Don’t let ‘em get you down! Getting past the barriers to customer service negotiations

In many of our negotiations with companies—the fee-charging bank, formidable cable company, irascible airline—our toughest challenge is not the negotiation itself. It’s getting to a negotiation in the first place. The fact is, many companies just don’t want to negotiate with you—the formidable you—because they know they just might lose if they do. So many companies have devised elaborate methods of preventing a negotiation from ever happening. Since overcoming the most common of these barriers is the only way to make customer service negotiable, let’s consider a rundown:

  1. Bottomless email pits: A favorite tactic of the irascible airlines, particularly my old friend “Reunited,” many companies set up elaborate online forms to email them, then seemingly send your email right to the recycling bin. At least it appears that way, since you never get a reply (other than the obligatory “We promise to reply”). Still, getting to a negotiation often requires you to try, perhaps repeatedly.
  2. Buried phone numbers: Another favorite of the irascible airlines relates to the phone number. Put simply, many companies make finding the relevant number just slightly easier than finding the Holy Grail. Getting to a negotiation requires you to look doggedly hard, often clicking down some extremely esoteric paths.
  3. Labyrinthine menus. Once you finally find the phone number, it’s nearly unthinkable to connect with a person directly. The formidable cable company, for example, often sends you into an overwhelming thicket of menu prompts, none of which relate to your need (ever). Getting to a negotiation may require you to hit zero incessantly, shout “representative!” repeatedly, or just wait a very long time. To that point…
  4. Endless wait times: Have you ever called a customer service line and found the call volume to be unusually low? A favorite of the fee-charging bank, I would surmise it’s a tactic to cool your negotiation jets, the hope being that a sizable number of customers will give up and hang up. But you can’t!
  5. Hapless front-line representatives: I’m quite certain I’m not the only person who usually finds the representative who eventually answers the phone either unable or unwilling to negotiate. It could be a coincidence or a lack of training. Or it could be a subtle way of curtailing your negotiable hopes and dreams. Getting to a real negotiation often requires you to get to someone who knows what they’re talking about and/or can do what you’re talking about.

So don’t let them get you down! Chances are you’ll be feeling quite up once you eventually surmount the barriers and find yourself negotiating.

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Preparing to negotiate? Use your “BRAIN”!

Most people know to prepare before a negotiation. If not, then negotiation instructors like me frequently remind them. So the problem is not a lack of awareness about the need to prepare. It’s the lack of a framework describing what to prepare. What exactly should negotiators ponder before arriving at the bargaining table?

Since knowing what to prepare is pretty much a prerequisite for preparing itself, and preparing itself a prerequisite for a negotiable life, let me suggest you use your BRAIN (via the following acronym):

  • BATNA. All good preparation starts with a consideration of alternatives—specifically a negotiator’s next-best alternative if the current negotiation fails (i.e., their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement or BATNA). Otherwise, they’ll never know how much power they have or how far to push the envelope.
  • Reservation price. Great negotiators transition directly from their BATNA to their bottom line, walk away point, reservation price. Otherwise, they don’t really have the foggiest idea whether to get to yes or get to no and go with their BATNA.
  • Aspirations. BATNAs and reservation prices are great, but negotiators who spend too much time pondering their alternatives or minimally acceptable agreements (i.e., their reservation prices) tend to get them. To get something better, great negotiators also define their goals, targets, aspirations—actively considering what they really want when their counterpart demurs.
  • Interests. The acronym might as well stop there (and consider the acronym if it did), but the preceding letters alone tend to elicit a very competitive negotiation. Great negotiators know that spending the whole time competing to attain their aspirations, clear their reservation price, or avoid their BATNA results in a competitive scramble over the crumbs of a very small pie. Instead, they know they need to identify and find creative ways of fulfilling both negotiators’ overall objectives (i.e., their interests), and thereby “grow the pie.”
  • Negotiation counterpart. So why not BRAI then? Because that makes very little sense as a word and even less sense as a preparation strategy—the latter because it completely omits the other party. Negotiators who BRAI, and most negotiators do, fail to anticipate their counterpart’s situation and thus find it immensely hard to understand or respect that situation while negotiating. So great negotiators repeat the preceding letters for their counterpart, taking a wild albeit educated guess as to their counterpart’s BATNA, reservation price, aspirations, and interests.

So the next time you sit down to prepare for a negotiation, don’t just use your mind—use your BRAIN! Doing so can’t spell the difference between a smart negotiation outcome and an outcome that everyone deems dumb.

Playing a guessing game alone: A strange but powerful negotiation strategy

In most negotiation courses, professors repeatedly ask students to complete a seemingly silly exercise: playing a guessing game alone. That is, professors require their students to read a negotiation case, then take a wild guess as to their future counterpart’s situation—in particular, the counterpart’s interests, priorities, alternatives, and bottom line.

“What’s the point?” the bolder students ask. “How would do we go about that?” the more circumspect students say. By the second or third class, though, most students fully get the point. Taking even the wildest of guesses about their counterpart’s situation, they see, is a form of perspective-taking that can make even the toughest situations negotiable.

Consider the following five reasons to play a pre-negotiation guessing game, alone:

  1. You’ll understand them better once they start talking. You wouldn’t play a real guessing game alone because you’d never know whether your guess was right. But you’ll definitely have a chance to validate your guesses about your negotiation partner, and research suggests that people who have gone through the exercise can process their counterpart’s statements more easily and rapidly once the negotiation starts—even if their initial guesses were wrong. Simply simulating another person’s thinking, it seems, prepares us to comprehend that thinking once we actually hear it.
  2. You’ll anticipate potential tradeoffs. Another reason you’d never play a real guessing game alone: you’d have no idea what you were guessing about. But you definitely know what you’re guessing about before a negotiation—all of the topics above, which often attune you to creative, win-win tradeoff opportunities. And it never fails to amaze my students (or me) how many such opportunities pop to mind even before the negotiators ever meet. Planning to ask an overworked boss for a raise? Could you offer to take over a critical task that you actually find fun in exchange for said raise? Such ideas often arise long before the negotiation begins.
  3. You’ll anticipate potential pain points. Steering clear of needless controversies and exposed nerves is often a prerequisite to a deal. Otherwise, all the creative tradeoffs in the world won’t get you to yes. Playing a guessing game often surfaces plenty of pain points. Does your overworked boss seem overly insecure about his or her own performance? Better frame your offer to take over some work as an effort to learn from the boss’s expertise.
  4. You’ll generate trust. People who play pre-negotiation guessing games tend to mention the products of those games during the negotiation itself. “I was wondering whether you’re interested in / concerned about / hoping for X?” Such statements not only open the spigot of information-sharing; they also convey your own earnest interest in the counterpart’s welfare, thereby signaling your trustworthiness.
  5. You’ll develop a healthy sense of humility. Without playing a pre-negotiation guessing game, we often think of our counterparts as automatons who reflexively seek to deny our every hope and dream. Pre-negotiation guessing games help to remind us that they’re humans too, complete with needs, wishes, and aspirations of their own. Humanization can go a long way toward a good deal (and being a good person).

Silly as a guessing game alone may seem, then, it’s well-worth my students’ time before their simulated negotiations—and yours before your real negotiations. Guess right or guess wrong, I’ll guess that you start negotiating better.