Which is worse: Negotiation failure or failing to negotiate?

I recently traveled to Australia for work, visiting an open-air market for some family souvenirs. Now, an Australian market is not an Indian or Turkish market—not a place where haggling is necessary or necessarily expected. So I suspected going in that any attempts at negotiation would not be particularly fruitful. And I could’ve decided to abandon negotiation accordingly.

But being the author of Life’s Negotiable, I decided to try it anyway. As expected, my attempts to negotiate were met with limited success. Ironically and perhaps confusingly, though, they also highlighted three reasons why the greater failure would’ve been a failure to negotiate at all. And herein is a lesson that can make life negotiable: The biggest negotiation failure is a failure to negotiate.

What in the world could I mean? Consider the rest of the story. I set out in pursuit of three souvenirs: two stuffed animals and a wine holder. Along the road to the negotiation failure described in the third point below, I jotted down three reasons why failing to negotiate would’ve been the greater failure. If you don’t negotiate, you don’t:

  1. Learn about the market. My first and most important negotiation strategy was to walk around the market and compare the various vendors’ prices and selection. Having done so, I learned that certain vendors were selling the items in the question for an attractive price but also selling…how shall we put this…junk. And, looking closer at these vendors’ stuffed animals and wine holders, I learned that they too were…how shall we put this…junk. Design flaws and manufacturing errors galore—and not even from Australia. At least for these products, the rock-bottom prices were too good to be true, I learned.
  2. Learn about the item in question: In the process of walking around the marketplace, I also learned some interesting things about the products under consideration. For example, I learned that the wine holders in this market (at least the ones from the non-junk vendors) are each hand-painted with a unique pattern and color palette signifying a specific set of thoughts and emotions—nice sentiments like serenity, peace, and courage. Since I knew I wanted one with olive green and maroonish-brown, I made sure to note and convey the meaning of those colors upon delivery, which definitely increased the impact of the gift.
  3. Find opportunities to sweeten the deal: Having eliminated the junk vendors and understood the colors, I ultimately identified a vendor with no junk and some reasonably good deals. In fact, this vendor’s signs indicated that I could get two stuffed animals for a special bulk price of X Australian Dollars. But there was no obvious deal on wine holders, prompting me to ask for an even special-er bulk price for one wine holder and two stuffed animals. “No,” he said, which is why I labeled the whole thing a negotiation failure. But the vendor did inform me that I could get an unadvertised volume discount if I purchased two wine holders. Now, we don’t drink that much wine or have that much room on the kitchen counter, but if we did, this offer could’ve sweetened the deal considerably. So, in combination with the avoidance of poor products and the accumulation of information, I consider this failure productive.

What’s the point? That, at least when it doesn’t take a huge amount of time to negotiate—and often it doesn’t—the only real failure in negotiation is a failure to negotiate. A little lesson from down-under.

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Practicing for negotiations: Why not?

We practice meticulously for every important event in our lives. Whether it’s a presentation, a soccer game, or an interview, if we value the outcome, we typically spend some serious time practicing (e.g., by dry-running, scrimmaging, or mock-interviewing).

So it’s curious that most of us devote so little time—approximately none at all—to practicing for our most important negotiations. Perhaps we’ll give some passing thought to our strategy for the car dealer or even use the BRAIN acronym to structure our thinking. But mental preparation is not the same thing as active practicing, and precious few of us will ever consider the latter.

But why??? Do we all consider ourselves so much better at negotiating than presenting, shooting a soccer ball, or detailing our greatest strength? Do we all feel foolish enlisting the help of a make-believe car dealer? Do we not even know where to start?

I honestly don’t know.

