What they’re asking for vs. what they want

Businesspeople commonly assume that customers’ requests correspond closely to their underlying needs. If he asks for the S version, he must want a sportier (yet costlier) ride. If she asks for a specific species of tree, she must want something beautiful (yet eventually ginormous). The customer is always right! But I’m here to tell you that the correlation between whatever people ask for and whatever they’re actually trying to accomplish—in business and many other arenas of life—is not statistically significant. And appreciating as much can make business (and life) more negotiable.

To see what I mean, imagine a customer in the process of renovating their kitchen—not that I’ve been there. The friendly contractor asks the dutiful customer: Can you please go to this website, take a look, and let me know what type of countertop material you want? Then, the customer dutifully examines the website and comes back to the contractor with a specific request. Quartzite!

Now what will the typical contractor assume? This customer wants something beautiful and durable and doesn’t mind an exorbitant price, not to mention continuous maintenance . But why might that conclusion be mistaken? Consider three reasons:

  1. The customer doesn’t know what they’re trying to accomplish. It’s a fact. Many people just don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish, especially when considering a complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional problem like the countertop that will best suit their needs in the long run. So they dutifully examine the website and pick a countertop they think will meet their needs, but it won’t because they haven’t identified those needs very accurately in the first place.
  2. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish but doesn’t know how to accomplish it. Many customers, confronted with a website detailing thousands of countertop options, each with several thousand attributes, simply go into cognitive arrest. They simply can’t fathom the overwhelming volume of information, much less the time involved in considering it all carefully. So they simply select the first one that seems, at first glance, to minimally satisfy whatever bar they’re trying to clear. This tendency, commonly known as satisficing, can easily lead to a suboptimal request even if the customer knows exactly what they’re trying to accomplish.
  3. The customer knows what they’re trying to accomplish and how to accomplish it but is too afraid to ask. Many customers, facing a busy contractor booked out months in advance, know they would be best served by something cheap. Formica’s what I need! But they’re afraid the contractor will laugh at them, make a haughty snorting noise, or decide the project’s not worth their time. So the customer asks for something better than what they really need. But wait—isn’t that good for the contractor? Any contractor worth their salt knows it won’t be in the long run, when the bills come in or the customer starts talking to friends who really need a contractor to install some quartzite.

So never assume that requests correspond with needs! And don’t think selling is the only context when that assumption falls flat! Spouses, children, and work colleagues have all been known, on occasion, to make requests that correspond loosely with their underlying needs. Anticipating as much can make life negotiable!

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Renovating a room? Three more reasons to get multiple quotes

I’ve previously advised you, when hiring a contractor, to obtain several quotes. And I’ve so-advised for a specific reason—a reason that most negotiation instructors would fully endorse: because you’ll then have an alternative, providing leverage over the preferred contractor’s price. But I’m here to suggest some less recognized but no less important reasons to engage with multiple parties—reasons that can easily make your contracting more negotiable.

Consider just three:

  1. You learn about the issue: We’re currently pondering a bathroom renovation and have invited several contractors over to offer their ideas. And simply by talking to several independent parties, I’ve learned all kinds of interesting and esoteric things about bathrooms—from the building codes about medicine cabinets to the standard height of a toe kick (in addition to what a toe kick is). Had I talked to just one party, I would’ve amassed few such nuggets of information—nuggets that will inevitably inform the final decision.
  2. You hear lots of ideas: You’d think: one bathroom, one set of possibilities. But then you’d be wrong. Each contractor has offered an entirely different vision for the same space, multiple layouts with markedly different advantages and disadvantages. Had I talked to just one party, I might’ve been showering in some awfully strange places or paying to move some awfully expensive pipes.
  3. You learn about your own preferences: Talk to a neoclassical economist, and they’ll probably tell you that you understand your own preferences. Talk to me, and I can tell you that, if I had any a priori preferences about a bathroom renovation, I had no idea what they were. But in the process of conversing with multiple contractors, I’ve come to develop some rather refined renovation preferences. Slate floor? Only if it’s smoothed. Oval mirror? Looks awfully nice between some rectangular cabinets. Only by talking to multiple parties did I come to understand myself.

So, talking to multiple parties is not just about driving the price down. It’s also about understanding whatever it is you’re negotiating about—as well as yourself. Without that, no discount will make your bathroom negotiable.

Still misunderstanding myself

Last week, I discussed a classic negotiation blunder made by none other than myself: misunderstanding my own preferences. Since the consequences of the initial mistake continue to accumulate, why not continue the story? I hope that this post, if not the last one, can make your own life more negotiable.

To review my previous post, I simplemindedly agreed to do some major landscaping work on behalf of my landscaping company and thereby save some money. Since the savings paled in comparison to the difficulty and painfulness of the task (“my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water”), this was a bad decision right from the start.

