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June 02, 2009

Can I have some ice cream? Or, how not to ask

June 2. Day 337.

I asked for several things but chose this episode because it's a useful counterexample.

Here goes:

I decided to skip lunch and go straight for coffee and dessert. Bad, so bad -- but so so good!!! I entered a gelateria, asked for a cup (i.e. not a cone), half strawberry half pineapple.

I sat down outside, waiting for my selection.

A minute later, a waitress brought me a huge bowl of ice cream, three scooops, with a few cookies sticking out. Looked amazing. Just much bigger, and much more expensive, than what I had in mind.

For in my mind, I'd asked for a small, with half a scoop of each. But as far as they were concerned, I'd merely requested a cup with two flavors. They gave me the most expensive thing they could get away with charging based on that request. Or maybe they just understood I wanted the larger size.

Justice was on their side. I realize that if I protested, they could fairly say, "You never specified the size and asked for two flavors. That's what we understood." Returning the ice cream, protesting, would have been wasteful. Unpleasant, give my relaxed mood. And there wasn't a huge price difference.

Gained: Nothing. Actually, I lost about 2 euros by not being specific. I should have been much more precise: Could I have a small portion, with half a scoop of each?

This brings me to something I've been wanting to write for a while:

How not to ask. This isn't very scientific -- I haven't yet tabulated my gains and identified which strategies are most effective. (That's for when the year-end statistical extravaganza, once we hit Day 365). For now, a rough sketch of what I've found to be ineffective.

1. Don't ask someone who can't help you. Most often when I've failed, I suspect it's been because I approached the wrong person. Partly it's a crap shoot, but partly it's about finding who weilds the power to make concessions. In retail settings, that's not the lower level salesperson, the floor walker. Ideally, go to the decision maker -- usually, the higher up, the better. (Plus, if you start low and end up high, it pits employee against employer. e.g. asking a manager for a discount after the cashier said no. Much harder for the manager to agree, if it humiliates the cashier, than if you'd asked her directly. So it seems.)

2. Don't ask vaguely. Both because you might not get what you want, and because it's easier to refuse a vague request than a specific one. I've definitely had much more success when I've requested something exact: "I'd like 10 percent off of this hotel room. Is that possible?" instead of "Do you have any discounts you can apply to any of your rooms?" The second format makes the giver work in order to come up with a solution, a proposition, a discount. Why should she bother? But if I come up with a reasonable proposition, it's easier for her to say yes.

3. Don't ask expecting a no. Sure, at first I expected rejection all the time, since I didn't realize how easy it is to get what you want by asking. Now, on occasion I ask something I don't think I'll get and the result surprises me. Most often, though, when I ask expecting a no, the answer is no. I think they can see it in my eyes, hear it in my voice, and they realize I think it's reasonable to be refused. What do they have to lose by refusing?

4. Any contributions, or other ideas out there? Some of you have emailed me some wonderful examples of when you've been effective askers. But from your other experiences, when/why did you fail? Conversely, why would you be inclined to say no, when someone else asks you?

These two photos, above and below, were take from a bridge not far from where I had the treat.

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