Ultimatums that work: 5 secrets to success


President Obama did it recently to Syria. Steve Stokowski made one to a bank in Maryland. And I drew my line in the sand to a hotel in Canada.

We’re talking ultimatums — a final proposition, condition, or demand; especially one whose rejection will end negotiations and cause a company to force or other direct action.

President Obama, of course, threatened use of force against Syria unless it relinquished chemical weapons. Stokowski said he’d picket the bank unless it removed some incorrectly charged fees. I promised to walk out of a hotel unless my wife received the category of room she’d reserved.

But how do you gauge whether your ultimatum will succeed? Here are a few guidelines:

If you can’t escalate to a higher level

President Obama issued his challenge to the President of Syria. I made mine to the weekend desk clerk (the only staff person available). Stokowski did it to the highest available managers. In each case, escalation to a higher level was not possible or practical.

When the person to whom you are appealing refuses to escalate your complaint or says he or she really is the last resort and says ‘No,’ they might be implying ‘take it or leave it.’ That’s one reason to consider an ultimatum, but isn’t enough to immediately issue one. There are additional requirements.

If the other party can give you what you want

When you’re considering an ultimatum, pause and consider whether the other party can honor your request. Do they have the authority? Are you dealing with a part-time overnight desk clerk or with a manager? Is a replacement item available? Is another room actually available? Is the person authorized to erase those overdraft fees?

It makes no sense to issue an ultimatum to someone who can’t help you.

If the person can’t give you what you want, or escalation is still an option, then instead of issuing an ultimatum, keep negotiating, try to escalate, or change tactics. Try saying, as Stokowski did, “I’m easy to get along with. If you are too, we can solve this right now.”

If you think you are right (and you actually are)

You hear about them all the time, the people who make crazy demands and issue outrageous ultimatums. The dress was soiled when I bought it; I want a full refund! The computer was already damaged when I opened the box; I want two new ones! My flight was delayed so I demand an upgrade to first class on the next flight!

You laugh at their ultimatums. So do companies.

Before issuing an ultimatum, reflect for a moment. You think you are right, but are you really? If not, do you really think your demand will succeed?

If you will have no regrets

So, let’s say you have reached the top of the service chain, the other person has the authority to grant your request, and you know you are right. You are really considering an ultimatum.

What do you say?

Most ultimatums have two parts: a request for something and a threat of action if that request is not granted. Most people state it as “EITHER you (give me this) OR I (do this).” My ultimatum was “Either you give my wife the room she reserved, or we leave now.”

Stokowski said, “Either you cancel the charges, or I peacefully picket your bank until you have me, a depositor, arrested.”

Once you issue the decree, there’s no going back. There’s no bluffing; there’s no folding. This is not poker. You must be prepared to perform the threatened action without regret.

In my case, the desk clerk turned down my ultimatum and my wife and I did start towards the door. Stokowski convinced the branch manager he really would picket the bank and was willing to be arrested.

If your success doesn’t translate into a “win-lose”

But, there’s one more critical element to a successful ultimatum: Once the other party accedes to your request, everyone should still get something out of it. Stokowski told me, “Most ultimatums do not work because they are ineptly presented. They smack of ‘If you don’t make me the quarterback, I’m taking my ball home.’ They are lose-lose deals.”

The ultimatums described above all worked because the businesses realized they could give something up and still gain something; thus it was a win-win for both sides. My wife and I got the correct room. Stokowski got the charges removed and the bank retained a long-term customer.

When not to issue an ultimatum

Always start by following the proper customer service procedures. Talk with a customer service rep and plead your case. If you’re not satisfied, politely ask to speak with a manager. Explain, negotiate, escalate. Repeat as required until the above conditions come into play.

Ultimatums are not a standard negotiating tactic. They are a tool of last resort. Never issue an ultimatum until you have exhausted all other options.

And finally, if it is clear the other party doesn’t value your business and doesn’t care if it loses you as a customer, you must realize it doesn’t care about win-win scenarios. So, don’t bother with an ultimatum.

By the way, there is one ultimatum mentioned above that most people consider as having failed. Whether or not you know which one, re-read the guidelines for success. It’s important not only to know which one failed, but why it failed. Consider it prep work for your own possible ultimatum.

Ed Lawrence is a consumer advocate based in Boston.

Which of the cases was a failure?