But then I returned from a work trip to find the landscaping company’s work completed and another whole segment of my own work left to be completed. In particular, I found piles of mulch, oodles of dirt, and a whole collection of mountain laurels—all needing to be installed now since Mother Nature had already graced us with the first half of an eight-day thunderstorm. So there I was, fresh off the plane, in mud up to my knees, waiting to spread my stuff and bury my laurels. And there I stood for time immemorial, dripping and resenting my stupid savings.

Now, to be fair, I had no way of knowing Baltimore’s forecast when I signed the contract in March. (Baltimore’s forecasters rarely know it a day in advance.) Still, when signing the contract, I failed to account for more than my preferences. I failed to account for the important contingency that the work would occur when I was gone. In retrospect, I should have at least found a way to ensure that they would do it when I was home and could ease into my own planting, preferably without a thunderstorm.

In sum, and this is the end of my self-flagellation, even negotiation professors make negotiation mistakes, and my failure to consider my own preferences was compounded by my failure to think through the contingencies. So let this be a lesson to you, and a lesson that makes your life much more negotiable and substantially less muddy.

Misunderstanding yourself: A classic negotiation blunder

Even negotiation instructors sometimes make negotiation mistakes. Since I recently made an exceedingly common mistake, perhaps it’s worth the public shaming that will necessarily come with sharing. At best, the story should make your own life more negotiable. At worst, it’ll offer me a form of catharsis.

Most of us tend to assume that we know ourselves completely—our every desire, need, and preference. It’s our wily counterparts—their needs, desires, and preferences—that we assume we don’t know and need to find out during a negotiation.

While we do know ourselves better than anyone else, I’m here to tell you that we don’t know ourselves well enough for a negotiation. Put differently, we can’t assume we don’t need to inquire into our own preferences carefully each time we negotiate. We always need to understand ourselves better.

To that point, my family recently decided to pay for a fairly involved and expensive landscaping project. Forever the negotiation professor, I tried to experiment with various methods of reducing the price. Voila! I could do so by performing a portion of the work myself. Sounds good, but the devil’s in the details—in this case, the work:  I would have to clear an exceedingly long, 20-foot wide strip of overgrown jungle that would challenge even the mightiest of bulldozers, pulling up fathoms of English ivy and removing decades of discarded yard waste.

“I’ll do it,” I foolishly declared, without asking myself whether my preference for savings outweighed my preference for health, happiness, and life satisfaction in general. And now, several days removed from an entire weekend of clearing, my back has never been so sore, I’ve never been so fearful of snakes, my finger is throbbing from a mischievous cinder-block, and I’m still drinking compensatory water. Oh, and I’m still sad that I had to miss my daughter’s T-ball game.

Now, was that really worth the savings? In retrospect, not really. Turns out that, although I do prefer savings to no savings, I don’t prefer savings to a totally lost, unproductive, and painful weekend of social isolation in the searing sauna of Maryland sun. In other words, I didn’t understand my own preferences particularly well—or if I did, I didn’t carefully compare them against each other.

I say this not just to poke fun at myself but because it’s a mistake that most of us make often. We assume, when negotiating, that we understand own preferences so well that we don’t need to consider them at all. I’m here to tell you that we always do.

So the next time you’re negotiating, don’t pull a Brian. I mean, do pull the Brians described in many of my posts, but don’t pull this one. Treat your own preferences as a question to be considered, a riddle to be solved, a topic rife for inquiry. Do that, and I think you’ll find your back less sore and your life more negotiable.

Negotiating while the iron’s hot

In many negotiation situations, you have no choice about when to act. If your car breaks down, you’d better negotiate with the dealer. If your teenager brings home a biker, you’d better negotiate now.

In more negotiations than you think, though, you can actually choose when to negotiate. Since picking the right moment—the moment when you find the wind at your back—can make life negotiable, let’s consider some common examples.

Timing matters tremendously, for example…

  1. When you want a kid to do something. So you need your little Shnookums to clean up the 6,793 stuffed animals coating the family room floor? Should you ask them to do it before or after their dessert? While it might seem more logical to wrap up their dinner and wash their little hands first, they’ll probably be more motivated by a future rather than a past dessert.
  2. When you want to buy a car. So you want to buy a new car later this year? Should you try to buy it in the summer, when your bonus rolls in and your workload slackens? Or the fall / early winter, when the sellers are stressing to clear their lots for the new cars? I’d consider celebrating your New Years Eve at the dealer.
  3. When you want to buy a house. So you want to buy a house in a hot market? Should you lowball the seller with an aggressive offer, knowing that they’ll get 12 better alternatives? Or make a reasonable offer now and ask for concessions later, as the inspection report and appraisal turn up the inevitable curveballs? You’ll probably get farther with the latter.
  4. When you want a coworker to support you. So you have an urgent idea and would love your coworker to support you? Should you ask them right now, before you forget? Or next week, after you’ve found yourself on the same side of a separate issue? The answer is pretty obvious, albeit overlooked often.
  5. When you want a customer service agent to help you. So you want a customer service agent to reverse that fee? Should you come out demanding it the moment she answers? Or wait until you’ve patiently provided your information and asked about her day? Since everyone else has probably tried the former, you might as well give the latter a go.

