On a recent road trip. Lucas and I listened to an episode of This American Life called “Good Guys.” In it, producer Ben Calhoun recalls a story of how his friend Sanari saved a lot of money by asking stores for a good guy discount, that is to say, a discount for just being a “good guy.” Sanari found a pair of shoes that he really liked, but that were too expensive. He agonized over the decision, but after hours he decided to buy them. When he went up to the counter, Sanari remembered a negotiation technique that a Columbia professor had told him called the “good guy discount.” The basic principle was to say “I’m a good guy, and you’re a good guy... is there some kind of a good guy discount?” Sanari used it, and ended up get 25% off. With such good results, Sanari tried the good guy discount for nearly every large purchase.
Ben pitched a story to This American Life based around this principle. As part of it, he was forced to go out and try the technique. This caused a lot of anxiety in Ben. He felt that the concept was cheesy. In Ben’s mind, he was saying “Hey, did you know I’m a good guy? And as a good guy, I’m going to do a crappy thing by asking you for a discount.” Ben’s issues with the technique were very evident when he actually tried it in stores. Not only was he not very successful, but he appeared to be pushed into using it (which he was).
Ben’s experience made me think back to my own experience as a retail clerk. I had the power to give someone 10% their purchase easily. It would not have put my job on the line and was as simple as the push of a button on the computer screen. Despite the ease, I very rarely gave anyone a deal. It is only now that I realized why: the other party was a poor negotiator. For me to give someone a discount, I have to get something out of the deal, too. A lot of people forget that. A common technique was to say “Can I get a discount?” while being rung out. I found these people to be very rude for several reasons. First, I had never talked to them before and often there was a long line of people behind them who were listening to the conversation. If I gave them a discount, the 5 people behind them would want one, too. Second, I was put on the spot, and I would not get any personal satisfaction for helping them. It actually would have made me feel like a pushover if I gave someone a discount when asked in that manner. Finally, I knew that even if I didn’t give them the discount, they were probably still going to purchase the item in question. They were already at the register with a credit card in hand. Saying no did not carry any risk losing a sale.
The only discounts I ever gave were decided on before the register. Most of them went like this: A customer was looking at a high priced item for a very long time. They’d been in the store for over an hour, staring at the same thing. I went over and chatted with them. We shared a bit about our lives or how our days were going. Finally they’d say something like “I really want this but my husband will kill me if I spend this much. Is there anything you can do?” That’s usually when I’d say “I’ll tell you what. I can see how much you want this. How about 10% off.” That was enough to make the sale. They got a discount and I got the satisfaction of helping out a nice person. This interaction was very different from the customer who asked for a discount at the register. There was a genuine risk of not making the sale without the discount and most importantly, the other party treated me like a person. A lot of people treat retail workers very badly, forgetting that they’re people. Having a customer take an interest in who I was as a person made me far more likely to help.
I think these experiences illuminate more about the “Good Guy Discount” than Ben’s efforts to receive one. The “good guy” discount is not about someone saying “Hey I’m so great. You know what would also be great? Paying less for these jeans.” It’s more about making a connection and then saying “Look, I’m not trying to take advantage of you, but this discount would really help me out.” If a person makes a genuine effort to converse with the retail worker and makes it easy to say yes, there’s a much better chance of a positive outcome. That was Ben’s mistake. He focused too much on what was wrong the pitch, and not why the pitch might actually work. He entered into each negotiation with dread, assuming defeat before he even walked into the store. This, paired with a lackluster recital of a forced line, gave him very bad results. As Ira Glass told him, he was uncommitted and uncomfortable.
So what secrets does the Good Guy Discount hold for business to business negotiations? This phenomenon illustrates that negotiations are not simply about getting what one wants. Negotiations are about human connections. A person is more likely to give something if they feel respected and understood. However, if a person feel used or unappreciated, a negotiation can derail quickly. Always remember that the person sitting across the table is a person first and a negotiator second.