At the coffee shop this morning my friend John raised a few eyebrows with this comment: “I don’t know of a single high school or college that offers a course in negotiation.”
John’s a very successful businessman who knows a thing or two about negotiation. His concern is well placed.
Let that hang there for a moment. Think about it. Admittedly, I’m no expert on educational curriculum or who offers what out there in the wider world, but we have to at least acknowledge John’s point. If there’s a public high school offering a class in the skill and science of negotiation, I’m not aware of it. I’ve certainly seen and experienced a fair number of folks who have a less than solid grasp on the concept, though.Negotiating well is not a natural skill. It has to be learned, and before it can be learned, it has to be understood.
In the general aviation environment where cost is a factor for most of us, and establishing mutually beneficial long-term relationships with individuals and commercial entities is of real importance, perhaps it’s time we addressed this hole in our educational system.
Years ago I wrote a story for a magazine about buying aircraft fuel. One of the questions I asked every provider I talked to was this; “Would you offer a discount to a buyer who purchased fuel from you fairly regularly?” The answer from every single provider was, “Yes.” Yet when I followed up to ask if they actually did provide discounts to any buyers on their field, the answer was the same across the board. “No. Nobody has ever asked for one.”
There is no aspect of aviation that isn’t open to negotiation. From the cost and availability of the aircraft we fly, to the price and terms of payment for maintenance, to hangar fees, and even insurance costs, everything is open to negotiation. I wonder, how many of us who read this column have taken the initiative to pursue a better deal, a longer-term solution, or a lower cost than the one offered on the price list posted on the FBO wall?
Notice that first option is “a better deal,” not “a lower cost.” Price matters, but price isn’t the only thing we can negotiate. Maybe the location of the hangar you seek is more important to you than the price. Perhaps having an instructor who is available six days a week is more of a selling point to you than the hourly cost of instruction. And maybe working a deal that transfers ownership of that airplane to you with a fresh annual is more important than getting it moved to your hangar this week.
What we find to be of value varies from person to person and from situation to situation. Knowing how to negotiate a deal that leaves all affected parties walking away with a smile is the ultimate goal. Because if someone feels they’ve been taken advantage of, there are going to be hard feelings. Maybe not immediately, but nobody likes to feel as though they’ve been exploited. If one of the parties goes home feeling victimized, that deal very well may come back to bite you in the butt one day.
Whether you’re looking to buy an aircraft, maintain an aircraft, purchase fuel, obtain flight instruction, or build time, let’s consider putting a few basic components into our thinking that will help us negotiate a better deal (not necessarily a cheaper deal) that will make our life in general aviation more satisfying and less stressful.
Ask for what you want, with specifics.
Don’t just blurt out, “Hey, can I have a discount?” Ask with specifics. “If I commit to doing all scheduled maintenance with your shop, would you offer me a 10% discount on your shop labor rate?”
The other party may have something to say about your request. They probably will, and their initial reaction may not be to jump for joy. That’s okay. Listen to their concerns and any counter-offers they might propose. As long as you’re talking and listening, you’re making progress.
Be willing to amend your ask.
If you ask for a discount that exceeds the provider’s margin, they’re more than likely going to say no. And they should. But they’re saying no to that particular request, not to any negotiation at all. Focus on the whole message, not just the rejection of your first request.
Respect the concerns of the other party.
It’s entirely possible you’ve asked for something the other party just can’t do. If you’re offering 25% less than the asking price for an airplane and the person you’re dealing with rejects it, be diplomatic. (S)he may be representing a partnership that has set a hard dollar value for the airplane. Don’t get your back up when they say “No.” Continue the conversation. Work collaboratively to identify what the sticking points of the deal might be, then focus on addressing those points specifically.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Hammering out your dream deal may take longer than a single lunch meeting, too.
Give something, get something, and vice versa.
It’s a negotiation, not a wrestling match. If they want something you’re willing to give, consider that seriously. But balance what you give up with something they’re also willing to be flexible about. If both sides get something they value in exchange for something they value, everybody wins.
Commit the deal to writing.
Memories fade, ink is more resilient. When you’ve got the details worked out, write them down and have both parties sign. Yes, you’ve got a contract of sorts. The clarity of that information will prevent disagreements and hurt feelings down the road, and that’s priceless peace of mind for the cost of a few printed pages.