Negotiating with the airlines (i.e., from a position of complete powerlessness)

Disputes with the airlines tend to elicit a sense of complete powerlessness. Bad seat? Full bin? Overbooked flight? It’s David versus Goliath x 10. Given that you need to get somewhere and they get to decide whether you do, your own power position seems tenuous, at best.

Since such disputes will probably only increase in the age of “Basic Economy” (airline-speak for terrible)—and since the airlines are but one of many bigger and brawnier counterparts we encounter on a daily basis—let’s use the airlines as an example to consider whether we, the weak, can still make life negotiable.

Despite our seeming lack of power, I submit that we still have at least five strategic options, affording us at least some semblance of power. They include:

  1. Exercising your alternatives: The former flagship carriers have tripped all over each other in a race to add fees and cut amenities. Southwest and a few others haven’t. As a former weekly traveler with a clinical addition to United, I understand the difficulty of making the switch. But I finally bit the bullet and switched to Southwest. And I survived to tell you that I’ve never been happier (on a plane). The ability to leave a particular partner is a major source of power in any negotiation.
  2. Increasing the costs of your departure: If you fly once a year and have no particular relationship with a flagship carrier, your friendly airline representative will probably hold the door on your way out. But if you fly with them all the time, use their credit card assiduously, and relish their vaunted status, they’re likely to protest a smidge more loudly when you make for the exit. In other words, if you slavishly show your loyalty to a particular carrier—connecting through Cleveland and Phoenix to get from Baltimore to St. Louis if you have to—then you’ll have slightly more leverage when push comes to shove.
  3. Negotiating with someone else: The best way to deal with a sense of powerlessness is often just to ignore it—especially by negotiating with someone who is no more powerful than yourself. Just try negotiating your way out of a cramped middle seat with your friendly flagship representative! But why do that, when you could instead give your middle seat to one of two lovebirds, who would prefer to sit next to the other lovebird than enjoy the window?
  4. Documenting their power abuses: Just because they’re powerful doesn’t mean they can be abusive. Such was the hard lesson taught to United by a bunch of passengers who caught their apparent mistreatment of Dr. David Dao on video, then posted it all over the interweb. You can fight fire with fire if you have to—and the airlines sometimes even pay attention.
  5. Demanding your due: People booted off United in the wake of the Dao incident have been known to receive four-digit figures. You could meekly accept the $300 voucher plus $0.30 bag of peanuts they offer (both which expire tomorrow), or you could hold out for the amount they’ve publicly promised to offer. I’ve heard that the latter is becoming popular—so popular that onboard auctions, where no one agrees to get booted until the four-digit figures start flowing, have been known to occur routinely.

In sum, in situations of seeming powerlessness, you still have options. Accordingly, you still have power. You may just have to think outside the overhead bin to find it.

Asking more of our sales associates

Most people try to spend as little time in a store as possible. If we can get into a store, find the desired product, and get out without ever talking to a sales associate, we would we ever dilly-dally?

Well, that philosophy works well enough for most purchases. But I’m here to highlight the types of situations in which we might want to ask more of our sales associates—when engaging them in a conversation might make everyone’s life more negotiable. Consider the following three situations in which conversing with the associate instead of hard-charging for the exit might help:

