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March 18, 2006

The Art of Sucking Down

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A friend who worked at O'Hare International Airport told me this story. He once watched a passenger absolutely scream at an airline ticket agent. The ticket agent, however, remained completely calm. After the tirade was over, my friend asked her how she could remain so calm, and she said, “That's easy. He's going to Paris, but his bags are going to Sydney.”

One of the great misconceptions of selling, pitching, and partnering--basically, any time you want to get someone to do something for you--is that you should suck up to the people with the big titles and “A list” designation. Sometimes you do--as you've already read in this blog, but the ability to suck up to the folks who don't have big titles but make the world run is more useful.

1. Understand the dynamic. Like it or not, here's how the world works: if you want something, you should be nice to the person (let's call him “Biff”) who can grant you that something. It doesn't matter whether you are more powerful, more famous, richer, better looking, or better educated. Biff has the power, so deal with it. Returning to the ticket agent episode, it makes no sense to piss off the one person who can help you. In this sense, there is no such thing as “sucking down.” You're always sucking up when you want something.

2. Understand their needs. You should try being a ticket agent, flight attendant, secretary, receptionist, waiter, or customer service rep for a day. Then you'd learn that they're not getting paid a lot of money to put up with your crap, and they're dealing with their own sets of issues: perhaps a broken-down car, an unhappy spouse, a sick child at home, and maybe even a bozo boss. These people want to do a good job, make a living, and be happy, just as you do. The key word here is empathy. If you can empathize with them, you'll be much more successful dealing with them.

3. Be important. If you want to be treated as an important customer then be an important customer. That is, fly the same airline, eat at the same restaurant, and play hockey at the same rink. If you spread your business around, then don't be surprised if you get jacked around. I only eat at three restaurants in all of Silicon Valley: Gombei, Juban, and Buck's. I can get in anytime I want at these three restaurants--but only these three restaurants. I fly on United seventy five to 100 times a year. It takes great care of me. I fly Air Canada once a year. It puts me in a coach-class, center seat between two screaming babies. That's life.

4. Make them smile. A window occurs in the first thirty seconds of your interaction with Biff. In that brief time, if you can make him smile, you will differentiate yourself from 95% of the orifices that he deals with. Then you're much more likely to get an aisle seat, an appointment with the boss, an outside table, or step-by-step instructions to make Word print.

Simply beginning a conversation with, “How is your day going?” can break the ice. You know, and he knows, that you don't really care how his day is going, but at least you're civil enough to ask. That separates you from the pack of hyenas. Here are some opening lines that have worked for me. (Please provide more as comments because you can never have too many good ice breakers.)

• Restaurant maître'd: “Do you have reservations?” You answer: “I have no reservations whatsoever. I am absolutely certain that I want to eat here.”
• Airline ticket agent: “How can I help you?” You answer: “You could give me an upgrade to first class and ensure that my bag is the first one off the conveyor when I get there, but I'd be happy if you get me an aisle seat.”
• Secretary: “Will she know what you're calling about?” You answer: “Not unless she's clairvoyant and a masochist. But can I try to explain why you should grant me an audience with her?”

5. Don't try to buy your way in. Don't try to buy a person with flowers, candy, or an iTunes gift card. Realistically, the downside risk far exceeds the upside because you're likely to insult Biff by implying that he can be bought. Just be honest, be important, and have a legitimate rationale. That's a good enough case.

6. But do express your gratitude on the way out. I don't recommend trying to buy your way in, but once you are in, then it's appropriate to express your gratitude with gifts that are kind, but not extravagant. As my mother used to say, “Be nice to people on the way up because you're going to see them again on the way down.” You never know when you'll need help from Biff again.

7. Never complain. Let's say that you don't get what you want. Should you go over Biff's head and complain? This is seldom effective. Assuming that Biff is competent, he's not going to get fired because of your whining. Historically, pee is seldom more effective than honey. Persevere, and wear down Biff's defenses with humor, dedication, and empathy, but never go over his head.

