How big companies negotiate—in aggregate

Many of us find now ourselves negotiating with big companies—to extend our promotional rates, cancel our service before the contract ends, miss a payment or two. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Given that reality, I wanted to share a consideration—discouraging at first but encouraging upon consideration—that can make such conversations negotiable: Many (though not all) big companies don’t really give a hoot about our individual situations.

Touching as their recent commercials might be, they aren’t particularly sensitive to our unique challenges, empathetic to our personal struggles.

Discouraging, right? Well, yes, unless and until you realize the flip-side: what they do care about. Much as your personal story might not concern them much, big companies do care about the reactions of many customers, in aggregate. That is, they think of negotiations in aggregate rather than individual terms.

That realization holds some important implications for the way you, as an individual, negotiate with them. Here are just three:

  1. Strategic social media: Adverse postings on social media have a way of multiplying and morphing into aggregate dissatisfaction. If you’ve received dissatisfactory service and can precede your call with a powerful tweet, preferably with pictures—or promise to do so later—the company just might give you a hearing. And if you can also show you’re an influencer of some sort, well, then, they might grant you the full judge and jury.
  2. Judicious threats: Since they don’t really care about your individual situation, they won’t closely listen when you explain why that situation necessitates a rate cut, deferred payment, etc. (as many of us do). But they’ll become all ears when you credibly threaten to cancel and ask to be transferred to that department. Why? Well, one reason is that cancellations actually hurt in the aggregate, whereas sob stories don’t. Unwise in many other negotiation contexts, threats may unfortunately be necessary in some negotiations with big companies.
  3. Unrelenting communication: If there’s anything other than mass-cancellation that troubles companies in aggregate, it’s mass inquiry—huge wait times on their customer service lines, mountains of paperwork coming in, lots of complicated and unresolved case numbers. For you, the individual negotiator (in concert with many other individual negotiators), this implies the need to be persistent and unrelenting in your communications—willing to endure excruciating wait times, to insist on talking to their supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor, to send in mountains of paperwork yourself, to call back as often as necessary. If you do that (and others do too), they may see the aggregate implications of continuing to put off the persistent (like you)—gridlock. (Case in point: Many travel firms like Hotwire and did when everyone called at the start of COVID, and they gave everybody a refund.)

So the realization that many (though not all) companies don’t really care about us as individuals has an ironic upside: They actually do care—about us and many other people in aggregate. If you can show them how your individual case relates to their aggregate concerns, well, then big companies become just about as caring as anyone else.

“That’s policy”: First offers from our friendly customer service representatives

We’ve all heard it a million times at a million retailers: “That’s policy.” It’s policy you must present a receipt, policy you must return it within a month, and policy you must bring a paper copy of the coupon. Policy being policy, the conversation usually ends there. But I’m here to tell you that policy is not necessarily policy. Policy is often an opening gambit—the first offer in a negotiation. And making life negotiable requires recognizing as much.

Let’s bring it to life with a story. My family was recently shopping at one of our favorite purveyors of home furnishings—let’s call it Dock 2—and we weren’t sure which of two pictures would look better in our house. So we decided to buy both, hoping that the answer would become patently clear at home. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it home with both pictures—we didn’t even make it out of the parking lot, as one of them would’ve required a vehicle five times as large to haul it. So we were forced to leave the ginormous picture behind the register, saying we’d come back with a Mack truck later. Having arrived at home, however, we discovered that the smaller picture—the one that actually fit in a passenger vehicle—was just fine in the space. So we no longer needed nor desired to return to Dock 2 to formally return the larger one, especially with two kids under the age of five. And why would they need us to do that, they being in possession of the picture?

“Because that’s policy,” they said when my wife called, at which point she did what most people do: hung up, considering the negotiation utterly over. But was it really over? Was there really no way Dock 2 could return a large picture located approximately two feet from their own register? Stepping back from the situation, it seemed obvious that we could not swallow this particular policy as the end of the negotiation—that, for the sake of two small kids if not our own sanity—we had to treat it as a first offer. But how exactly to do that? How to convince them to reconsider, having just learned their apparently immutable policy?

