Effective negotiation strategies: does nice actually work?

Posted by on November 4, 2009 in Negotiations

Have you ever negotiated with anyone- spouse, boss, landlord, vendor- and hit a roadblock and simply thought or said “but I am such a nice person, why can’t they agree with me?” The “nice card” is played all the time in negotiations by both sides. Think of purchasing a home when the vendor says they are nice people and wants to sell to nice people too. Meanwhile, the purchaser are also nice people who simply can’t afford the list price so, Mr. and Ms. Vendor, can you do better on the price since we are such nice people? Somehow nice on nice really doesn’t budge the price much does it?

Is nice simply an over-rated negotiating tactic?

Certainly, not being nice has the opposite effect. People tend to give the other side less ground and no one really wants to deal with unpleasant people. Perhaps Jim Balsillie’s Quixotesque pursuit to buy a hockey team or Rush Limbaugh’s attempt to buy a football club would gain more traction if one wasn’t calling out the current owners or had a reputation of belligerence respectively (perhaps Balsillie’s attempt to buy into a poorly run sports league is the true sign its time to sell RIM?).

But, from personal experience, the nice card in negotiations tends to decline in proportion from the distance to the ultimate decision maker. Lawyers are often nice to one another in order to seek small indulgences such as granting adjournments with consent, ceding small negotiating points and even going so far as to point out errors in the document. But, at the end of the day, its the client who will make the call on the really fundamental and large decisions and no amount of niceness between the lawyers will change a client’s mind (no matter how unreasonable the position).

Similarly, personal experience and observation tends to show when negotiating rent, a landlord is willing to compromise on lower rent or other concessions if they are sourcing out their own tenants and they perceive them as nice; I recently was listed as a reference for a friend renting an apartment for his family. The landlord gave it to my friend before I returned his reference check call because he found him to be nice.   Correspondingly, as Four Pillars pointed out, tenants of rental properties are more likely to stay if the landlord is nice too. But, as anyone who has rented from or worked at a large real estate management company knows, niceness generally does not change “policy” and “we are sorry sir, our policy is not to rent under list price.”

…and that’s  the crux of playing the nice card- policy. People who are not the ultimate decision makers get fired for breaking policy and, quite frankly, the employee likes her job better than your sunny disposition. The owner-manager can’t fire himself for selling you that used piece of furniture for cheaper than its desired profit margin. So they will give up a few dollars profit to make themselves feel good for doing something nice.

This is not to suggest that the nice card cannot be effective. It is not a question of if the nice card works but when to use it. Being nice to the customer service rep will usually get you nowhere. Being nice to the manager with over-ride clearance may get you somewhere. Being nice, but firm, to the Senior Vice-President will typically get you some movement. The closer to the decision maker, the more effective the nice card (plus if you are working your way up the chain, you are doing something right anyways so an additional dose of honey never hurts).

It becomes a matter of strategic timing on when to use the nice card. Simply playing it early and often to people who have no real decision making powers is tantamount to going all in at the first round of poker. Most of the time, you end up with very little or nothing in return.

5 Comments on Effective negotiation strategies: does nice actually work?

By Dillon on November 4, 2009 at 1:14 pm

“Simply playing it early and often to people who have no real decision making powers is tantamount to going all in at the first round of poker. Most of the time, you end up with very little or nothing in return.”

I don’t think that is a very good analogy. In most cases, there is not cost associated with treating other people nicely, whether or not those people are in a position to benefit you.

By Mr. Cheap on November 4, 2009 at 1:16 pm

Interesting post (and thanks for the link). I agree that being nice is NOT an automatic way to win concessions, but I’ve found being unpleasant (as you mention) a good way add obstacles. I’ve worked at tech support (low level employee far away from the decision makers) and people who called and were rude to me DEFINITELY got a lower level of service than people who were reasonable and polite.

Even your example of “we are sorry sir, our policy is not to rent under list price.” seems fairly nice to me. They could have said “if you can’t afford our rent then sod off you wanker!”

By Caitlin on November 4, 2009 at 5:41 pm

It becomes a matter of strategic timing on when to use the nice card.

Even in your own examples and analogy, it seems the most appropriate answer is “always play the nice card”. As Dillon said, it doesn’t cost you anything to be nice to people.
Being nice to the lowest tier of customer service will often net you other benefits. If you are rude to the guy who answers the phone, the manager you are counting on to give you a discount may not do it simply because you were a jerk to one of “his people” even if you are sugary sweet to him personally.

By Nurseb911 on November 5, 2009 at 12:24 am

In my business I take the ‘direct’ approach. Nice is great if you’re meeting someone to catch up or with someone you know, but far too often the direct approach (assuming you’re not rude or confrontational) quickens up the process because the other party knows exactly where you stand. I’m not one for holding extra cards and playing games because honestly I don’t have the time. Time to me is too valuable and if someone I’m negotiating with (real estate, business, etc) doesn’t want to conduct business with my first and best offer then I won’t waste my time dickering around….I’ll go find someone else who wants my services or business :)

By Overused Negotiation Strategiesh on July 13, 2010 at 5:49 am

[...] evading inappropriate questions, motivation to do the deal, being stubborn, being nice (and another excellent post on the topic by Thicken My Wallet), incentive, meaningless promises, and negotiations within [...]

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