8. Rack up the karmic points. I believe that there's a karmic scoreboard in the sky. It keeps track of how many points you've earned and how many you've used. Therefore, when you have the opportunity to help others, do so--and do so with glee. You'll build up points, and someday your kindness will be returned to you. However, understand that you need to accrue these points before you need them--you cannot go negative.

9. Accept what cannot be changed. Sometimes things are just not meant to be: there are no more aisle seats, all the outside tables are taken, and the boss doesn't want to talk to any sales reps. If that's the case, shut up, and go on with life. Don't flatter yourself and believe that the airline is out to get you by assigning all the aisle seats to others. Life is too short to get upset by things like this.

I wholeheartedly recommend that you try these practices because I always seem to get an aisle seat, almost always get upgraded, and my luggage never gets sent to Australia. And getting to the same destination as your bags in a lousy seat is a helluva lot better than getting to a different destination than your bags in a lousy seat--all because you pissed Biff off.

Written at: United Airlines flight #559, Chicago to San Jose, upgraded to first class on less than twenty-four hours notice.

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Comments

Whenever I'm asked “Can I help you?” my response is "Yes, I can be helped!" Puts a smile on their face or generates a laugh as the person asking knows that I have deep empathy...

Great article - should be posted every year as a resolution to be nice to all mankind, especially at airports.

Hi Guy,

Been a long time fan of yours from the early days of Mac when you were promoting the Mac. Here is a story that you should definitely read, as it relates well to your story of "The The Art of Sucking Down" and is an ongoing personal experience of mine.

United Air Lines has extorted nearly $3000 from my parents at a time when they were most helpless and I am fighting back to recover that money. Please check out my blog and add your comments as your help counts in my fight agains this injustice by United Air Lines.

http://evilunitedairlines.blogspot.com/

I'm always amazed at people who yell at the waiter or waitress in a restaurant. Why, on Earth, would you EVER yell at someone who controls the amount of spit that will be delivered in your soup de jour?

I mistakenly got in here but i was very pleased i did. I read your post and I laughed, I later thought that if I was the one going to Paris and by bags were going to Sydney. I definitely won't be happy Not to excuse the customer but two wrongs don't make a right. It is good to be nice to people even if you don't have anything to gain. Put a smile on your face, Greet people when you come into an office, Talk softly and nicely-majorly just make people feel good about themselves.

On the rare occasion that my web host has server or email problems, instead of joining the hundreds of "when is this going to be fixed" messages to Tech Support, I send a "I know things happen, hang in there, I'm patient" message. My real requests for support later are handled immediately.

Hello ! This is very [url=http://www.google.com/bb497]good[/url] site !!

One of the first lessons I was told by a mentor was, "Always give receptionists and secretary's your time and be polite". And the reason - they know more people and talk to more people in a company than anyone else. Don't underestimate the power of those chats around the water machine.

Of course, we should all treat everyone with respect regardless of what it says on their business card.

I've done my time (4 years) in a customer service role, and I've got a small comment on point 4.

It's not that you shouldn't try to make people laugh (far from it), but avoid the canned lines.

If you (as a customer) have heard a line somewhere else then you can guarantee that you're not the first person to use it.

If you can't think of something funny to say, just be nice. It works wonders.

I agree almost completely - but 7) Never complain. Are you kidding?

Don't whine, don't be arrogant but if you don't get what you want, assuming it is a reasonable then you must go over Bifff's head. Not to pull rank but rather to get things to happen, and if you do it right (applying the tactics you outline), it is most definitely effective.

Moreover, if you hope to expect good customer service - then just as you should go over Biff's head in praising exceptional service, you also have on behalf of all customers a moral obligation to complain.

I once went to a Bennigan's restaraunt and ordered a Caesar salad. When the waiter brought it out, I took a bite and it had way too much Caesar dressing to even taste the salad. I called the waiter over and he said he would take care of it right away. The waiter came back and brought me a bowl of salad with the Caesar on the side, a brilliant solution for both of us.
After dinner was completed, I asked our waiter that I may speak to his manager. The waiter looked disturbed by this, but nonetheless brought him over. I told the manager: "Our waiter was fantastic. He went out of his way to assist us and came up with this brilliant solution for my salad."
The manager looked at me and said: "Thank you very much. That has been the first time in a long time that someone has called me over to a table to say something positive about our staff."
Every time after this, when the manager was on duty or the waiter, I was magically moved up on the waiting lists.

