Negotiating Better by Negotiating like a Barterer

On a recent wintry weekend, for the lack of a better option, my daughters and I visited “Ridley’s Accept it or Else.” Our excitement over this museum of the odd must’ve been obvious, as the receptionist immediately offered a three-attraction combo ticket.

“And what does that include?” I inquired.

“All our weird and wacky attractions,” she said, “along with the marvelous house of mirrors and the exhilarating 4-D motion theater.”

“Are all those appropriate for a six- and three-year-old?” I probed.

“Oh yes, there’s nothing scary here.”

I should’ve known better. But on this, our first visit to Ridley’s, I wanted to show my ragamuffins a good time. So I bought it.

And I’ll admit it: We lapped up their weird and wacky attractions. From locks of Lincoln’s hair, to a shrunken head, to a T-Rex made of pop tart wrappers, we relished some of the world’s oddest oddities.

But then came the marvelous house of mirrors. A pitch-black maze of mirrors from which several world-renowned explorers have never escaped, it wasn’t so marvelous for my three-year-old. It propelled her into a state of abject fear.

And so, when we somehow escaped and approached the exhilarating 4-D motion theater, she wouldn’t even consider it. Nor could I blame her given the signs about sudden movements and sharp drops.

Appropriate for a six- and a three-year-old? The former maybe, the latter absolutely not.

In sum, none of us really enjoyed the mirrors, and none of us even tried the theater. So I was irritated and wanted money back. And my daughters’ impending hunger and extreme fatigue made me want it now.

Operating under the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue, I must admit I adopted a negotiation style that my book explicitly criticizes: the monetary mindset. Specifically, I marched up to the receptionist, told her what I thought of her sales tactics, and demanded some money back. In so doing, I was treating this negotiation like a monetary transaction, making the unproductive assumptions that:

  • I wanted just one thing (a big rebate)
  • I was negotiating with just one person (the receptionist)
  • She wanted just the opposite (no rebate)
  • For me to win, she’d have to lose
  • Or else we’d have to compromise

“Let me call my supervisor,” said the receptionist, followed shortly after the call by, “We can’t give you any money back.”

Most people’s story stops right there. They adopt the monetary mindset, fight over a fixed pie, and march out of Ridley’s with little or nothing but frustration to show for it.

To the receptionist’s extreme credit, though, she attached another statement to the last: “But we can offer you our latest book on Ridley’s oddest oddities.”

Now, I doubt the receptionist was thinking quite so strategically, but this statement epitomizes the approach my own book actually recommends: the bartering mindset. In offering the Ridley’s book, she was treating this negotiation like bartering trade, making the much more productive assumptions that:

  • She wanted and could offer several things (e.g., my future business and the book, respectively)
  • She was negotiating with several people (my souvenir-hungry daughters in addition to myself)
  • I wanted and could offer several things too (e.g., to satisfy my daughters and visit Ridley’s again, respectively)
  • For her to succeed, I’d have to feel like a winner too
  • Which we could achieve by exchanging the book for no hard feelings about the initial scam

In sum, the receptionist compensated for her earlier sketchiness by adopting a highly productive negotiation strategy that treated the situation like bartering trade, i.e., by assuming the bartering mindset. Awakened from the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue by her sophisticated response, I shed my own unproductive monetary mindset, accepted the book gratefully, and publicly promised my daughters to return to Ridley’s soon. And don’t think they’ll forget it.

Just a funny story to introduce my new book, The Bartering Mindset, which will help you grapple with many of life’s challenges—including the substantially more serious. I hope you’ll join me in learning to negotiate like a barterer.

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!

Five pernicious assumptions that your service providers make about you

If you’re like me, then virtually every week brings an unexpected fee hike. Take last week, when both my cable bill and cellular bill unexpectedly jumped $20 a month. “How in the world can our service providers have such gall?”, you might ask.

Well, let me tell you how: they make five common, negotiation-related assumptions about me and you and everyone else—assumptions that the average consumer consistently proves correct. But by understanding and disproving these assumptions, you, the non-average consumer, can make life negotiable.