  1. When you aren’t 100% sure which product to buy. Imagine you need to buy a new phone. Most people are probably inclined to find the best phone online, then (if they have to go into a store to get it) just go into the store and get it. But why? Why not spend at least a few minutes with the sales associate, asking for his or her perspective on the desired phone versus others. It’s true—the associate might be totally unknowledgeable or unhelpful, as associates sometimes are. But my experience is that many associates are experts in small domains. When we ask about their experiences with a product, they not only have personal experiences to recount. They have the stories of untold customers, who have complained about or complimented the product in question. And since so many people come into the store and ask the associate to robotically fetch a phone, they seem to really appreciate when someone respectfully requests their advice.
  2. When you aren’t 100% sure what your money buys. I recently needed a new windshield wiper for my car. Anyone who’s ever needed and tried to purchase a windshield wiper at an auto parts store knows that the wiper aisle stretches for 4.2 miles and includes 6,529,000 options ranging from $5 to $50 in price. In the face of such choice overload, many people’s temptation is to simply select the right sized wiper at random, then hope and pray that it turns out to wipe their shield appropriately. But why not ask the sales associate what exactly your money buys? Why not ask why one wiper costs 10 times the cost of another—does it wake up in the middle of the night and proactively wipe your shield? Sure, the friendly associate may seek to upsell you, at which point you can thank them and go back to the random selection. But my experience is that, unless they’re on the payroll of the company whose wipers they’re trying to sell, they’re often surprisingly honest. On my own recent trip to the auto store, for example, the associate gave me some exact figures about the lifespan and level of visibility associated with each wiper. He also recounted his personal experiences and told me of the perfect wiper fluid to complement my wiper of choice. A synergy between wipers and fluid? Who knew. I was glad that I did—and he seemed glad to recount this particular nugget of wisdom.
  3. When you aren’t 100% sure how to use a product. I recently walked into a home and garden store in need of some holly tone. If you don’t know what that is, you’re not alone. I didn’t either. Nor did I have any idea, once acquired, how to actually use it. In such situations, the temptation is to buy the holly tone, then read the back and/or consult the internet. But why not leverage the expertise of a holly tone expert? Why not ask the associate, looking exceptionally bored at the cash register, what exactly holly tone is and how it could solve your problem? And that’s what I did. I explained my underlying interest in protecting a depressed rhododendron plant and asked whether and how the holly tone would do that. At this point, she helpfully explained the product’s benefits, as well as how exactly to apply it, even going so far as to draw an air-diagram depicting the distance between the rhododendron’s stem and the holly tone applied to the soil. Having explained all that and drawn the air-diagram, she seemed distinctly pleased with her expertise and my distinct interest in tapping into it. And who wouldn’t prefer being knowledgeable and helpful to robotically operating the cash register?

In sum, I’m not proposing anything amounting to rocket science. Perhaps you already enlist the help of your sales associates, and if so, I hope you’ve taken the liberty of ignoring this post. For the rest of us, though, I’m simply proposing that most of us routinely ask too little of our sales associates—and that literally asking more can make their lives and our own more negotiable.

Dissatisfactory service: Separating the person from the problem?

It happens too often: dissatisfactory service spoils an otherwise satisfactory experience. Given the ubiquity of such events, it probably makes sense to consider our reactions carefully, comparing them against the types of reactions that can make life negotiable. Let’s start by considering two real and recent experiences from my own life:

  1. Last Friday, we arrived in a pleasant and sedate local restaurant, sitting outside and awaiting our waiter’s arrival. Sadly, he didn’t show for ~20 minutes, which with kids might as well be ~20 years. And then, upon the arrival of his royal highness “Andy,” he had no particular comment on his tardiness and showed no more interest in our dinner order than the speck of dust on his shirt. Coupled with the other highlights of Andy’s service—his complete disappearance until well into the second half of the meal, the complete absence of our drink orders even at that point—it seemed pretty clear that this was a problem for which the person was largely if not wholly responsible.
  2. A few weeks back, a local painting company repainted our kitchen. The painter in charge, let’s call him Jose, had immigrated to this country and was obviously working hard to create a better life. And I’ve rarely if ever seen someone trying harder to do that. He focused intensely and exhaustively on his work, his brushwork rivaled the Impressionist masters, he even listened to music about Jesus while working. Was this guy form the same planet as the reprehensible Andy? Unfortunately, Jose made a rather pronounced mistake when moving the fridge. He didn’t lift it off the wood floor nor the staple apparently lying on top of the floor, creating a rather large gouge in the wood. Now here was a problem for which the person wasn’t particularly responsible—a simple mistake that could’ve befallen anyone, and has befallen me.

