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What Does Saretta Berlin Actually Know About Negotiating?

download_assetAt 83-years-old my mother, Saretta Berlin, remains, to this day, one of the toughest negotiators around. In fact, she’s responsible for my very first lesson in negotiations – http://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/negotiation.html. How did she do it? Well, she did so in an interesting way, and to get the most out of the lesson I’ll have to tell a story.

Two unbendadble rules

You would think that my first exposure to negotiating would be related to something in either my schooling or first job. Though I did learn valuable negotiating skills in those two chapters of my life, this particular lesson took place during one of our frequent family trips. That’s right, you can actually learn something on vacation.

During one trip, I can vividly remember her telling my siblings and I about her two unbendable rules of traveling. Keep in mind, my mother has many other rules for seemingly every topic imaginable, but for the purposes of this blog, we’ll just focus on her traveling rules. Anyway, the first rule was you must never sit on a hotel bedspread, as she believed that it was only washed by the staff once a year. Valuable in its own right, I’ll leave rule one’s credence up to you, it doesn’t really teach us anything about negotiating, which brings me to our more important unbendable rule, you must never accept the first hotel room that you’re offered.

Of course, as children, these rules embarrassed us; especially when she’d make a scene and let the staff know our hotel room wasn’t suitable. In other words, my Mother practiced what she preached. But on this particular trip she outdid herself, leaving my siblings and I in awe.

The San Diego incident

This incident took place during a special trip in California in 1977. With the whole family in tow, including my mom, dad, and us four teenage siblings, we had made it to the tail-end of a mini road trip. The vacation had started in San Francisco and was meant to end in San Diego. Driving down the beautiful California coast, we stopped at all of the fun places on the way, including Carmel, San Luis Obispo, Ojai, Beverly Hills, and eventually, San Diego.

Once we arrived in San Diego, tired, yet still full of excitement, we went to La Costa, where we had reservations. Remember, this was years ago, and La Costa was the bomb – known for its elegance, timelessness, and notable for being one of the first spas in the country. None of us had ever been to a spa before, and from what I could see, La Costa was quite exquisite.

We ended up arriving close to midnight and were taken to our room (along with our twenty pieces of luggage) by a golf cart, something which my siblings and I found amusing. It was a condo, not a hotel room, and to be frank, it was absolutely atrocious. I’ve never been too picky, but it appeared as if the cleaning staff never even bothered to prepare it for us. Not only were there dirty dishes in the sink, but ugly, mis-matched furniture littered the room. And the smell, oh boy the smell; It was enough to make us all gag. It was DEFINITELY not a place to end the last leg of our trip.

To put it mildly, my mother was furious. In addition to the disappointing condo, her being tired and hungry only made matters worse! We ended up calling for the golf cart again, where we and our twenty pieces of luggage were carted back to the front desk. The story gets a little hazy here, but what happened next is what Berlin family legends are made of.

Let the negotiations begin

At the front desk, there was only one person on duty, a poor woman who was nine months pregnant. To make things more dramatic, this was her last day before going on maternity leave. Given her situation, you kind of hoped she would say, “Let me take care of this, Mrs. Berlin. We’ll get you in our presidential suite in no time.” But this wouldn’t be much of a lesson if she had done that. Unknowingly face-to-face with one of the greatest negotiators on the West Coast, the woman told my mother that our horrible room was the only accommodation available in La Costa. This, as you probably guessed it, was the worst possible thing she could’ve said.

After explaining this unfortunate news to my family, she offered us the option of staying in one of their smaller rooms, which were off limits to guests due to redecorating, until they could figure out a better way to help us the next day. My mother replied with an empathetic, “NO!” resulting in the poor lady having to scramble for another option. The best she could come up with was for us to be driven to their nearby sister hotel, where they had rooms available just for the night. After receiving another loud, “NO!” the pregnant woman at the desk looked like she was going to either cry or give birth, or perhaps both.

Take note of this, as it’s a valuable negotiating skill, My mother, despite such unprofessionalism, somehow managed to not completely explode. And to be fair, she did throw in a few, “I know it’s not your fault, Honey, but do you think you could!?” She kept her cool long enough to state that we weren’t going anywhere, even if it meant sleeping in the lobby.

As you can imagine, my siblings and I were completely mortified over the whole situation, namely our mother’s behavior. Even my father, who was usually the voice of reason whenever my mother “negotiated,” was begging her to stop! Finally, the front desk lady, with a look of resignation on her face, said that, since it was her last day and she had no plans of coming back, she was going to do something for us that she’d normally need approval for; given that it was one in the morning. Then, seemingly without hesitation, she handed my mother the keys to the most luxurious accommodation in all of La Costa: Executive House F. The house was 3,000 square feet of pure luxury. I’m talking marble floors, crystal door knobs, lush bedding, its very own pool, six bedrooms, and so on and so on. It was literally the most beautiful house I’ve ever seen.

Lessons learned

So, what were the actual lessons that I learned on this trip? The first lesson is: “No” only means there’s a better “Yes” out there. The second lesson? Patience and time are your best negotiating tools.

Since then, I’ve managed to take both of these lessons a step further. Whenever a new employee starts working with me, I make sure to immediately explain to them the “Rules of Saretta.” And then I challenge them, whenever they were traveling next, to request an upgrade and see what happens.

One employee even experimented between “requesting” and “demanding,” both of which lead to different results. Another was traveling with his family and had the confidence to tell everyone in his party not to unpack when they were shown the first room, as they would soon be moving to a nicer and larger one. Guess what? He was right. In another example, one of my employees once told a front desk attendant that he wasn’t going to accept the first room and that they should just cut to the chase and give him a better room. He didn’t plan on being this direct, but was spurred on by being extremely tired and grumpy.

Finally, another employee hit the proverbial jackpot when he managed to get upgraded to a Presidential Suite in Las Vegas.The room was unbelievable (trust me, I’ve seen the pictures). Coincidentally, he managed to get a staff member who was on their last night, just as my mother had done all those years ago in California.

What do you have to lose?

To sum it all up, what does asking for a nicer room at a hotel have to do with negotiating? The main takeaway is to think of it as harmless practice if you’re new to negotiating, or just want to sharpen your skills. Let me put it this way, it’s much less risky to try this first on a hotel than it would be to try it first on an important merger (perhaps these people could’ve used this advice, Top 10 Negotiation Failures of 2013 – http://www.pon.harvard.edu/daily/negotiation-skills-daily/top-10-negotiation-failures-of-2013/ ). You get to practice in an environment in which there are little consequences if you don’t succeed. Best of all, you get to develop your skills through face-to-face interactions, something which is absolutely vital for accentuating negotiating skills. Trust me, if you’re just starting out in business or are a recent graduate, this will be a goldmine of experience that will help you progress at a faster pace.

Thanks for listening as always,

Toby

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