Sunday, May 18, 2014

Practical Pearl: All You Have to Do is Ask

Chapter 24 of Pearls from Sand is titled "Everything Is Negotiable." I described some techniques for negotiating constructively with merchants of all types that often can get you a better price on a product or service. In fact, reading that one chapter will more than repay the price of the book! Here's an update on some of the ways I've applied those principles recently to my advantage.

Some months ago I saved $325 on my cable TV, Internet, and telephone service for the next year. The price of my combination service had gone up by more than twenty dollars a month because the last special rate I had negotiated with them recently expired. Before I called the cable provider today, I checked into what a comparable package of services would cost from a satellite provider. It was about thirty dollars per month less than my new cable rate. When I presented that competitive information to the customer retention agent I spoke to at my cable provider, she immediately gave me the same promotional rate that they were now offering to new subscribers. Plus, I got some additional channels thrown in and free Showtime for three months. I had to make a two-year commitment, which is no problem for me, and the rate will go up somewhat in the second year. Still, I'm saving $475 over the next two years for a better package than I have at present. All I had to do was ask. This is the third time I've negotiated a better deal from my cable provider. I'm not sure how long I can keep this up, but I’ll keep trying.

I recently went to a jewelry store to buy an opal ring as a gift for my wife. The ring was on sale at a pretty good discount. I asked the young saleslady if that was the best price they had for the ring. She conferred with her manager, who rummaged around in their back room and found a coupon for twenty-five dollars off, which she gave me. I was amazed that my negotiation strategy worked in this case, but I happily took the coupon.

In Chapter 24 of Pearls from Sand I mentioned one magic phrase that I have found to be helpful during negotiations. Since then, I've learned a second useful question to ask: "Do you have any flexibility on the price?” It turns out that often vendors do have some flexibility, especially if you can suggest some reason to justify it.

I recently made hotel reservations for a three-day trip to Seattle, including a Friday. The corporate rate at that hotel for the company I'm visiting is $145 per night. However, I learned from the Web that the hotel has a standard reduced rate on weekend nights of just $109 for the type of room I requested. I asked about this, and the agent at the hotel reduced my Friday night rate to $109, thereby saving me $36 plus tax. I'm glad I asked.

I engage a nationally known lawn care company to apply organic fertilizer and other treatments to my lawn and landscaping several times a year. When I received the latest proposal for next year’s services, I wasn’t happy to see that prices had gone up by nine percent. I called the office and without any hassle at all, the man I spoke to agreed to cut the increase in half. That one brief conversation saved me $25.

Two weeks ago I spent a few days doing some wine tasting in one of the many wine regions in the Pacific Northwest, one of my favorite pastimes. At one winery I really liked a bottle that cost $40, but that's outside my usual price range. I asked the owner, who was pouring samples for me, if he had any flexibility on the price. He replied, “I can give you twenty percent off,” and I was happy to pay $32 for this excellent bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. At another stop I bought two bottles of a fantastic Syrah. Even though the wine already was reasonably priced, I asked the tasting room manager if he had any flexibility on the price because I was buying two bottles. This simple question earned me a ten percent discount.

This strategy doesn't always work, though. At a third winery I was greatly impressed with a $52 bottle of wine, but there's no way I was going to pay that much. I asked if I could perhaps get it at the wine club price. The owner pointed out that this would not be fair to the members of their wine club. This is absolutely correct (although no wine club members were there to complain about it), but I thought I’d try anyway. She did not come down in price, and I did not buy a bottle. Did she win the negotiation, or did we both lose? I didn't get a better price, but neither did she make a sale. I think it was a lose-lose outcome, but it's certainly her decision whether to modify the price or not. After all, the winery is a business and has to make a reasonable profit; I respect that.

Since I wrote that chapter in Pearls from Sand describing how successfully many of my negotiations have gone, I've continued to politely try to get better prices on a variety of goods and services. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. No one has ever seemed offended because I asked, and I have indeed saved quite a lot of money. Sometimes all you have to do is ask to get a better deal.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Personal Pearl: Criticism hurts, but it can be a powerful motivation for change.

What kind of criticism upsets you the most? Being aware of the types of comments that hurt you the most can help you make positive changes in your behavior. I still remember how much it bothered me when a teacher said that a paper I wrote or an exam I took was “not up to my usual standards.” That teacher had an expectation of my performance. Knowing that I had fallen below that expectation made me want to do a better job the next time. “Not up to your usual standards” is a small and fairly gentle phrase, but it always got my attention.

Another criticism that really bothered me was being told that something I’ve done is “unprofessional.” I strive to be professional in all of my business interactions. To me, acting in a professional manner implies following a particular code of ethics, always trying to do a first-class job, collaborating with others and sharing the credit, continually improving my knowledge and skills, and so forth. Suggesting that I did not behave in a professional manner indicated that I dropped the ball in one of these categories. It embarrassed me and made me redouble my efforts to avoid being labeled “unprofessional” in the future.

Identifying your hot-button criticisms provides a kind of internal aversion therapy. Whenever someone accuses me of behaving in a fashion that I agree is undesirable, I immediately take action to head in the opposite direction. When I was a mere lad, a friend once chastised me by saying, “Don’t be so wishy-washy.” More than forty-five years later, I still try to be decisive and to stick to my convictions. No one has called me “wishy-washy” in a long time.

My wife learned early on that telling me, “Now you’re starting to sound like your father” is a highly effective way to induce me to alter my behavior. Not that my father was a bad guy, but that phrase generally means that I’m telling the same not-that-funny-the-first-time joke for the umpteenth time or otherwise reflecting one of his less attractive behaviors. As I get older, sometimes I’ll make a particular comment, or even just adopt some facial expression, and realize I’ve turned into my father. I try to not let that happen again.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, or a manager, it’s helpful to know what kind of comments most effectively influence the people you lead. I once supervised an individual who didn’t respond much to any constructive criticism, performance evaluation, or coaching suggestion. Roxanne was talented and capable, but her productivity needed significant improvement to meet expectations. My own manager and I tried a variety of strategies, to little avail. Roxanne would agree with our assessments of her performance, but these “attitude adjustment” sessions, as she termed them, had little impact. It seemed that Roxanne had no “handle” for us to grab to steer her in the desired direction, as neither any comments my manager and I made nor any actions we took seemed to motivate her to modify her behavior. Perhaps we just hadn’t identified the precise comments that would push the right buttons. Ultimately, Roxanne left the company, which was best for all concerned.

Think about the comments or criticisms you don’t want to hear from others; the ones that embarrass you the most or make you feel as though you have let yourself or others down. Then reflect on your typical patterns of behavior to see if any of them invite those very criticisms. If they do, consider how you can change your behavior to avoid hearing such comments again.