Reflecting on past posts—especially the ones on “no” and rigid rule enforcers—we decided we needed to understand the concern underlying this particular policy. Why would anyone need to present themselves in vivo to make a return in our virtual world? Presumably to guard against fraud, we surmised—against those bad hombres who might somehow call up Dock 2 pretending to be someone else, thereby racking up a few dollars on their credit cards at the expense of the store. And this, of course, pointed the way toward a solution: call back and make a counteroffer in which we immediately promised to fax or email in the receipt, along with a drivers license if necessary to prove our identities. So that is what we did, and, lo and behold, the immutable policy, previously etched in granite by the immortal leaders of Dock 2, suddenly melted away like better. “Let me talk to my manager,” the associate said, followed shortly by “no problem; just tell me the credit card number needed to make the purchase.” And that was that. Our return was accomplished without dragging any irascible kids to a faraway store, and no receipt or ID were even needed.

So this is just a simple story to illustrate a simple point: “that’s policy,” while seeming like the end of a negotiation, is often just the beginning. It’s the easy answer—the obvious line that any untrained, unmotivated, or just plain unhelpful employee is all-too-eager to give in order to return to their cyberloafing. But it’s not the final offer so much as an invitation to you to step back and think through their interests, then call back, the added benefit being that you might get a more helpful associate the next time. Now I’m not promising that it’ll always work—sometimes it won’t. Sometimes policies are policies, and people just don’t have the will or authority to override them. But I am suggesting that “that’s policy” is not always the be-all and end-all that most of us think it to be; instead, it’s often the opening gambit that most of us would really like it to be.

Have you ever seen a policy magically reversed upon discussion?

What they want and why they want it: Providing exceptional customer service

May I ask you to complete a difficult task? Please take a second and recall a recent experience in which you received exceptional customer service.

Tough as that task may be, I’m sure we can all recall at least one time when we, the customer, felt like we were exceptionally well served. And I’m willing to bet that many of our experiences share two common features:

  1. Our friendly customer service agent fulfilled our main request
  2. But our friendly customer service agent went beyond our main request by trying to understand our underlying needs and how to satisfy them even better

An example: I once asked a Verizon customer service representative whether she could extend a promotional period on my phone bill. “Why yes,” she said, and did so. “But let me also check something,” she added, apparently surmising that I wanted to cut costs. “Based on your typical usage, I have plan that meets your needs and costs even less. Better yet, it’ll never expire. What do you think?” Obviously, I considered that a great idea.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: if Verizon was full of such employees, the company would probably go out of business. And you’re right. Nevertheless, from the customer’s perspective, this was exceptionally good service—and not just because she saved me a bunch of money. It was exceptionally good service because she cared enough to understand what was important to me, then attempt to fulfill it even better.

If you are in customer service—if you in any way serve a customer—this is a strategy that can make life negotiable. Try to not only do what the customer is asking. Try to understand why they are asking for it, then ask yourself how you can meet that need even better. This is kind of the inverse of a previous post when I advised you, as the customer, to try and understand what’s motivating a stubborn customer service representative. As the customer, that can be the only way to get things done. As the customer service representative, it’s the way to go above and beyond.

Now, I still know what you’re thinking. Many customer service agents are incentivized to concede as little as possible to demanding customers. If you, as customer service representative, went above and beyond on every request, wouldn’t you probably get fired? If all such requests were about money, maybe so. But anyone in customer service can tell you that customers have many needs, only one of which is money. Indeed, many customers, having received exceptionally crummy service in the past, simply need to vent. If you, as customer service representative, can understand that motive and satisfy it by simply expressing some empathy, you’ve satisfied the underlying need and thereby provided exceptional customer service.

But I still know what you’re thinking! As a customer service representative, won’t the customer get mad if you do anything other than exactly what they’re asking? Well, if you ignore what they’re asking and do something completely different, then probably so. But if you do what they’re asking for and then do something extra—well, it’s hard to imagine anger over a bonus.

So here’s the bottom line: When serving a customer, it’s helpful to ascertain not just what they want but why they want it. By doing that, customer service representatives can go above and beyond basic expectations and make some small portion of their lives more negotiable—not to mention their customers’.