An FBI Hostage Negotiator Teaches You – The “Chris” Price


As a hostage negotiator, I know that getting a hostage taker to use the hostage’s name humanizes the hostage and makes it less likely they will come to harm. This process is what we in The Black Swan Group now refer to as “forced empathy.” It makes the other side see you, and see you as a person.

A few years ago I was in a bar in Kansas with a number of other FBI hostage negotiators. The bar is really packed with lots of people having a good time. There’s an empty chair at the bar. As I get ready to sit in there the guy next to it says “Don’t even think about it”.

So...I say “Why?” He says “Because I’ll kick your ass.” I hesitate a moment, sort of shrug and scratch my head and say “Well...I don’t need that.” I hold out my hand to shake his. “My name is Chris.” He freezes.

The hostage negotiators with me quickly move in, pat him on the shoulders, greet him warmly and offer to buy him a drink. Conversation ensues and we find out he’s a Vietnam veteran at a particularly low point in his life. He’s sitting there in misery while he “perceives” that everyone around him is having a wonderful time. The only thing he can think of is to fight someone. When I was some unnamed person he was ready to hit me. As soon as I became “Chris” everything changed.

Getting a Discount in an Outlet Mall

Flash forward in time, I’m in an outlet mall. I pick out some shirts in one of the stores. I go to the front counter and the young lady behind the counter asks me if I want to join their frequent buyer program. (This is of course, I think, a way for them to get my e-mail address so they can spam my inbox.) I ask her if it costs me anything. She says “no”.

I ask her if I get a discount for joining. She says “no”. So I say in a friendly manner “My name is “Chris”. What’s the “Chris” discount?” She says “I’ll have to ask my manager.” She turns to the other woman who’s been standing next to her the whole time and says “Kathy, he wants to know if there is a “Chris” discount.” Kathy says “The best I can do is 10%.”

Another Discount

A couple of weeks later I’m in a clothing store shopping for a cummerbund (I know how it sounds, okay? I’m sorry but I needed one.) I also try on a bunch of shirts and don’t buy any of them (which always makes me feel guilty). I check out the price for the cummerbund and it looks a little high to my unsophisticated eye. So I tell the guy I’ll be back, and I walk out the front door. (I feel lame doing that, especially since I figure the sales guy thinks “That’s nonsense. That guy’s not coming back”.)

I shop every other store in the mall and find all prices higher than the first. I know I have to go back there. I hate it every step of the way, because I know soon as I walk in the front door they know they’ve got me. I walk in and both of the salesmen are standing right there and they say “Yes, we’ve got your cummerbund right here.”

Now of course there is a sign in front of this clothing store saying “Buy 1 Shirt, Suit or Sport coat and get 3 free!”. This tells my consumer mind that maybe there’s some leeway here in the pricing. I say “Hey, buy 1 get 3 free?” They say “No, no, no, that’s not on cummerbunds, that’s shirts, suits and sport coats.” I say “Yeah, because what am I going to do with 3 cummerbunds? So there’s no discount on cummerbunds?”

And they say, “No. No discounts on cummerbunds.” I then playfully say...“But I’m “Chris”, there has to be a “Chris” discount. What’s the “Chris” price?”

And the manager says... “The best I can do is 20%.”

Use your name to introduce yourself. Say it in a fun, friendly way. Let them enjoy the interaction too. Get the “Chris” price. Get the “(your name)” price.

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About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.