Negotiation Lessons

negotiation win-win inspiration business persuasion American Pickers Learning Wisdom

I wonder if you genuinely love or hate to negotiate and have an emotional response when you ask to pay less for something?

I confess to having a secret passion for a daytime TV show. I love watching American Pickers. This is a show where two men from Idaho (Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz), travel around the USA, in a white van, picking (an American term for rummaging) through people's houses, old barns, warehouses and dusty basements  looking for rusty gold. This is the junk that they know is valuable. It is a reality TV show, and I suspect many of the events and encounters are set up for the show.

What I pretend to like about it is that it's a show about negotiation – when I am sure it is the treasure hunt that appeals to a childlike Tim. The heart of each episode is Mike and Frank spotting items and paying for them in the hope to sell later at a profit in one of their two stores. From motorcycles (barn fresh), VW camper vans, to rusty oil cans, porcelain advertising signs, leather saddles, weapons, pinball machines, coin operated machines, to furniture and cars it is all on display in front gardens or hidden. It is an opportunity for the duo to show they know the value of something others cannot see, buying (as the opening credits say) ‘anything we think we can make a buck on’.

In my world of training, mediating and negotiation I use these tactics as my primary strategy:

  • Listen - Listen - Listen
  • Prepare more and ask better questions
  • Persuade then negotiate
  • ZOPA [know the zone of potential agreement]
  • Batna [Best alternative to a negotiation agreement]
  • Don’t use logic and lots of multiple reasons [The weakest link will defeat this plan]
  • Be flexible (there is no such thing as a bottom line – more on this shortly)

I often see huge mistakes in negotiation and the answers buried within American Pickers. In the world of business you see the principle of ‘split the difference’  in use - people believe this to be a successful negotiation tactic. It is not! Combined with the assumption that negotiations only happens  across a table or across a rusty item in a barn - these are really misleading assumptions. 

I teach persuasion first, then (if necessary) negotiation. The fact is that most real life negotiations are won (or lost) before the people even sit down (or talk in a barn); a successful negotiator always seeks to prepare (total preparation is the key) and to create an advantageous setup. Let's look at what Mike and Frank have as a result of their setup and preparation:

•    Building rapport. The power of relationships is what Frank and Mike excel at in this show (within the ‘truth’ of a shoe format and the accounts of the owners at the end of each episode). We of course never get to see the ‘no sale’ and no rapport event (unless they include ‘get off my land’ and a shotgun). They usually begin by having a conversation with the owner and getting to know their story (when, where, what and how and more powerfully why). Taking this critical time establishes them as equals, using a friendly tone and showing they genuinely appreciate and respect the seller's situation.

•    Persuasion before negotiation. This is helped by having no direct competition on site. To get a good price at an auction with plenty of competition is hard, as you are in a competitive environment. Their arrival (whether by appointment or their forte ‘freestyling’) at the owner’s houses gives them this advantage of no competition.

•    Wisdom and knowledge. The pickers use their inside information from years of picking and knowledge of antiques (and their value) to be clear on value. They also take the time to bring in experts (which adds to the emotional tension of the show of course) to get items appraised. By knowing what you are looking at is amplified by them telling a story about it to the potential selling, is a usual tip in negotiation.

•    Understand their motivation – by asking better questions, the Pickers find out why the seller is selling his or her prized belongings – asking why seems to work (as it does in any negotiation).  I personally use different language like, ‘help me to understand’; they use more direct approaches but by knowing where the seller is coming from puts Fritz and Wolfe in position to rebuff protests about their offer. They also use some positive neuro-linguistic programming, by replaying and recalling why the seller needs to sell (space, you are moving soon and the need for money).

•    Small can be best – churn as estate agents call it – by looking for small the pickers don’t always go for the big-ticket items. Some of their best and most valuable purchases are from small items (they call them smalls) that can be flipped for several times what they paid. for it.

•    Breaking the ice is one of their recurring themes. It is the beginning of a relationship (it gets the money flowing as they say a lot) and by establishing initial trust, they build on it in business situations. Very often the viewers see Mike and Frank struggling with this initial purchase –then it goes far more smoothly (they are in the flow or the zone).

•    Timing the offer. By having a mix of who offers first, Mike and Frank are following some good principles. They are most likely to ask for a price when the item's specific value is unclear (especially if it's unclear to the owner of the item). They are more likely to offer first when they imagine that the owners initial offer will be high or not an appropriate business proposition.

