stymied by three simple words: “That’s not negotiable.” How often do car dealers, retailers, and employers utter that tremendously painful phrase? And how directly does it strike at the heart of our grand negotiation strategy?

Well, I’m here to tell you that sometimes it’s not negotiable. But many times, it is. And recognizing as much can make life itself more negotiable.

To show you what I mean, let me decode three common meanings lurking behind the three simple words, none of which amount to it actually being non-negotiable:

  1. “I’m going to try this tactic on you.” Oftentimes, people say it’s not negotiable simply because they know you won’t question them. Car dealers will tell you that a particular discount cannot be negotiated, only to remember an even better discount if you happen to start walking out in pursuit of a better offer. But most people don’t, so the non-negotiability rarely gets questioned.
  2. “I’m referring to price, specifically.” Oftentimes, people really won’t haggle on price, but they’re more than happy to haggle on anything else. I recently visited a sofa store with their no-haggle guarantee plastered on the door, echoed by the salesman’s immediate assurance that prices there were non-negotiable. But then he immediately informed me that I could get free shipping if I bought during the sale. “And can I get free shipping if I buy after the sale?” I asked. “Well, I guess we could do that,” he responded. Price was not negotiable, but he was chomping at the bit to negotiate delivery.
  3. “It actually is negotiable.” Oftentimes, people will tell you something is not negotiable only to trade it off with something else, thereby making it negotiable. Employers will tell you that salary is not negotiable, only to agree to virtual work, a different location, or a different bonus plan if you accept the given salary. But by trading the “non-negotiable” issue with other negotiable issues, they’ve essentially made the non-negotiable issue negotiable.

In sum, it might not be negotiable. And if not, so be it. But I wouldn’t conclude as much from the three simple words. Instead, I’d try to probe whether it’s a tactic or a comment confined to single monetary issue like price or salary, setting off in search of more negotiable terrain.

“No conditions on hugs!” Three situations that don’t call for concessions

Let me introduce you to one of the world’s best negotiators: she’s five and sleeps across the hall. Why does she qualify as one of the world’s best? Because she always knows exactly what she wants and takes every—I mean every—opportunity to ask for it. In particular, she sees all of my requests as opportunities to extract concessions.

“Can you please eat the rest of your dinner?” “Only if I get an extra piece of candy.”

“Can you please brush your teeth?” “Only if I get an extra story.”

In the interest of supporting her budding aspirations as a negotiator, I sometimes play along, adjusting the initial offer accordingly. Knowing she’ll request an extra piece of candy to wrap up dinner, for example, I initially offer one rather than the allowable two.

But more often than not, I don’t play along. And this aspiring negotiator would do well to learn why. Indeed, every aspiring negotiator would do well to understand the underlying lesson: that many situations offer opportunities to extract concessions, but some just don’t. And understanding which is which is crucial for making life negotiable.

Three situations in which it’s probably not appropriate to request a concession:

  1. When a concession would devalue the discussion: In keeping with her strategy, my aspiring negotiator often seizes on the request for a bedtime hug by saying, “Only if you sing another song!” Setting aside the potential merits of another song, a father-daughter hug is sacred rather than transactional—sanctified rather than commoditized. And treating it as a commodity to be bought and sold only serves to devalue the discussion. “No conditions on hugs,” I say.
  2. When you already owe a concession. My little starling—hard as it is to believe—doesn’t spend every last moment having stellar behavior. What five-year old does? And when I observe the non-stellar behavior, it’s incumbent on me to communicate as much. “We don’t throw markers on the floor,” I might say, “and now we need to have a timeout.” “Ok, but only if you let me watch a movie,” she might respond. But wait—it’s me who deserves a concession in the form of time served out—not she who deserves a concession in the form of cinematic magic.
  3. When the same concession request has been denied a hundred times before. Typically, at the end of a school day, I ask my starling to tell me anything interesting or important that happened that day. “Ok, I’ll only tell you two things,” she might say. “No, I’d like you to tell me anything interesting or important,” I always say, after which about ten things spontaneously pop out. But my aspiring negotiator, not to be deterred, requests the same concession the very next day. Now, the best negotiators are certainly persistent in the face of adversity, and they certainly try again when their first attempt is denied. But after the hundredth denial, they also conclude that they need to focus their concession requests on a more negotiable issue.

In sum, my five-year old is a master negotiator in many senses of the word. But she has yet to learn one of the most important lessons, as have many people who rank themselves among the world’s best negotiators: there’s a time and place to request concessions, as well as a time and place to accede to other people’s wishes. Identifying and accepting the latter situations can make everyone’s life more negotiable.

Ask three times!

How often do you find yourself asking organizations for favors—discounted prices, waived policies, or extended promotional rates? Quite often, I’d suppose. And how often do the organizations say yes on the very first try? Hardly ever, if your experience is anything like mine.

But don’t hang up in a flurry of despair! Because the best negotiators know that asking multiple times—sometimes of multiple people—is often the only way to achieve their objectives. Indeed, in the domain of organizational favors, I’d say that asking at least three times is the only way to make life negotiable.

Consider five reasons:

  1. You might get a different answer. Many organizations are not known for the consistency or impeccable training of their customer service representatives. Perhaps the first representative declined your discount request simply because they yet haven’t received the discount training? And perhaps the second or third just received it yesterday?
  2. You might get a better answer. Anyone who’s ever dealt with an organization knows that “talking to a supervisor” often produces a better answer than talking to whomever answers the phone. It’s not the supervisor and the answerer are operating off a different set of policy waiver policies. Indeed, the second person is probably not even a supervisor. It’s just that they reserve the policy waivers for the people persistent enough to ask for the supervisor.
  3. You might get a more helpful person. Everyone has a bad day now and again, and customer service representatives are far from the exception. Indeed, it’s just possible that today’s the lucky day for the first representative you encounter, in which case your chances automatically increase by talking to someone less crabby.
  4. You might get experience asking the question. In addition to surfacing different people and answers, asking several times increases your own understanding of the issues. For example, a comment during your first conversation might reveal that the organization doesn’t offer “discounts” for the current bundle of services, but it might be willing to unbundle the services and reduce the price accordingly. Can you ask like that on the third try?
  5. You might learn something about the organization. Even if you don’t get a better answer or representative, and even if you don’t come up with a better way to phrase the request, you might learn something useful about the organization. At a minimum, you might learn that the organization is not delivering the level of customer service you expect, prompting a useful consideration of your alternatives. Better yet, you might gain a general appreciation for the types of policies the organization cannot waive and the types they might—an insight that will probably come in handy the next time you need a favor.

In sum, you should not take organizational denials as the end of the story—at least not until you’ve encountered a few of them. Instead, you should try to see a few organizational denials as a natural part of the process—a series of no’s on the eventual road to yes.