Since practice is the only thing that can make negotiations perfect (or at least negotiable), however, I’ll assume it’s the last one and urge you to start here:

Pick a trustworthy friend, perhaps an aspiring thespian. Bring them up to speed on every last aspect of the negotiation and your likely counterpart. Then, actually pretend you’re negotiating, making sure to focus your role-playing on the following topics:

  1. Opening and setting the right tone. As in first dates, the first minute of a negotiation sets the tone for most of the subsequent relationship. Will this be a cooperative or combative discussion? A problem-solving exercise or a cage match? Whatever the tone you intend to set, you’d better practice setting it to follow through when the heat is on.
  2. What you’ll share and won’t. In every negotiation, you’ll have to share certain nuggets of information to get to yes. And you’ll have to avoid a discussion of other topics like the plague—your bottom line for example. You need to practice sharing the former and avoiding the latter tactfully.
  3. Responding to tough questions. Your counterpart may well ask you to share the information you really don’t want to. They may also ask questions that tempt you to lie. You need to hear yourself concocting an answer that doesn’t give away the farm or your ethical (and/or legal) compass.
  4. Rebooting the conversation. At some point, most tough negotiations get mired in a positional debate. “I want X!” “I want Y!” And X is typically the opposite of Y. If you hope to rise above such a debate in real-time, you need a practiced strategy for changing the conversation. A strategic suggestion to take a break or a blue-sky question about an entirely different topic?
  5. Walking away if you have to. It’s kind of like the safety demonstration on the airplane. You really don’t want to think about it and hope you never have to remember it, but you’d better make sure to understand it. If a negotiation disaster sets in and you can’t find a way to best your BATNA, you need a practiced plan for walking away gracefully rather than falling into a tailspin.

In sum, for all the same reasons you play a scrimmage rather than fielding a new soccer team just before the game, we should all practice negotiating rather that discovering our negotiation prowess (or lack thereof) in real-time. If nothing else, consider it an opportunity to indulge your inner thespian.

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.

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.

 

To negotiate or let it go?

My posts have consistently highlighted our many everyday opportunities to negotiate—the fact that negotiations surround us, and that negotiating makes life negotiable. But if you buy that advice, which I believe and hope you do, then you should immediately spot a challenge. Most of us have many ways to spend our time—too many, in fact, for the 24 hours in each day. So, if we ever hope to sleep, we need to identify the situations that would most benefit from a negotiation—and the situations to just let go.

When to negotiate? It’s a tough question with many possible answers—see, for example, my earlier post on gratitude. And it’s especially tough for a negotiation professor, whose natural inclination is to say “whenever possible.” But that’s not realistic when you’ve got a lot of potential negotiations on your hands—when you’re buying and selling a house, for example, as I am now. The costs and complexities of: electrical repairs, roofing upgrades, plumbing repairs, termite inspections, radon mitigation systems, flooring updates, chimney service, painting service, cleaning service, closing costs. These are a small smattering of the many potential negotiation opportunities I’ve spotted in the last week.

Realistically, when we’re all this busy, we all have to choose. And ultimately, we’ll all have to use our best judgment. But here three guidelines I’ve found myself using, in hopes that they aid your judgment too. You might want to negotiate if:

  • The likely benefit of negotiating outweighs the likely time cost. Practically-speaking, this means that big-ticket items are more likely candidates for negotiation than mundane items. Of course, that conclusion depends on the value of your time. Whatever that value, you probably shouldn’t negotiate if there’s no hope of at least recouping it.
  • Negotiating would send a neutral or even positive signal. Sometimes, negotiations are expected: title companies are well-acquainted with buyers and sellers shopping around, for example. Other times, negotiations are admired: many employers are impressed by desired candidate taking their needs seriously. So, you should probably negotiate if it’s part of the “game.” If not–if negotiating would send an adverse signal–you should probably refer to the criteria above and below, making the decision on that basis.
  • You’ve come close to your goal. If you set a stretch goal and achieved an outcome that satisfies it, you might as well savor your success and plan your next negotiation. If you didn’t set or achieve a stretch goal–and especially if you achieved an outcome equal to or worse than your bottom line–it’s probably well-worth your time to try and right the ship.

If these rules seem a little too simple for the complexities of real life, that’s because they are. Deciding when to negotiate requires judgment, wisdom, and maturity in addition to simple rules-of-thumb. But hopefully they at least help you to wade through the murkiness of real life, as they have with the murkiness in mine!