I went back and re-read this today and realize that it dovetails nicely in your post about being a mensch.

Yeah, you can call it "sucking up or sucking down", but it all points to one thing - being a top notch person.

1. I love it when orifices like Mr. Wingo are in front of me in line. When my turn comes, the person working is very ready for a friendly face. I make sure it's mine.

2. When there are multiple choices to be made, I try to pick the one that is most important to me and ask the service person to make their life easy on all the rest of the choices. I'm never demanding on the one that matters but it is the only one on which I will express a my choice.

3. The person behind the desk probably knows the system very well. They are the most qualified at helping you work around or through the system to your advantage. Your job is to motivate the person behind the counter to want to help you. That is the fact of life. Not liking that fact won't change it. The point that Mr. Wingo misses is this. The person behind the counter always has options in how they accomplish their assigned tasks.

Aloha

sorry, my last post mistakenly said it was directed at csven -- CORRECTION: it was directed at william wingo.

This comment is for csven, who wrote "Who says you should have to "suck down" or for that matter "suck up" to get anyone do do
what you desire, want or should be entitled to as a customer or a self respecting person?
The ticket agent who would send you to Paris and your luggage to Australia should be FIRED!"

You, sir, are a complete and unmitigated ass. Yes, you may be 100% correct -- that ticket agent IS irresponsible and vindictive and should be fired. But you're in Paris and your bags are in Australia. There's a way of the world and I can tell you haven't learned it yet. Good luck, because life will continue to be be quite bumpy if you continue with your high and mighty attitude.

Guy is spot on with this exhortation. I like to think of what he discussed in terms of three Cs of Communication:

Concern - One has to have genuine concern for the person as an idividual with a life and issues at least equal to if not greater than one's own. Anything less is a fraud, and ultimately is different only in degree from the frauds perpetrated by the Ebbers, Kozlowskis, and Skillings of the world

Connection - One has to make an effective connection with the person if there is to be any chance of the best possible things to happen. An effective connection generally has little or nothing to do with the particular problem one is having or special favor that one is seeking.

Consideration - One must be aware of and respond positively to effort exerted by the person on one's behalf, even if the result is what should have occurred anyway. This is not a ideal world and it does not yield ideal outcomes. Only the grace of individuals overcomes this.


Would you prefer for your tombstone to say: "He/She was always angling for a special deal" or "He/She cared about me" ?

Having worked customer service for over 25 yrs and now in semi-retirement, I can tell you that when dealing with rude people I find that a calm voice will almost always have things go my way. What good does it do you to argue with a customer service person?

My wife knows things are going to be handled in the way I want when I start to use what she calls my quiet voice. You should never have to raise your voice to anyone in a customer service position. Be calm, ask nicely, and you will be amazed at what can happen.

My last bad customer service experience, the poor woman on the phone was almost begging to give me what I wanted at the end because I was calm, I was able to verbalize what the result of our conversation should be, and above all I was nice.

So basically, to get good customer service, be nice. And if you get bad customer service even after being nice, then write a letter to the company explaining your issue.

And always, always, always be nice to gatekeepers. At Southwest Airlines pilots would not be hired even if fully qualified and excellent on paper because they were rude to the front-desk receptionist.

While an officer in the U.S. Navy, I learned these (generalized) lessons as, I assume, so did many other ensigns. When you live in the place you work, and the lowest seaman on the totem pole knows how to shut off the commanding officer's hot water heater (which, btw, was my responsibility for a time), you learn a few things real fast.

