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.

Negotiation lessons from the safety patrol

I recently volunteered to serve as safety patrolman for my neighborhood. In essence, this involved trolling around the neighborhood at night, making sure no one (i.e., no teenager) was breaking community rules (e.g., loitering at the community beach) or even breaking the law (e.g., defacing said beach).

Since my duties tended to bring the community’s interests (and my own) into conflict with the interests of others (i.e., teenagers), these duties introduced several opportunities to negotiate. Accordingly, the experience reminded me of several important negotiation principles, which I thought I’d share in the hope of making life more negotiable.

  1. Interrupting other peoples’ interests is not particularly pleasant. Who wants to act as the killjoy that spoils some lovestruck teenagers’ lovely evening on the pier, shining a flashlight right in the face of affection? Not me, nor many others I know. In general, I remembered that interests consisting of interrupting other people’s interests are not particularly pleasant to pursue. With that said…
  2. It’s easier when you’re representing others. While less than lovely to give some young lovers (or young tokers) the boot, it was made much easier by the underlying motive: I wasn’t being a killjoy of my own accord. I was doing the community’s bidding, essentially representing the will of several hundred people. In general, I remembered that representing other people often strengthens your resolve. What’s more…
  3. Symbols help. The job of patrolman does have some benefits. I got to drive around with a flashing orange light on my car and wear a flashy orange vest apparently stolen from the Village People. Ridiculous to me and anyone who knew me, these symbols were quite intimidating to teenagers, for whom they legitimized my annoying requests. Perhaps for this reason, the experience also reminded me that…
  4. Most people comply. Thankfully, precious few teenagers protested. Sure, there were the aspiring few negotiators who tried to convince me that they were, for example, “just enjoying the lighting show.” But even these enterprising young negotiators agreed to clear the beach, as per community rules, after a further request. Perhaps they realized that…
  5. It’s good to have an obvious and powerful alternative. Any lip from these teenagers and I had the community and county’s approval to reel in the long arm of the law (i.e., call the police). A strong alternative for me, albeit not one I was particularly eager to engage. A weak alternative for the teenagers, who would find themselves with a rap sheet before even completing their FAFSA.

These examples are probably a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the lessons are real. They highlight, once again, that negotiations truly surround us. And they reminded me—and can remind us all—that negotiating power comes from the surrounding situation at least as much as your prowess.

Get rid of that fee! Three strategies for negotiating without power

“Fee.” The very word strikes fear, especially when we see it popping up on our own credit card, bank, or cell phone bill.

Is there any hope of eliminating a fee once it appears? It’s negotiable more often than it seems. But since the party imposing a fee holds all of the cards, making it negotiable requires knowing how to negotiate from the low-power position.

So imagine that you just received your cell phone bill. It’s true: you burned through a lot of megabytes watching Donald Trump clips, and you did exchange a bunch of text messages about the hurricane that never showed up. So a little bit of overage wouldn’t surprise you. But $167?!? Now that’s just ridiculous, and you’re calling AT&T to say so.

But wait—before you do, it’s worth understanding the situation. In particular, it’s worth understanding that you have no real alternatives. If they don’t budge, your best option is to pay the fee, pop a blood pressure pill, and fork over an early termination fee (should you decide to switch). Since that’s worse than just paying the fee, your alternatives are few and far between. AT&T’s alternatives, in contrast, seem solid. They collect either: 1) your overage fee, or 2) your overage fee plus your early termination fee. Bummer, you’re stuck in the low-power position.

But reflecting on the situation does not mean surrendering to the situation! Don’t put away your phone or stop dialing their digits. Do consider the following three pointers for dealing with the power deficit, in this and in any other negotiation when you have no options:

  • Don’t sweat it. Lacking any viable alternative, the natural inclination is to panic and wonder what could be worse. In fact, research highlights one situation that is worse: having a viable alternative that’s bad. Why’s that worse? Because people with bad alternatives focus attention on those alternatives, accepting any suboptimal offer that seems marginally better. In contrast, a complete lack of alternatives can be liberating, leading people to feel like they have “nothing to lose.” So this is the point: don’t go into the AT&T call thinking that things are just awful; go in thinking that things can only get better.
  • Make sure to make the first offer. It might seem silly to make the first offer when you’re the one begging for a fee reversal, but my own research with several colleagues shows that it’s even more important to make the first offer when you lack power. Why? Because the other side forgets about your low power when they hear your first offer. They get anchored on your offer just like they would’ve if you had lots of power, and you end up doing just as well as you would’ve if you had fantastic alternatives. So in your upcoming call with AT&T, resist the temptation to let the representative move first; replace it with a polite request that they reverse the fee.
  • Seek other forms of leverage. It’s true—you don’t have any alternatives, so that source of leverage is gone. But alternatives are only one source of leverage; another is your contribution to the relationship. AT&T may have millions or billions of customers, but they make their dollars one at a time. Most organizations are surprisingly willing to forgive a one-time oops if it guarantees future revenue. So when you make your first offer, remind AT&T that it’s your first oops, that you’ve been loyal for many years past, and that you’ll be loyal for many years in the future if they do you the one-time courtesy.

Is there any guarantee that this will work? No. Anyone who’s dealt with any corporation knows that they’re not necessarily the most rational economic agents. But by going in confident, by making the first offer, and by steeping it in the benefits to them, you’ll at least have a fighting chance at fee reversal.

Have you ever gotten a fee reversed by just asking?