Specifically, your service providers consistently assume that:

  1. You won’t notice the fee increase: Your service providers commonly believe they can slip one by you—that you are one of those people who doesn’t scrutinize their statements or e-bills or direct withdrawals. Prove them wrong by approaching your bills with the mindfulness of a novice operating a power tool.
  2. You won’t have the courage to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you do notice the fee increase, you’ll probably be too wimpy to pick up the phone and call them on it. Prove them wrong by putting their number into your speed dial.
  3. You won’t have the time to call: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and muster the courage to call, you won’t have the time to. This, I must say, is probably where they get the most people, stretched as we all are. But prove them wrong by thinking not about whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20, but whether it’s worth your time to dispute the $20 x 12 months. Then multiply that amount by the number of service providers likely to jack up your fees in the near future.
  4. If you do call, a simple no will suffice: Your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice the fee hike and assemble both the courage and the time to call, they’ll be able to dissuade you with a simple “no.” For example, “No, that pricing promotion has ended, so we can’t put you back on it.” Prove them wrong by asking a different question. For example: “Ok, is there a different active promotion that would bring me back to the same price?” (That exact question eliminated the two $20 fee hikes mentioned above.)
  5. You won’t be willing to walk away: Worst case, your service providers commonly believe that, even if you notice and call and fight for your case, you won’t walk away and go with another provider if you have to. Prove them wrong by calling with a quote from another provider in-hand. Then ask to connect with the cancellation department, which almost always proves more pliable.

In sum, your service providers are banking on your being inattentive, wimpy, busy, gullible, and certain to surrender eventually. If you want to make life negotiable, you have no alternative to proving them wrong. Unlike your service providers, I assume that you can.

Bluffs versus lies: The line between persuasion and deception in negotiation

Where’s the line between bluffing and lying, persuasion and deception, salesmanship and unethical behavior? Negotiation scholars (myself included) have not often answered that question, largely because we focus on what negotiators do instead of what they should do. So far be it from me to answer conclusively here.

Nevertheless, a recent experience got me thinking about the topic and gave me some ideas about the factors that might at least enter into a discussion of where the line falls. So let me recount the experience and associated factors in hopes of making the broader discussion negotiable.

Some college friends and I recently took an annual guys trip, this year to Banff. Somewhere up in the Rockies, far from civilization and farther from cell phone service, we noticed the service engine light illuminated. Then, somewhere farther into the Rockies, we noticed that the fuel gauge hadn’t budged from full despite several hundred miles of driving. “Uh oh.” we thought. “What if the car’s broken or about to run out of gas up in the mountains?” And those thoughts caused some distress, interfering with our full enjoyment of Mother Nature’s majesty.

Long story short, the car didn’t break, and we didn’t run out of gas. We filled it up eventually, then monitored the engine sounds and gas gauge judiciously for the remainder of the trip. Finally, on our way to the airport, we decided to ask the rental car company (and let’s call them Nifty) for a discount. The question was how, and the discussion surfaced various tactics that may bring the line between persuasion and deception into sharper relief:

  1. Objective facts versus subjective reactions: There was a discussion about claiming that we broke down in the Rockies and had to somehow summon a tow truck. There was also a discussion about saying nothing of the sort but focusing on the distress caused by the fact we might have had to do so. The latter is probably more defensible.
  2. Breaks with reality versus extensions of reality: There was a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service ever since the event (which we did a couple hours later). There was also a discussion about claiming that we hadn’t had cell service until getting closer to the airport (which we were, a couple hours later). The latter is probably more defensible.
  3. Concrete versus ambiguous claims: There was a discussion about claiming that we often travel to Alberta and consider renting from that particular Nifty (a concrete and untrue claim). There was also a discussion about claiming that each of is a “road warrior” who travels to various locations with Nifty branches often (an ambiguous and broadly accurate statement). The latter is probably more defensible.
  4. Verbs versus adjectives: There was a discussion about saying that we ran out of gas in the mountains, the operative verb being “ran out.” There was also a discussion about describing the event with colorful adjectives (my friend ultimately chose “horrific”). The latter is probably more defensible.
  5. Commission versus omission: There was a discussion about arguing strenuously that the service engine light and fuel gauge were related, when we suspected the former reflected an overdue oil change. There was also a discussion about describing both symptoms and letting Nifty draw their own conclusions, none of us being auto mechanics. The latter is probably more defensible.

Again, I’m not here to offer concrete answers to tough ethical quandaries, and maybe you disagree with my assessments. But I hope this story and my thoughts at least help to bring some structure to your own thinking, as you grapple with the ethical quandaries in your own lives and negotiations.

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.

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.