"One of the great misconceptions of selling, pitching, and partnering--basically, any time you want to get someone to do something for you--is that you should suck up to the people with the big titles and “A list” designation. Sometimes you do--as you've already read in this blog, but the ability to suck up to the folks who don't have big titles but make the world run is more useful. "

The above is quoted by Guy Kawaski
as the way to get what you want from the common working stiffs or average joe, the non big title people of the world.
What a WIMP!
Who says you should have to "suck down" or for that matter "suck up" to get anyone do do
what you desire, want or should be entitled to as a customer or a self respecting person?
The ticket agent who would send you to Paris and your luggage to Australia should be FIRED!
First, of all without having any idea why the customer was so upset, just dealing with anyone who has this agents mentality is dealing with a person who is "damaged goods" and that type of person should not be dealing with the public.
Guy you are a great tech guy, but to suck up, suck down, kiss-up or make up for what should be a professional and expected level of service is what makes life HARD for those of us who don't mind paying for good service and expect the best, without GUY"S like you sucking down to get it.
Wake up America, just like there are plenty of customers who are arrogant unpleasant and abusive and they should be dealt with openly by management or for that matter by you / Guy and not have their bad behavior reinforced by the "non-big titles" of the world who do things just as abusive if they don't feel someone isn't suckin down or suckin up.
Finally, sucking up / sucking down should not be the way of getting what you want from life. Who wants to be a sucker for anything or anybody!
To hell with bowing and scraping, bucking and jiving,
laughing when it ain't funny and scracthing when you don't itch! Demand what you are entitled to or let them kiss your grits!

Nice post.

Btw, our parents must have gone to the same school. I also grew up hearing "be nice; the people you meet on the way up are the same people you meet on the way down".

It had such a huge impact on me that we adopted it as the #1 value in our company. (value #2 is 'be scrappy; this is our opportunity to change the world. every second counts' and value #3 is 'be creative; create a user experience you wish existed, but doesn't').

anyway, keep sharing these wonderful nuggets.

"Empathy" is a great thing. Next time you're standing in line at Newark Airport (or wherever) at 5pm on a Friday with huge thunderstorms, try saying something like this when it's your turn to talk to the person behind the counter:

"I think it's a miracle y'all keep doing this on days like today! I know I'm probably too late ... is there any chance you can get me on a flight to Where-ever sometime this evening?"

When I say this kind of thing the point of it is to remind MYSELF that it's a miracle they keep doing it, and the consequences to me if they decide not to do it well for me.

Take it from a Calgarian who flies Air Canada all the time, you aren't alone. They hate everyone.

It's amazing how when one starts (or continues as the case may be) being nice to others, especially under adverse situations. Personally, while I've not hit the mark 100% of the time, just being empathetic can result in bigger (and better) outcomes. It's the golden rule and one of the most powerful. Thanks GK for another wonderful & invaluable post. You rock.

Excellent advice! Sometimes it's hard to remember to be nice, especially when the rep you're dealing with isn't.

On the rare instances when it *is* necessary to go over someone's head, I use Bob Burg's advice from Winning Without Intimidation. This phrase is wonderful: "You can't? Oh, I don't want to get you in any trouble--" followed by "who should I should speak to instead?"

And the phrases, "I totally understand if you can't. However, if you *could*, I'd really appreciate it" (also Bob's) work wonders as well. The answer is still sometimes "no," but at least you're giving the person respect--and an out if he/she wants it.

I've been having the reverse of this in an ongoing conflict with Apple regarding their refusal to comment and join in on the conversation regarding their repair policy, and just this Friday I had sort of the reverse experience--I remained mostly calm while the customer service rep accused me of "twisting [her] words," of "never being happy with Apple," and, as a blogger, of not being a "real journalist" worthy of comment. I guess I was the "little person" in that situation!

I also find that most of the time, starting the conversation (or complaint letter, as the case may be) by saying how much you value the products/services the company provides and how much you *like* the company is a good way to build goodwill. Often times, companies only hear complaints, and it's important to remind them (and remember yourself) that you're happy with the company 90% of the time.

well, if yopu happen to live in a country where customer service is more or less honoured. if u hapen to live in say... a mediterranean country or try even more east... you will find that your advice gets you absolutley nowhere and only money, power(like a badge) will get things done... i do miss customer service alot :o)

Very good points. There is a documentary called "Decline of the Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years" about the '80s metal bands. Ozzy Osbourne makes one great observation in it: Remember/be kind to the people you meet on your way up, they are the ones you see on your way down.

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