The Art of Sucking Down
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.