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Ed Lawrence

I'm a writer, public speaker, and aspiring career counselor, as well as a consumer advocate who assists the long-term unemployed. I love climbing mountains and cruising to exotic ports. If you meet me on a cruise, let's talk while we drink or play chess.

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  • BillCCC

    Stick to writing about ‘customer service’ and leave international politics to the experts. There was one ultimatum above that was never issued.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Wow, the Syria option is winning, speaking of international politics. I’m sure the author will find it very interesting. Ed, care to comment?

    This site is about customer service, not travel – we just happen to get an inordinate number of complaints about travel, unfortunately.

  • Dutchess

    I used to work at a bank, so I have a cheap trick I use when I have a problem with a bank. If you’ve talked to your local manager and they aren’t willing to help, simply ask for their regional manager’s name and phone number. Simply stated, no bank manager wants their region manager mad at them for a stupid customer service call going to them. I’ve had a couple situations where I asked for something very simple but they were unwilling to do it for me. In both cases, just asking for their regional manager’s name was enough to change their mind immediately.

  • Helio

    Yes Bill, you are right, USA is being very successful in int’l politics nowadays …

  • DavidYoung2

    I’m no fan of Obama, but his ultimatum was brilliant in it’s sophistication. He basically said, “Now we have to attack” and went to Congress. Clearly it was implied that Syria could give them up and call the whole show off. But the brilliance is in Obama’s ultimatum that had a back door — he could quietly get Congress NOT to approve the attack. Thus, he had a way to issue an ultimatum yet could back out of it.

    Fortunately, the Russians convinced Syria that confrontation with the US was a bad idea, especially since it would force the Russians to either ‘put up or shut up’ in coming to their aid. And from what I’ve seen, Putin doesn’t like to back down. But he doesn’t want to get his butt kicked all the back to the Baltics either.

    Brilliantly played – Obama appears to have gotten what he wanted without a shot fired.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • Joe_D_Messina

    No sarcasm font, so I can only hope that post is tongue in cheek. Because I doubt the grand plan was to make the President of the United States look powerless because he can’t get Congress to back his play.

  • BillCCC

    My mistake. I made the change. This site is still the top Google result when I type in Travel Troubleshooter.

  • BillCCC

    It that was actually the ultimatum I might agree but there was no such ultimatum.

  • gratianus

    Interesting that the overwhelming majority of voters decided to make the Syria gambit a failure. The other two had clear beginning and endings: each person got what they wanted. The Syria ultimatum was more complex and had any number of contingencies. However, had Obama not issued his ultimatum and had not signaled that he might ignore what Congress voted to do, does anyone think that Syria even would have admitted that it had chemical weapons or been open to Kerry’s invitation to allow inspections and the destruction of those weapons?
    Unfortunately the Obama Derangement Syndrome is alive and well.

  • AH

    based on the criteria of a “win-win” situation, i’d have to say the
    hotel room scenario didn’t fit that criteria. the room was already
    reserved – which usually also means pre-paid – so the hotel wasn’t
    losing any money if mr and mrs lawrence walked out. therefore, what was the hotel “winning”? nothing.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Reserved doesn’t mean or even imply prepaid. But that’s neither here nor there. If the hotel is unable to perform, the hotel has cannot keep the money and would either have to credit it or deal with a credit card dispute. The fuzzy area is when hotels don’t guarantee certain aspects of a reservation such as bed type.

  • Ed Lawrence

    Hi, Ed Lawrence here. Excellent point.

    Here’s my view: My ultimatum worked, in my opinion, because we got the room we had reserved, as opposed to a smoking room in a poor location, without some amenities. So, I felt we won that back.
    On the other hand, you are totally correct that they had the first night’s pre-paid money on the credit card.
    What if they had called my ultimatum and said “bye’. Well, they would have lost the second and third nights money, and our good will, and in return gotten some lousy reviews on Yelp and other places.

    I could not fit into the article [due to space limitations] how our dealings with the hotel clerk even before we arrived were terrible. We had some problems finding the hotel. The guy was totally not helpful and rude on the phone. Turns out the hotel had the wrong address on their own web site. Of course, the guy blamed me for not figuring out there should have been a ‘North’ or a ‘West’ in front of the street name. (whatever it was)

    I included that ultimatum example because it worked. But, I admit my dealings with the clerk negatively influenced me. To this day, I wonder if I should have issued the ultimatum. I ultimately included it because it DID work. I think it was a win-win, because the hotel got money for three nights stay [versus one] , and my wife and I had a great time in Montreal (except for the clerk and me glaring at each other).

