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Scripts: What to Do When Big Bad
Companies Won’t Negotiate
Carrie Menkel-Meadow & Robert Dingwall
Editors’ Note: The authors started with a “natural experiment”, involving a canceled flight and the resulting competition for the last seat on the last remaining plane out: in the real world, which negotiator gets that seat? Years of further study have combined with years of further sad experience, in which the authors increasingly found themselves grappling with customer service agents with routinized training and scripts for how to deal with dissatisfied customers, in one industry after another. Here, they survey the state of play across a wide range of environments which have now adopted such playbooks—and provide suggestions for how you can play in turn, with ingenious and effective responses.
In our contribution to the original Negotiator’s Fieldbook, “The Last Plane Out” (Dingwall and Menkel-Meadow 2006: 687) we recounted our experiences with missed and delayed flights and negotiations with major airlines for refunds, alternative flights and compensatory hotel stays and meals. These clearly involved corporate “playbooks” for negotiating with disgruntled customers. As scholars of negotiation behavior we wanted to explore what those who are supposed to know all the “moves and turns” of negotiation (Kolb and Williams 2003) can do when confronted by front line agents of big companies who are clearly working to a predetermined script for routinized, repeat play (both repeat issue and repeat customer) negotiations. “Rational” negotiation theory (Bazerman and Neale 1992) confronted the more instrumental rote negotiation actions developed by very powerful companies who negotiate (or not!) every day in similar interactions.
Surprisingly, as readers of that chapter might recall, we documented how different appeals and different demographics and cultures of the negotiators actually produced different results (see also Ayres 1991; Ayres 1995 for empirical findings on race and gender differences in car buying negotiations) in what was almost a natural, if small, experiment. Facing a closed airport and no remaining flights, one of us (a calm male British traveler who had already traveled almost 24 hours) was able to negotiate a hotel room, replacement flight and meal credit. The other (a more emotional female American frequent traveler) achieved less, until her very frequent traveler husband intervened and ultimately climbed “the negotiation chain of command,” (Statsky 1974)—getting redress from the separate, off-site, frequent traveler agents and supervisors. A third traveler, a very distressed French woman, was quietly ushered away so her emotional display could be contained from others. Efforts by one of the authors to convert this into an organized aggregate (class action?) dispute by focusing on the numbers of travelers with similar problems failed. The powerful airline was able in this situation (as in most others) to keep the disputes and negotiations both individualized and more or less confidential, until the authors were able to compare outcomes and negotiation tactics, strategies and demographics with other travelers stranded on their way to the same academic conference.
This study of “routinized” negotiations is now over ten years old. With the increase in faceless consumer and other disputes in the mass communications of the Internet, as well as rote scripts in telephonic customer service negotiations, we thought it worthwhile to revisit the issues of negotiating with big companies. As companies like Amazon, now the largest retailer in the US, have moved from personal customer service to almost exclusively electronic based customer service (Daisey 2002) [See also NDR: Rabinovich-Einy & Katsh, ODR], must we reframe our basic negotiation conceptions and behaviors? Even beyond the new etiquette of email negotiations, which still includes both synchronous and asynchronous actual communication (Ebner et. al. 2009) [NDR: Ebner, Email], new forms of negotiation are often limited by unresponsive, pre-scripted responses and limited outcomes. How can one possibly “get to yes,” by offering “creative options” to “solve problems” (Menkel-....
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