So timing matters tremendously, and here’s hoping that helps you the next time.

Declaring yourself a negotiation superhero—By considering your plan B

Worried about an upcoming negotiation? Dreading the back-and-forth? The fast ones your counterpart is sure to pull when you’re not looking? Well, don’t fear: here’s a research-based suggestion that can make negotiations negotiable: actively thinking about your BATNA.

I’ve repeatedly discussed the importance of BATNA: your Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement, or simply your Plan B. As noted by me and countless other negotiation researchers, having and knowing and improving your BATNA lets you walk away from an unproductive negotiation. Less appreciated, I think, is the way that actively thinking about your BATNA before a negotiation can steel you for some upcoming bargaining—at least when your BATNA is decently attractive.

To see what I mean, imagine you’re about to talk to a flooring contractor who is likely to quote you an unattractive price. Imagine further that you have another decent quote in-hand, and you’d like to get your flooring upgraded but really don’t need to. You detest negotiation in general—and especially with pushy salespeople. Accordingly, you’re dreading the upcoming interaction and secretly hoping he calls to cancel.

In this situation, most people are so consumed with worry that they simply forget about their BATNA. Somewhere in the back of their brains, they know that they can always walk away from an overly pushy contractor, but they don’t actively focus on the fact that this guy is just one minor blip in a long list of potential next steps.

But why not?

Why not stop, forget about the pushy contractor, and refocus on the fact that you don’t really need this guy’s flooring, or really any flooring at all? Thinking like that, you’ll realize that it’s the pushy contractor who should be nervous: It’s he who stands to lose a large chunk of change if you don’t like his proposal—he who’d better fear the formidable you and your ability to bolt. Thinking like that, you can confidently place your hands on your hips, puff out your chest, and declare yourself a negotiation superhero.

So the next time you’re fearing an upcoming negotiation, stop thinking about it! And refocus on the fact that you don’t really need it, that you have a plan B.

It’s a powerful strategy but comes with two obvious caveats: First, it obviously falls flat if your BATNA is bad. If your foot is falling through to the basement and all alternative quotes are unbearably expensive, it clearly won’t really help to consider them (though we often vastly overestimate the unattractiveness of our alternatives). Second, it’s not a great idea to keep thinking about your BATNA when the guy actually appears at your doorstep. Instead, as noted elsewhere, you should shift your attention toward your target when negotiating and only return to your BATNA at the end.

So let this be the beginning of the end of your negotiation fears! Our alternatives are often far better than we think, if we really think about them—and we should.

Contracts as conversation starters

If you’ve ever hired a contractor, you know there’s something about a contract that makes it seem final. Maybe it’s the careful calculations, detailed specifications, or numerous terms and conditions. Regardless, there’s something about most contracts that make them seem like the end of the discussion. But I’m here to tell you that a contract is often only the beginning, and that assuming as much can make life much more negotiable.

A quick story to illustrate:

My sisters and I wanted to buy a snowplowing service for my parents for Christmas (don’t worry—they already know about the contract). Having contacted several companies for quotes, I received a contract that included a charge for each visit—and an increasingly large charge depending on the snowfall amount. That would be fine for a snowplowing service in Florida, but my parents live in a much snowier location, and my sisters and I only had a fixed amount of money to spend. So I requested protection against a huge bill in the form of another contract that charged a fixed amount. The snowplowing company obliged, but the fixed amount was high enough to make me worry about the possibility of a Florida-like year, in which case we would be vastly overpaying. So I requested one more revision to the contract—a rebate if the company did not have to visit much at all. The company again obliged, offering to waive a third of the cost if it didn’t happen to snow much. Overall, we got a great service that will take care of the lion’s share of the snow, but will also protect us against vastly over- or under-paying.

I relate this long and winding tale not because I think you’re particularly interested in snowplowing. I relate it because it illustrates how treating a contract as a conversation starter can often be the only way to get the kind of contract you need. And getting the contract you need is often the only way to make life negotiable. So the takeaway is simple: don’t take a contract’s calculations, specifications, or terms and conditions as an indication of finality. Take the contract as an opening gambit, in an ongoing discussion, about an agreement that makes everyone happy.