Negotiating the holidays: Five common negotiations in a magical time of year

With the holidays fully upon us, I thought it might be useful to recap some negotiations you’re likely to face amidst the festivities—along with some research-based suggestions for making them negotiable. I’m pretty sure you’ll face at least one of the following negotiations over the next few weeks:

  1. Deciding where to spend the holidays. Many of us will have a robust discussion with our better halves as to where to spend the holidays—and for how long. For some suggestions on avoiding a less-than-festive meltdown in the process, you might want to review this post.
  2. Dealing with annoying seatmates. Many of us will encounter fellow holiday fliers who…how shall we put this…have a slightly different take on in-flight decorum. For some suggestions on keeping the skies friendly, check out this post.
  3. Finding time for family. Many of us will need to physically pry ourselves away from our desks to spend the desired time with family and friends. For some tips on negotiating a reasonable work-life balance when it’s needed most, you might want to review this post.
  4. Counteracting predatory retailers. When purchasing our presents, many of us will encounter amazing deals. Others will encounter “amazing” deals—deals that retailers would love for you to misinterpret as such. To recognize and counteract a particularly pernicious version of this trap, consider the following post and paper.
  5. Giving appropriate and reacting appropriately to gifts. It’s the season of giving and receiving, but many people struggle to devise the appropriate gift or react appropriately when they receive the annual fruitcake. So consider reviewing the following posts on giving and receiving for some insights from the negotiations literature.

And now, here’s ho-ho-hoping your holiday becomes a bit more negotiable.

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“That’s policy”: First offers from our friendly customer service representatives

We’ve all heard it a million times at a million retailers: “That’s policy.” It’s policy you must present a receipt, policy you must return it within a month, and policy you must bring a paper copy of the coupon. Policy being policy, the conversation usually ends there. But I’m here to tell you that policy is not necessarily policy. Policy is often an opening gambit—the first offer in a negotiation. And making life negotiable requires recognizing as much.

Let’s bring it to life with a story. My family was recently shopping at one of our favorite purveyors of home furnishings—let’s call it Dock 2—and we weren’t sure which of two pictures would look better in our house. So we decided to buy both, hoping that the answer would become patently clear at home. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it home with both pictures—we didn’t even make it out of the parking lot, as one of them would’ve required a vehicle five times as large to haul it. So we were forced to leave the ginormous picture behind the register, saying we’d come back with a Mack truck later. Having arrived at home, however, we discovered that the smaller picture—the one that actually fit in a passenger vehicle—was just fine in the space. So we no longer needed nor desired to return to Dock 2 to formally return the larger one, especially with two kids under the age of five. And why would they need us to do that, they being in possession of the picture?

“Because that’s policy,” they said when my wife called, at which point she did what most people do: hung up, considering the negotiation utterly over. But was it really over? Was there really no way Dock 2 could return a large picture located approximately two feet from their own register? Stepping back from the situation, it seemed obvious that we could not swallow this particular policy as the end of the negotiation—that, for the sake of two small kids if not our own sanity—we had to treat it as a first offer. But how exactly to do that? How to convince them to reconsider, having just learned their apparently immutable policy?

Reflecting on past posts—especially the ones on “no” and rigid rule enforcers—we decided we needed to understand the concern underlying this particular policy. Why would anyone need to present themselves in vivo to make a return in our virtual world? Presumably to guard against fraud, we surmised—against those bad hombres who might somehow call up Dock 2 pretending to be someone else, thereby racking up a few dollars on their credit cards at the expense of the store. And this, of course, pointed the way toward a solution: call back and make a counteroffer in which we immediately promised to fax or email in the receipt, along with a drivers license if necessary to prove our identities. So that is what we did, and, lo and behold, the immutable policy, previously etched in granite by the immortal leaders of Dock 2, suddenly melted away like better. “Let me talk to my manager,” the associate said, followed shortly by “no problem; just tell me the credit card number needed to make the purchase.” And that was that. Our return was accomplished without dragging any irascible kids to a faraway store, and no receipt or ID were even needed.

So this is just a simple story to illustrate a simple point: “that’s policy,” while seeming like the end of a negotiation, is often just the beginning. It’s the easy answer—the obvious line that any untrained, unmotivated, or just plain unhelpful employee is all-too-eager to give in order to return to their cyberloafing. But it’s not the final offer so much as an invitation to you to step back and think through their interests, then call back, the added benefit being that you might get a more helpful associate the next time. Now I’m not promising that it’ll always work—sometimes it won’t. Sometimes policies are policies, and people just don’t have the will or authority to override them. But I am suggesting that “that’s policy” is not always the be-all and end-all that most of us think it to be; instead, it’s often the opening gambit that most of us would really like it to be.

Have you ever seen a policy magically reversed upon discussion?

False anchors: Don’t get sunk this holiday season

This holiday season, retailers seem particularly eager to make their lives more negotiable by selling you on their wares. So now is probably an appropriate time to alert you to one of the oldest negotiation tactics in the book and—in so doing—help to make your own life more negotiable.

Several of my early posts discussed the power of the first offer: in brief, they described negotiation research revealing that the party who makes the initial offer in a negotiation often performs better, particularly when that offer reflects a realistic but aggressive goal. So if you’re selling a used car and consider 12K both possible and hopeful, then making the first offer and making it 12 or even 13 is probably a worthwhile idea. And the underlying reason is anchoring: whoever issues a number anchors both parties’ attention on that number rather than letting it stray elsewhere.

This tactic is known all-too-well to retailers, who would like nothing more than to interest you in their products and then anchor you on their desired price shortly thereafter. But most retailers are far too sophisticated to think they can just quote you an exceptionally high price. They know that your many possible alternatives are just a few clicks away. Instead, they realize they have to be much more subtle in their anchoring. Any guess on their preferred tactic for doing so?

Well, it would take about 20 posts to list all of their tactics, but a particularly common and pernicious one is this: they mention a very high number and label it something like the “retail price” or even the “competitor’s price.” Whether it is, is not the issue. The issue is the fact that you’re now anchored on a very high number. And you’re still anchored on that number when, moments later, they state a much lower price and label in their amazing sales price. “This 65” HD 2160p curved TV normally retails for $3000. But today only, you can nab it for an amazing sales price of $1800!”

Now, all of us, seeing the sales price, are tempted to think “Wow! Fantastic! What a deal!” In fact, the sales price is all-too-often nothing more than the price the retailer really wants you to pay. But by anchoring you on the exceptionally high number and immediately drawing a contrast to their much lower (albeit still aspirational) number, they make you and I and everyone else think we’re getting a fantastic deal.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that all retailers are pernicious or unscrupulous, nor that all of us always fall for this tactic. But I do think that most of us, reflecting on this tactic, would admit to ourselves that we’ve fallen for it more often than we realized at the time or would like to tell the rest of the world now.

So what can you do to combat this tactic? Your best hope is to spend a bit more time perusing at least a few more websites in search of comparative data. Is this really such an amazing deal or is it just the going rate? In addition to competitors’ websites, I’d also include the manufacturer’s website, Amazon, and a few independent websites like Consumer Reports as applicable. If that sounds like a bunch of holiday time spent surfing, well, it is. But at least for a consequential and costly purchase, I’d argue that avoiding the allure of the anchor is well worth the time.

Have you ever fallen for this tactic and then realized after the fact?