Giving away freebies: An “irrational” business strategy

Business 101: When a customer asks you to do some service or provide some good, find a way to charge them. Right? Wrong. Well, not entirely wrong, but let me tell you about an important set of situations in which giving away freebies can actually make selling more negotiable.

First, a series of stories:

I seem to have a lot of problems with my tires. A front tire was recently deflating constantly, causing me to spend more time at the air pump than the dinner table. I took the car to the local Goodyear, who informed me that the valve wasn’t positioned correctly, causing air to escape. They fixed it, they said, and even replaced the valve just in case. “How much do I owe you?” I said, reaching for my wallet. “Nothing,” they said. “It was quick, and valves don’t cost much.”

Then, about a month later, my hubcap randomly fell off. I went to the same local Goodyear, asking for assistance in installing a new one, as the process seemed about as simple as a differential equation. “Sure,” they said, “We’ll take care of it.” And they did, in about a minute. Then they again insisted on charging me nothing.

Perhaps these stories seem the epitome of stupidity. Goodyear offered their valuable time twice to assist me with some silly tire problems. And each time, they insisted on charging me nada. How could that possibly represent sound strategy?

Because they knew well enough that I was a new customer who would eventually need a very expensive full tire replacement. And they knew that when I did, I’d think of the local Goodyear instead of the slimy local dealer who is more than happy to charge a hundred dollars for a wingnut. And, of course, that’s exactly what happened. I needed a full tire replacement on another car very soon after, and my appreciation for the freebies turned into nearly $600 in revenue.

So what’s the negotiation principle? That people choose to engage with counterparts they trust—and avoid those they don’t. And that people especially choose to engage with those they not only trust but feel beholden to, as I did to the generous Goodyear. So part of any negotiation is eking out the biggest possible profit right now. But another and potentially more important part is generating enough goodwill to keep the counterparts coming in the future.

In sum, to all the rational thinkers who advise us to monetize as much and as often as possible, I’d say this: That may be a smart strategy in the short-term—the very, very short-term. But research on trust and reciprocity would suggest that it’s likely to shoot you in the foot in the medium term, by which I mean anything longer than the very, very short term. The pursuit of self-interest, it seems, may involve at least a short stop at the way-station of generosity.

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Revision requests from journals: Time to negotiate!

Revision requests from journals—when you’re lucky enough to receive them—represent golden opportunities to negotiate: with reviewers, as I’ve suggested before, but also with coauthor(s).

Consider some of the many topics that may require at least an implicit negotiation with your coauthors:

  • Whether the revision is doable
  • Timelines and deadlines
  • How to respond to reviewer requests
  • Who will do what
  • Who will contribute what
  • Who will get the final say
  • Any implications for authorship

And these are just some of the salient examples. To make revisions negotiable, consider the following negotiation principles that are particularly critical for these situations:

  1. Integrative rather than distributive negotiation: You and your co-authors presumably share the same goal: to get the paper published at the journal that just returned it. Therefore, and in spite of any creative differences that may arise, the pie is more expandable than fixed. What’s good for the goose is generally good for the gander. It’s helpful to keep that in mind at the outset, and periodically when the revisionary road gets bumpy.
  2. Trade-offs rather than value-claiming: The parties to a revision request might be tempted to engage in a distributive, value-claiming competition over apparently fixed pies, like who will rewrite what. But why? Why fight over a single issue when there are so many to choose from, and when several could be bundled for mutual gain? In particular, the various parties to a revision request may often find it easier and/or more pleasant to do different things. Maybe one party can easily collect new data but has no time to write, while the other has oodles of time for writing but no mechanism for data collection. In this case, it’s probably better to have one author do all the writing and the other all the collecting, as opposed to arm-wrestling over the writing alone.
  3. Information exchange rather than offer exchange: When several authors differ about the appropriate response to a reviewer comment (for example), the temptation is for each party to strenuously make their case. In other words, each party is essentially tempted to make an offer and see which offer predominates. That’s ok, but it’s often better for each party to stop making proposals and start probing the reasons underlying the other parties’ positions. “Why do you feel so strongly that we need to scrap that study?” A question like that often surfaces a vivid experience, paper of which you were oblivious, or underlying philosophy of science that makes the strenuous position a lot more understandable.
  4. Contingency contracts rather than immediate decisions: Oftentimes, reviewer comments thrust co-authors into a lively debate about how extensively to rework the paper. “That argument won’t make sense” or “That experiment won’t work,” one side might say, only to have the other strenuously disagree. The parties could continue to debate it or simply let the argument and/or experiment speak for themselves. In other words, they could decide to let the author who believes in the argument or experiment craft it or do it, then collectively determine whether it makes sense or works (respectively). That approach—akin to the negotiation strategy known as a contingency contract—is often more productive than debating ad nauseum.
  5. Post-settlement settlement rather than static agreement: Responses to a revision request often take an extraordinarily long time. Agreements reached at the outset about who will do what, how the team will respond to reviewer comments, or what the timeline will look like often seem sheepishly out-of-date as the arduous process unfolds. Rather than slavishly sticking to the original agreement, why not occasionally renegotiate a deal that’s better for everyone as new facts come to light—essentially the strategy known as post-settlement settlement?

In sum, revision requests are wonderful opportunities—opportunities that every scholar worth their salt dreams of. But the receipt of the request is not the end but the beginning of the process, as the authors then need to negotiate the terms of an arduous and extended undertaking. By treating the revision request as an opportunity to solve a very complex problem with very smart people rather than an opportunity to wage a self-focused battle, all authors can fulfill their dreams and remain friends to reflect on it.