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.

Doing their job for them

Achieving your own objectives often requires the assistance of customer service representatives whose job is to help you. Just one problem: At times, the representatives on whom you depend seem to have no intention of doing their jobs. Accordingly, making life negotiable can require you to do at least a portion of somebody else’s job for them, in hopes of motivating them to do at least the remaining portion for you.

To see what I mean, consider the following story:

A few weeks back, I booked a car using an online booking service—let’s call them “Coldwire”—for a guy’s trip to Alaska. Weeks later, with the benefit of flight confirmations, I learned that my flight arrived nearly eight hours after my friends’ flights, meaning that I was the wrong person to retrieve the car from the agency—and let’s call them “Mavis.” Easy peasy: just call Coldwire or Mavis and ask them to add a driver, right? Wrong!

I first called Mavis, having learned from prior experiences that the rental agency can often do more than the booking service. “You’ll have to call Coldwire, sir,” they informed me. And what do you think Coldwire told me? That’s right: “You’ll have to call Mavis, sir.”

Frustrated at having lost a good 15 minutes of my life to this tail-chasing exercise, I then tried to enlist the help of the Coldwire representative. Explaining how Mavis had told me just the opposite, I described the predicament and tried to engage the agent in a little problem-solving, Getting to Yes style. Her unhelpful refrain: “The booking is final.” This refrain made little sense, as adding a driver would cost neither Coldwire nor Mavis a red cent. “The booking is final,” she repeated again, apparently hoping I hadn’t heard her the first 24 times.

“Ok, so what can I do here?” I asked, leaving an Alaskan-sized pause after my question to encourage a productive response. “The only thing you can do is rebook,” she said, “and the rate will probably be much higher now. Would you like me to look it up?” Seeing few options, I said I did, only to learn that a rebooking would cost us at least $200 more. So I said thanks but no thanks, and we cordially parted ways.

Luckily, I knew about this new technology called the internet and did a Coldwire search myself, only to find the same car, same dates, same agency going for $50 less! Now, I’m not sure how my internet differed from hers, but here I was—doing most of her job for her. And with that, I did most of the rest, calling her back and telling her—this same representative—that I had found a lower rate and rebooked with my friend as the driver. Could she kindly cancel my other reservation? She would be happy to complete that 5% of her job, she told me.

What’s the point, other than the humorous and all-too-common storyline? The point is that you sometimes depend on people who aren’t opposed to helping you—they just can’t be bothered to do so. In those cases, it’s worth trying to motivate them, supplementing their salary and benefits package with a little old-fashion persuasion. But when that doesn’t work, you might just have to do at least a portion of their job for them, asking them to do the rest as a matter of kindness or generosity. It’s annoying, and it requires time—too much time in our harried world. But it’s better than flying off the handle at unhelpful people, or simply giving up and making your friend sit around the Anchorage Airport for eight hours. Plus, it hones your résumé should you ever seek a job in customer service.

 

Persistent negotiation: An inoculation against crummy customer service

It’s a sad feature of the world we all inhabit: Most customer service representatives seem surprisingly unequipped to serve us. “I’ll have our technical department call you back when this matter is resolved.” (No you won’t). “Your internet service will resume by Tuesday.” (Try Friday). Like it or not, an excessively large proportion of our customer service representatives could not serve a tennis ball, let alone a customer with complex questions.

We can let it get to us, and sometimes we do. Or we can deal with it, most notably by steeling ourselves to negotiate, persistently, for the very things we have been promised and deserve. I’d suggest the latter, which can make life substantially negotiable.

Allow me to offer an anecdote from my own life that illustrates, the background being that I have long dreamed of owning a canoe, and it concerns a store we’ll call Rick’s Sporting Goods. As you read, notice the five unnecessary errors that necessitated five negotiations.

  1. Shortly before Christmas (and this part has nothing to do with a canoe) I realized I hadn’t purchased my daughter a critical Christmas present sold at Rick’s. Visiting a local Rick’s, I was told by several teenage males engrossed entirely in their iPhones that I could order it online. “Will it arrive by Christmas?” I asked. “It should,” they replied unconvincingly and without lifting their eyes from ESPN.com. Thus, I had to negotiate with them to pull up a new website on their iPhones—namely, Rick’s—then verify their own shipping policy and add some text to the order guaranteeing it would arrive by Christmas.
  2. Checking the order status online that night, I discovered of course that it wouldn’t. So I went on Rick’s chat platform and exchanged a couple messages with Suzy Helps-a-Lot, resulting in some sorrys but not a lot more. “Can you offer anything more in recognition of my frustration and the fact that I’ll now have to find the item somewhere else?” “Yes, we’ll take 20% off your next order,” she assured me.
  3. Having bought the Christmas gift on Amazon, I then visited the same Rick’s store in January to buy a canoe with said discount, only to discover that a different set of teenage iPhoners knew nothing about it. Furthermore, they knew very little about their own inventory, as they directed me to examine some canoes in the back when in fact no canoes would arrive for another two months. “How can I use the 20% I was promised (and that is printed on this chat record) when the canoes arrive in March?” I asked upon returning to the teenage iPhoners. And that negotiation finally convinced them to set down their iPhones and call their own customer service department, which sent me a promotion code valid for online purchases.
  4. Trying to use the promotion code to buy a canoe online in March (the first time one could do so for canoes), I discovered that it had expired. Calling customer service and explaining the whole situation again, including the fact that I was promised the ability to use the coupon for a canoe, I again asked what they could do—specifically, whether they could send a new code. Luckily, this negotiation led them to do so.
  5. Trying to finally buy the elusive canoe online, wouldn’t you know it, their website was broken! But a new Suzy Helps-a-Lot directed me to make my “online” purchase in the store and assure them she said it was ok. Of course, since Suzy had not recorded her recommendation in the system and the promotion code was restricted to “online” purchases, this necessitated yet another negotiation, just to use the promotion code. And finally, oh finally, I convinced them to do so and found myself with a canoe.

Now, few experiences with customer service are quite that bad. But it’s a sad fact of life that many are quite bad indeed. We can let it get to us, and often we do. But I’d suggest persistent negotiation instead, combatting crummy customer service with redoubled resolution.

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’.