How to Make a Deal in 3 Seconds Flat

LET'S MAKE A DEAL -- Pictured: Host Monty Hall -- Photo by: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

I’ve learned a lot about negotiation from my colleague Paul Levy. I’ve talked to him about huge deals he made while managing the $5 billion Boston Harbor clean-up. After that he worked out creative agreements with suppliers, doctors, and government agencies as CEO of one of Boston’s leading hospitals.

But Paul also has a keen eye for important negotiation lessons we can learn from everyday transactions. Earlier this week he shared with me a story about getting a shoeshine in New York from the man pictured here.

Mid-town Manhattan is packed with street vendors competing to get the attention of pedestrians bustling down the sidewalk. Hawkers have just a few seconds to snag a customer before he or she rushes by. Paul was mesmerized by this particular guy’s technique.

As people strode by, he would look up from his current customer’s job, make eye contact, and cast out a line as deftly as a fisherman. Depending on how he sized up his quarry, he’d choose the bait for his hook:

“When are you going to do something about those shoes?” he might ask one prospect.

«Don’t you love her?” he might ask another. “What about those shoes?”“

«Are you selfish?” he would ask another. “Think of those shoes.”

Paul complemented the man on how good he was at reading different people.The vendor said, “You only have three seconds to make a connection.”

To get business, hawkers like him must stop you in your tracks and disrupt what you were doing. Targeting a specific person is a key part of the trick. A classic social science experiment showed that if you’re lying on a crowded sidewalk desperately calling for help, passersby will ignore you and keep on walking. Your odds of getting help are far better if instead you say, “You in the brown coat! Help me. I’m having a heart attack.”

Likewise when you’re trying to draw someone into a negotiation: you’ve got make a personalized appeal. A hawker shouting, “Shoeshines. Get your shoeshines here,” would be wasting his breath.

This particular vendor knows that. He catches your eye. Then he makes maximum use of his limited time by how he frames his questions. He treats as a given the fact that you need a shine. (And he’s a pro, of course, so he would know.) Superficially, the words he uses vary, but they all boil down to a friendly challenge: “Come on, you’re not the kind of person who wants to be seen in scruffy shoes, are you?”

It’s not just what he says, but how he says it. He’s confident (it’s New York City, after all) but also engaging. He presumes that both of you know that you’ve neglected your shoes. His pitch is strengthened by doing it while working on another customer’s shoes. The message is, “I’m busy now because I’m great at what I do. Wait a moment and I’ll fix you up, too.”

Paul’s story illustrates three important rules for any negotiation, whether you have only a few seconds or all day.

  1. You won’t get anywhere until you have your counterpart’s attention. Even if someone’s sitting across the table from you, their mind may be wandering and not focused on what’s important to you. You’ve got to find the right bait to lure them into the conversation.
  2. Never ask questions that are easy for others to say “no” to. If the shoeshine vendor were simply to ask, “Wanna shine?” people would rush on by. Instead he makes prospects ask themselves why would they want to look anything less than their very best.
  3. To engage somebody else, you’ve got to be engaged yourself. Take another look at Paul’s snapshot of the man. See his knowing smile, his wide-open eyes, and the peace-sign he’s flashing. You can’t expect others to connect with you if you’re not engrossed with them.

Those principles apply whenever you want someone else to pivot, to buy something from you–a product, a service, or an idea–that they weren’t even thinking about a moment ago. They also apply to situations where you are trying to stop someone from carrying out their intentions. In an upcoming post I’ll describe another three-second negotiation, this one with far higher stakes. (It involves trying to stop a soldier who is pointing a gun at an unarmed man and is about to pull the trigger.)

For right now, here’s a quick postscript on Paul and shoeshine man. As you likely guessed, Paul learned about vendor’s technique while sitting in the chair getting his own shoes buffed up. And exactly how did the guy reel my friend in?

As Paul walked buy, the vendor just mournfully shook his head side to side and muttered, “Those shoes . . . .“

Harvard Business School Professor Michael Wheeler is the author of The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World(Simon & Schuster).

He has been a key figure at the renowned Program on Negotiation (PON) at Harvard Law School since its founding 30 years ago. During the 2013-14 academic year, he continues to teach in executive programs at HBS and PON, and is also a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Photo: NBC via Getty Images

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