Faced with situations like these, many people respond in one of three ways:

  1. Ignore the poor service offered by either Andy or Jose, hoping the weekend will get better and the scratch will fade from conscious awareness.
  2. Chew out Andy and Jose to their respective employers if not to their faces, noting the inadequacy of both final products.
  3. Chew out Andy but ignore the scratch attributable to Jose.

Of the three, the third probably looks most appropriate. But the third is still problematic, isn’t it? Because the scratch is still there—the problem persists. So what to do? Situations like these call for a careful assessment of the relationship between the person and the problem. Are they one in the same? In Andy’s case, probably—in Jose’s, not so much. Armed with that insight, you can spend more time separating the person from the problem while dealing with the scratch. And that’s just what I did.

In Andy’s case, I lost no time in detailing his lackadaisical attitude to his manager, who lost no time in giving us a free bottle of wine and coupon, then probably lost no time in chewing out Andy. The person was the problem, so separating them was less necessary. In Jose’s case, however, I applied a very different strategy to the person—this utterly impeachable, even admirable individual who had nevertheless made a mistake. I lost no time in calling his superior, but the call started with a long-winded monologue on the many unimpeachable aspects of Jose and his work—a veritable ode to Jose. Only after establishing Jose’s credentials did I note the issue with the scratch, and only then by labeling it an honest mistake that all of us could easily make. I hope this approach protected Jose’s reputation. I know it corrected the problem, as the painting company offered to fix the floor free-of-charge.

None of this is rocket science, and I don’t pretend it is. I only raise these issues to point out that the relationship between the person and the problem deserves careful consideration when responding. Sometimes, there’s a nearly one-to-one correspondence; other times, there’s little correlation at all. The latter situations require a different strategy—actually two strategies, lest the person get confounded with the problem by your response. And you don’t want that to happen—no way, Jose!

“My computer is slow today”

I don’t know about you, but every time I call customer service, there seems to be something wrong with their computer. “My apologies, sir—my computer seems to be slow today.” Now, if it happened just once in a blue moon, I wouldn’t think twice. But since it happens nearly every time I call, I’m starting to draw one of two conclusions:

  1. Everybody has a crummy computer
  2. Everybody is trained to say their computer is slow to buy themselves some time

Now, I’m not sure which one it is, but let’s assume for a moment it’s the second, asking ourselves whether we might learn something from this tactic, thereby making our own lives more negotiable.

I have argued here and there for the benefits of procrastination, suggesting that we’d all do well to take a little more time when negotiating. The benefits of pausing and taking our time during critical moments in negotiation are manifold: with the benefit of a pause, we can think, calculate, check with others, catch our breath, or simply let your nerves settle. Is it possible that our friendly customer service representatives are more sophisticated than they seem? Is it possible they’ve been trained to report a sluggish computer anytime they need to ponder our requests further, check our customer records more carefully, or even call their superior over to take a look? I think it’s at least possible, and I think we can learn from it.

Now, I’m not suggesting that we should all start lying about the performance of our computers. What I am suggesting is that there are numerous ways to buy yourself some time in a negotiation, and when we face a difficult moment in any negotiation, we should all make the effort to find one that is honest and authentic for us. If your computer really is running sluggishly, by all means, tell that story. But if your computer is running just fine, I’d strongly suggest finding some other credible way to slow things down. Is it possible you drank a little too much coffee and need to visit the facilities, really need to run the proposal by your spouse / boss / pet before deciding, or simply want to sleep on it?

In sum, our friendly customer service representatives either have really unreliable computer systems or a keen sense of how to negotiate. I’ve given both them and their computers the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they’re actually canny negotiators with excellent computers. While I would never advise you to lie about anything in a negotiation (and explicitly advise my students not to), I would advise every negotiator to find an honest way to put on the brakes when they have to. If you happen to own a crummy computer and can lay the blame accordingly, so much the better.

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.