    If they had not given in to me (accepted my terms), I would accept the argument it was a lose-lose [ they would have lost two nights’ money and we would have lost two days of fun] , or even a win-lose in favor of the hotel [they get one night’s money and we get to go home].

    This reminds also, I am always—just like Chris Elliott—looking for examples and stories to use in articles. I asked a lot of friends and relatives and business customers (over sixty people) for ultimatum stories. I got only two, and one was edited out of this story because the acquaintance would not let her name be used. That left me with Mr. Stokowski’s story and my own.

    BTW….I’ve got an old email address I rarely use. So, if it gets spammed, I won’t mind too much.
    I’m not the troubleshooter that Chris is, so don’t send me ‘can you help me stories’, but I am always looking for anecdotes/travel stories that show either successor failure. If any of you want to send me some travel stories with an idea for a story, or you simply want to compliment or make suggestions for improvement, send them to: docsavage2006@hotmail.com

  • Ed Lawrence

    Hi, everyone, Ed Lawrence here,

    I was going to post this tomorrow, but having already replied to one insightful comment, figured I’d just post some info now. Some of you wonder why this article seems ‘political’. You’re wondering why I did it this way.

    I got the idea for the ultimatum article after reading a draft from Chris Elliott about ‘when to walk away’. That article reminded me how my wife and I were prepared to walk away from that hotel. I mentioned that to Chris. He suggested an article about ultimatums.

    While I was writing an early draft and trying to come up with some principles for when to issue an ultimatum that should work, it occurred to me that whatever principles I
    came up with for a successful ultimatum should work in just about every
    circumstance, large or small. The Obama case was perfect timing. For the first few days
    after Obama’s statement, the general consensus was that Obama had not
    handled it correctly.

    I did not intend the article to be either pro- or anti-Obama, merely an exercise to show how in some cases universal principles should apply. While I have my view of why the President’s ultimatum didn’t work [at first?], I left them out of the article. I agree with those who say this is primarily a travel and consumer advocacy site.

    I won’t argue with anyone who says Obama’s ultimatum worked because as I write this, an agreement has been reached. I just need to point out how a week ago that was not the case.
    I won’t argue it wasn’t an ultimatum.; I only know what I read in the newspapers.

    Finally, I hope the article proves useful to you.

    Thanks for reading.

  • Ed Lawrence

    Nice analysis. Last week as I was writing this, most media sources were attacking Obama and either implying or outright stating the ultimatum failed. I’m not a politician or a diplomat; so I have no idea what was planned and what was luck. A week after I wrote the article (see my two other notes I wrote this evening), things do appear to have worked out. I wish everyone else success in their own ultimatums. Of course, I hope none of you ever need to issue one.

  • mizmoose

    Picketing? Seriously? I’d consider a single person with a picket sign the equivalent of a toddler throwing a tantrum. There are better, legal ways to handle things when the bank shoves inaccurate or inappropriate fees at you.

    A couple of years ago my bank, with neither my verbal or written permission, changed my account to a “keep a balance or pay a fee” model. It stupidly (on my part) took me months to realize they’d done this. When I called them to protest this and insist they change my account, they said, “Accounts can only be changed in person”. When I went to the branch, they insisted I’d made the change over the phone. When I reminded them that they told me that they will not make a change without me being present, they then insisted I came to the bank and made the change. Of course they could not find any paperwork with my signature requesting the change (because I hadn’t signed any), and they refused to refund the months of fees they’d charged me because they said it was my fault for not “catching this earlier”.

    I filed a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is a fairly new government agency concerned with protecting consumers from just this kind of financial institute malarky. The CFPB told my bank to refund my fees, which they did. While it took nearly 4 months to get the resolution, the CFPB allows you to monitor the status of your claim online.

    The icing on the cake of this mess, however, is the letter the bank sent me after refunding the fees. It says something like, “We gave back the fees that the CFPB said we had to give back, but we want to make it clear that we are in no way at fault for this situation and it was 100% your fault.” Uh huh.

  • BMG4ME

    Glad that it’s not just me that disagreed re Syria (looking at the voting). Yes, President Obama did it recently to Syria, and I predict this will be as successful as when Neville Chamberlain did it to Hitler. Peace in Our Time. Yes right.

  • AH

    thank you, ed for your explanation. and for your post below explaining more fully.