Always ask about authority
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Some time ago, I made the fundamental mistake of trying to negotiate with someone who actually had no authority to do so.
But first, some context: 1. My client, a sub-tenant, asked me to call a representative of a landlord regarding some deposits held by the latter. 2. Apparently, the deposits held by the landlord could be traced to my client, since the tenant had simply passed on the sub-tenancy deposit to the landlord as the deposit for the main tenancy. 3. However, both parties had recently only discovered that the tenant had been struck off the company register. This caused a bit of trouble for the landlord's accountants as they suddenly had no entity to return the deposit to when the tenancy ended.
So with the instructions that the landlord did want to return the deposit (my guess was that it represented a liability on their balance sheet), I called a person with the title of Vice President. Sounds fairly senior enough, I thought. Should be someone who can call the shots and work together to find a solution, I thought. Should be able to resolve this issue without having to escalate it and risk souring the relationship, I thought.
I thought wrong.
I started the call (after all the necessary niceties) asking about why the landlord insisted on returning the deposit only to the tenant, despite having acknowledged that my client was the source of the money. Perhaps there was another way to resolve the matter which could protect their interests?
To my surprise, the Vice President insisted that 1. She had been instructed by her "leader" that there was no other way (and refusing to tell me who this "leader" was), 2. That she would not tell me who had the authority to decide otherwise, and 3. That I would have to send a letter of demand on my client's behalf, because the landlord was "not an SME" and they had "SOPs to follow". (What a loaded statement!)
And there was no budging her from this position. So I had to hang up and inform my client that this matter needed an alternative approach.
Although the call only lasted twenty minutes or so, I could have avoided all that frustration by asking what her job as the Vice President entailed, and whether she had the authority to negotiate. Job titles are not conclusive, even in large corporations with some semblance of hierarchy. Always make sure that the other side does indeed have the authority you're looking for.