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?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...