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July 17, 2009

Ask-o-logy: The How of How

I took a break last week because I really needed to wrap up some other writing projects. I was in that mode, if you know what I mean.

But hello! I'm back!

via photobucket

And here we are, getting to the end of this analysis. Once this is done, in a day or two, I'll switch back to my regular asking reports. Here's a sample of what I've been up to:

--May I call you Monchhichi?
--Can you give me this $70 rug cleaning for $60?
--Can you give me your top secret, signature best selling salad dressing recipe?
--Cut me a deal on a car insurance premium?
--Let me return this pan with no receipt and no evidence I bought it here, other than my highly credible puppy dog eyes?
--And future askerly plans, to be announced...

But first:

Today I'm going to look at the how of asking, in more detail. Without further ado, here are the tentative answers to a few questions I was itching to find out... As usual, take everything with a grain of salt, preferably kosher, sprinkled on a tiny new potato! Chomp!

1) Does practice pay off?

One of my beliefs at the start of the year was that I'd become a better asker, the more I did it. And if you look at the learning curve, that's true. I started with little requests -- 60 cents here, a small favor there -- which escalated to more ambitious queries as time went on.

But I was stunned to discover that when I prepared for an asking -- perhaps carefully crafted an email, tried the same request a few times in a row, made a list of priorities and approaches, and/or rehearsed a few lines in my head -- I fared worse than when I just winged it.

Here are the results:

Success rate after preparing: 62%
Success rate with no preparation: 75%

Two possible reasons: first, I tended to prepare more for challenging requests, so perhaps they were harder to snag in the first place.

And second -- this is where I'd put my money if I had to choose a why here-- I think the preparation freaked me out. Not that I'm typically frazzled and disorganized, what, moi, never. But rather, maybe the nature of asking for a favor or bargain is far more personal than I imagined at the start of the year. Beside guidelines, rules and treatises, beside whatever principles and best practices one can glean on the subject, negotiation is about a connection. Either the two parties are speaking the same language, or they're not. So if after I prepared, I was nervous or came across as stiff or overly formal, that led to failure.

This is not to say that I didn't learn this year. Simply, that the revelations caught me off guard, and when I least expected it.

A different way of looking at the data amplifies the of power asking off-guard.

2) How valuable is asking for the hell of it?

A few evenings, as midnight approached, I found myself hitting the streets, wondering what to ask for. And then, an idea would come. Not a very good idea. Not an asking I truly, deeply, existentially cared about. But that late in the day, I couldn't afford to be picky. So I asked. Can I try on your shoe? Can I eat your onion ring? Can I see the inside of your frat house?

Later, I categorized them as "asking for the sake of asking" -- not because I wanted something, or wanted to help someone, etc. Just because I had this damn project to carry out.

Basically, what I wanted more than anything else was to ask.

Well, turns out that asking for lofty or ignoble reasons and asking just for the hell of it had the same success rate -- around 73 percent, that is.


I experienced some of the most sublime moments this year when I least expected them. Here are three of my favorites.

A shopping adventure with the chefs of Elemental, in Seattle

A midnight pedicab hijacking in San Diego.

An unexpected dinner encounter in New York.

3) Is it better to be vague or specific when formulating a request?

I could see this going both ways: If you're specific, you give the salesperson more to work with and show you have a compelling argument. "Could I get $10 off these pants, since the zipper is sticking?" is a lot more likely to get a yes than, "So, do you have some sort of special deals going on these days?" (That could lead to an answer like "Sorry, can't think of anything off the top of my head.")

On the flipside, if you're specific you could close the door on opportunities. Being vague lets the other party work with you to come up with a solution, rather than feeling like he or she is meeting your demand. An open-ended question is more likely to work for no good reason than "I'd like 5 percent off, please. Just cuz. Cool?"

So, which is it? Vague or specific? Here were my results. (By the way, I was vague 28 times out of 406).

The trick, I'm thinking, is to find ways to turn vague requests into specific ones. Even if you don't have a reason, make one: "It's over my budget."

Finally, I still think it's better to ask vaguely than not at all. A 61% success rate for simply asking "Do you have any discounts?" or "Any way you could lower that price?" isn't too shoddy.

I'd love to hear from other askers!! What works for you, and why?

4) Is it better to ask alone, or with a wingman?

This year was really a group project. Every time I asked, someone answered.

But another key group was the people I was with, while I asked. Not only for the ideas they bounced back and forth, but for making my requests seem more approachable, more casual, more friendly or funny.

To see if being alone or accompanied works better in different circumstances, I examined this aspect with respect to Money and Other askings (these labels are explained in Day Two). Turns out there's an interesting phenomenon here:

When I asked for Money -- which includes actual cash and any good or service that could be converted to a dollar value -- I did better alone. I also asked much more often for money discounts and upgrades/gains by myself. One simple explanation: it's easier to get a financial benefit alone, since a merchant will less likely agree to a request if you blare it to the whole store. Second, many of these were about me taking care of business -- tracking down money people or institutions owed me, negotiating services. Not the kind of thing you do while hanging out with friends.

But for the Other category -- asking for time, convenience, fun, access and info -- I did much better when I was with someone else. That's because those requests are, in essence, social. My very shakey theory is that being part of a group makes the asker appear more likeable. She walks into a room laughing and looking lively. By the time she makes her move, she's already looking cool and/or disarming. Of course someone would be happy to lend her a cell phone or tell her how to play an Indian double-flute. On the other hand, if she's alone, she might look creepy, sketchy, lonely or just plain pushy. That entourage makes all the difference.

Ah, humanity.

This is a very rough interpretation... but enough for tonight... I think I'll stop right... right... here!

Next: Who's most generous? and Concluding comments
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