•    The have a counter-offer ready (they know their bottom line) and use the psychology of assurance negotiation to progress to the sale. When the seller does make an initial offer, the pickers will either accept it or make a counter-offer in short order.

•    What is a reasonable offer? Mike and Frank avoiding the classic fishing tactic, looking for an offer and holding. They know that using an aggressive opening offer in context of a pick it could be painful and end a potential and profitable longer pick.

•    The principle of the bundle. I love how Frank has become the King of the Bundle. It is a very old concept in the commercial and business world. It usually has a high success rate. Just as a  service business, or software company can give apparent ‘massive discounts if you buy multiple services, Mike and Frank get better value by pairing several items together and negotiating a better overall final price.

   The power of cash (right here, right now) is enduring. Many of the owners on the programme have high resistance to selling(usually attributed to sentiment and ‘not ready to sell’). To make a successful sale, the pickers always have lots of cash with them and make it clear it is a cash deal (or no deal).

•    Excellent negotiators don't waste time. The pickers (along with any good negotiator) know the value of time and understanding the balance between talking and being friendly, and not wasting time you can’t get back. This critical skill involves listening and watching for non-verbal clues that indicate whether they want to sell. Be conscious of your time in any negotiation, as your value decreases with the more time you spend on any deal. This may mean conceding a little bit up front to reach a deal sooner to avoid a lengthy process.

•    Smile a lot. When Wolfe counter offers with a lower price, he always smiles a big smile. You can tell he finds the haggling fun, and he likes the people he buys from. He also usually gets his way. It's harder to say "no" to people who clearly like and respect you.

•    Value. Remembering the item's actual potential value is critical. Emotions cloud judgements and can make bad decisions. Mike and Frank seem to have an antiques guide in their heads and have a price in mind (considering the condition etc). They appear to have a sharp sense of what items will sell for (they describe it as the retail numbers, or being right on the money), and they stick to their mark-up formula for the profit equation.

•    Emotions are not helpful. In any negotiation emotions can be the barrier to success. For most people, change is difficult. When an owner doesn’t want to sell an item (for whatever reason including they bought it when they were a child, or it was their Fathers), then the best strategy is to move on. If you try to force them outside of their comfort zone they will reject further offers and close down completely.. The ability to listen well and watch non-verbal communication become critical. Look for (old) signs that someone is completely unwilling to change or attached to an aspect of the deal or the sale. If you detect they are attached, then consider the option below –walk away.

•    The art and science of walking. When an owner of an object or idea wants a price that's not realistic, Frank and Mike explicitly say, ‘I can't do it’. Usually with some interesting body language involving shaking their heads or dropping their shoulders. Paying too much changes the business model and reduces the economic opportunities.

These ‘American Picker’ techniques do not work in all negotiations or business situations. What I am interested in is their set of tools and techniques and how they apply them in different situations and settings. I know these can be contrived and built up for the camera, but I take much joy in see them use similar strategies to mine. By creating an advantageous context for their negotiations, they then follow a systematic process that helps close a deal and get resolution. They are skilled in the art of the win-win and use their experience to make it work for both sides.

I genuinely enjoy negotiation, and it can show the primitive joy that Mike and Frank display perhaps you can too – shall we negotiate or are you persuaded?

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Tim Dingle

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Tim Dingle BSc (Hons), PGCE, MBA, has been involved in education, management, comedy, research, the Law and training for the last 30 years. Tim is a former Headmaster of a top school and gained an MBA with a distinction (his dissertation was on body language and Interview skills).

 He has a unique insight into teaching, leadership, comedy and management and has now written 26 books on a variety of topics including motivation, leadership, education, training, communication, interview success and business. 

His background in management also includes being the Chairman on England Schools Rugby and an active member of the RFU and MCC. His academic pedigree (in Biology, Teaching and Business) combined with his Mediation skills, gained him a place on the Board of the Global Negotiation Insight Institute (which used to be the Harvard Negotiation project). He has lectured all around the world with keynote speeches at many national and international events. His facilitation skills are in constant use for difficult and complex problems. His training company works across a variety of sectors and is making a massive impact, dedicated to making everyone feel empowered, successful and having fun. He writes jokes as well as running a comedy club and training school in London.


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