When Less is More: Leave Room for Creativity When You Negotiate

When I landed at Orange County Airport I needed to pick up a rental car for the week I would be spending in California. I had reserved a full size car because I was going to be driving from Costa Mesa to San Francisco—a distance of over 400 miles—and I wanted to be comfortable.

After my 5-hour flight I went to the garage, found my name on the rental company’s board and went to my space. And discovered a tiny sedan. Not spacious, quiet, comfortable; more like tinny, cramped and sparse. It was definitely not what I expected.

When their offer is not what you had in mind.

So I took the keys and walked to the customer service counter, waited in line for several minutes and was called to the front to talk to the representative. “I reserved a full size car, but when I went to my space there was a very small car in it,” I said, handing over the keys.

“Let’s see what kind of car you reserved. What’s your confirmation number?” the very friendly clerk asked me. I told her and she confirmed that I had in fact reserved a full size car. “Sir, we classify that vehicle as full size here in Southern California.” She slid the keys back across the counter.

Well, that wasn’t going to work for me. “I understand, but I don’t consider that a full size car. I need you to do better,” I said politely as I gently slid the keys back in her direction. Then I waited with a smile on face.

Keep it friendly.

She smiled back and started typing furiously, frowning. Then more typing ensued. And some more. She muttered a bit, too as she moved her fingers across her computer screen, “Mm, that’s the same car, no that’s even smaller.” Finally she paused, looked at me—still cheerfully waiting, not suggesting anything.

A look of resolution came over her face as she slid the keys back across the counter. “Sir,” she said, “the car we put into your spot is a full size car at this location. It’s the best I can do.” She was a bit more firm than before.

Without a pause I lightly moved the keys back in her direction. “I understand that you have a policy here, and I appreciate that. I have a long drive ahead of me, and I’d really appreciate it if you could find me something else. Do you think you could take one more look for me? Please?”

Stay with the tension.

I admit, things were a little tense. I suppose that she was used to people just giving up by now. But I believe that by remaining very positive and friendly, and also persistent, we can often get more of what we need in a negotiation. And the secret is to leave room for creativity on the part of the other party by keeping your requests less specific in some cases.

Be vague on purpose.

For example, I could have insisted on a particular make and model of car that I determined to be full size—maybe the same one I rented last time. Or I could have pointed to the chart they always have on the counter and declared the biggest vehicle there to be the only acceptable option. But instead, by simply expressing that I wanted a better vehicle, I moved us toward creativity. I was open to multiple solutions. The clerk wasn’t painted into a corner; it wasn’t comfortable for her, but it wasn’t escalating into a shouting match either. (And we’ve all seen those at car rental counters, haven’t we?)

Share some relevant information.

Another important point is that while I was persistent, I was also very pleasant. I explained that I was going leave on Friday afternoon and would hit heavy traffic in Los Angeles, then would be driving up the coast—and really hoped to enjoy the beautiful scenery in comfort.

Let the other party figure out a solution.

So, my car rental clerk and I had a few moments of tension, and we just looked at each other across that counter, but then suddenly her eyes lit up, she grabbed the keys and disappeared into the back.

She reappeared about 5 minutes later, smiling. “I think you’re going to be very happy, sir!” she said. “Will it be all right if the car only has two doors?” I said that would be fine—I was traveling alone.

“Then here are your keys, sir. This is an upgrade, but the charge will be the same as for the car you originally reserved. You’ll fine the car in space number 341.” Then with an even bigger smile she said, “Enjoy your trip!” I thanked her and took my new keys out to the garage, looking for space 341. It was a bit of a walk, but as I turned the corner and saw my space—there was a beautiful Jaguar convertible parked in it!

Enjoy the ride!

Needless to say, it was an amazing trip. Traffic jams didn’t bother me. I got sunburn (which also didn’t bother me in the least!) from driving up Pacific Coast Highway all the way from Malibu to Monterey with the top down. And I still rent from that company years later.

Just think of what I might have missed out on if I hadn’t left room for a more creative negotiation by saying less, not more.

How can you be more creative in your negotiations by saying less?

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Bradley Humbles

Bradley has been studying negotiation, successfully using negotiation skills, and facilitating negotiation workshops for more than 20 years. As a small business owner, Bradley understands what it takes to succeed in a competitive marketplace.

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