## Traveling Salesman Meets Prisoner’s Dilemma

You may know “The Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In game theory, it is a classic conundrum. As Wikipedia states, it “demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so.”

It turns out that the solution to The Prisoner’s Dilemma is also the solution to a great many sales problems—those in which your customer doesn’t trust you. Are you living in the Dilemma? Or are you living in the solution?

## The Dilemma of the Prisoner

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal:

• If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence.
• If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge.
• If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence.

Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

What’s a poor prisoner to do?

If you analyze the situation rationally (the way a game theorist or economist defines that term), your odds are a lot worse if you remain silent—either you get 10 years or six months. But if you rat on your partner, you either get out free or—at worst—five years.

So, reasons the economist, Option A’s average “value” is five years and three months in prison. Option B’s average is two and a half years. “Ah ha,” says the economist’s rational player, “I’ll go for Option B.”

Of course, the other player does the same math and comes to the same conclusion. As a result, each gets five years in prison—a total of 10 prison-years between them.

If only the prisoners had cooperated with each other; they could have each gotten out with just six months in prison—a total of one prison-year between them.

The question is: why don’t they cooperate?

At least, that’s the economists’ question. In the real world, cooperation is quite common.

So the real question is: why do so many people listen to economists?

## The Dilemma of the Salesperson

Before answering the Prisoner’s Dilemma, let’s note the similarity with The Salesperson’s Dilemma.

The salesperson has a similar series of trade-offs. For example:

• “I could take some extra time to study up on tomorrow’s sales call, getting to know more about the prospect. That would improve the odds of my getting a sale tomorrow.”
• “On the other hand, I could make another cold call with the time saved if I don’t spend it studying up for tomorrow’s call.”

Or, another example:

• “I could tell them we have very little experience in this area, which would increase their sense of my honesty, which would help me in the long run.”
• “On the other hand, experience might be the key in getting this job, and I’d better make the best case I can and fudge the rest.”

Still another:

• “I could share a lot of my knowledge with them, which would really impress them and make them grateful to me.”
• “On the other hand, if I give it all away in the sales call, they’ll just steal my knowledge and not pay me for it—I’d better wait until after we have a signed contract.”

And one more:

• “I could go out on a limb and make some really far-sighted observations that would help them—it would go way beyond what they asked for.”
• “On the other hand, we don’t have much trust built up yet. They might see that as presumptuous or unprofessional; I’ll just answer the questions they asked.”

Just as with The Prisoner’s Dilemma, if the salespersons continually choose Option B, they will sub-optimize. They will do cold calls, leading with no relationship, taking no risks, treating the customer like a competitive enemy, and offering no great help.

In other words, they’ll lose. Just like the prisoners.

In theory, the prisoners are identical, whereas the salesperson and the customer are distinct. But that’s theory. In the real world, sellers somehow tend to find buyers who are similar to them. Sellers who are fear-driven and guarded somehow often find buyers who justify their worst fears.

Both seller and buyer often operate from the Prisoner’s script. And the result is just as sub-optimal.

## The Prisoner’s Solution

As postulated by economists and game theorists, The Prisoner’s Dilemma is usually presented with two key assumptions:

1. The game is played only once
2. The players do not know each other

The solution lies in changing each of those assumptions. If you tell the players the game will be played 10 times, cooperative patterns begin to emerge. If it’s played 100 times, cooperative strategies take over.

If the players are given information about each other, they become less abstract to each other. If the information is personal, then the relationship changes tone as well.

These two dimensions—time and relationship—are critical. Without a sense of continuity over time, and without a sense of personal relationship, those playing the game will opt to “rat out” each other—even knowing that the result, system-wide, is negative for them on average. But given time and relationships—the optimal solution emerges. Everyone is better off.

In other words, the solution to behaving stupidly is to develop personal relationships over time. Now let’s see how that insight applies to selling.

## The Sales Solution

The sales solution should look pretty obvious now. Suboptimal behavior is the result of short timeframes and shallow relationships. In a Prisoner’s Dilemma world, both buyer and seller fear each other, suspect the worst, don’t have relationships beyond the transaction, and are interested primarily in their own self-aggrandizement, without regard to cost to the other party.

If that sounds familiar, just look at this quick list of sales topics that are hot these days: sales automation, lead screening, CRM, social media lead generation, multi-channel messaging. Think about the last step in nearly every sales process model you’ve seen—closing. Think about some of the trends in procurement: online, blind auctions, and RFPs.

What all these subjects have in common is a view of selling that is a) transactional and b) impersonal. In other words, they have short timeframes and weak relationships—two things sure to hurt sales.

Selling benefits from longer timeframes and better personal relationships. If you can stop thinking like an economist and work to eliminate the fear you and your buyers have, you’ll benefit from the long-lasting trustworthy relationships that develop as a result.

An earlier version of this post appeared in RainToday

## Ava J. Abramowitz on Essentials of Negotiation (Trust Quotes #15)

Ava J. Abramowitz is a lawyer, mediator, and author.  She is also an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and currently is serving as the first public member of the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Not surprisingly, she teaches negotiation at George Washington University Law School; was in-house counsel for the American Institute of Architects; serves as a mediator in the Federal courts in Washington, DC; and lectures nationally on negotiation.

As befits such an interesting woman, she is married to a man who is quite interesting in his own right, Neil Rackham.

But our main interest in this interview centers around a most remarkable book she has written, titled Architect’s Essentials of Negotiation (The Architect’s Essentials of Professional Practice). While it’s nominally about architects, the fact that it’s so readable outside that profession is a guarantor that she’s talking about universal truths. Let’s dig in.

CHG: Ava, thanks so much for doing this interview with us. I’m excited, because I was so taken by your book. Let me start in a very particular place. Outside of perhaps existentialist philosophers, theologians or therapists, you and I are the only ones I know who refer to the Other—in caps—when we’re talking about the protagonist in a commercial relationship. Why do you do that?

AJA: In all my writing and always in my thoughts, I refer to the "Other" and not the "other side" when talking about those with whom we negotiate. "Other side" implies the people are opponents. "Other" implies they are just not us. It is hard to build common ground with opponents, but a bit exciting, invariably challenging, and sometimes even fun to build common ground with people who, although they want a solution to a shared problem as much as we do, view that problem differently because they have different sets of eyes and experiences. A small change in mindset, but it’s an important and useful one to use and remember. Not a friend. Not an enemy. Just an Other.

CHG: Let’s take the readers right to the punch line: in your view, what is the central message of this book?

AJA: In business and in everyday life, it is far more profitable for all the parties to forge strategic alliances with each other to solve the problems facing them. You need not like the Other. In the early stages of negotiation, you need not even trust the Other. But if you and the Other collectively can solve the problem in a way that meets both of your compelling short and long term interests and needs, you should do it. Solid negotiation skills will get you there. They can be learned.

CHG: Reading your book it seems so obvious that that’s how things should work. Why doesn’t it always turn out that way?

AJA: Sometimes the way people analyze the situation leads them to believe that there is no common ground. I don’t want to get into politics, but right now the United States is so bifurcated that people forget that everyone who is running for office believes in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and in “truth, justice and the American way.” They may differ on the definitions of those values or how best to achieve them, but at the core the persons sitting across the aisle from them are not an enemy to be destroyed. They are just Others with different views of the problem and the solution.

CHG: Notwithstanding what I said above, this book was written nominally for architects. And in one way, they are unique. Unlike most other professions, there are usually three parties involved in commercial discussions: the architect, the contractor, and the owner. Does that make architecture more complicated than, say, the practice of law?

AJA: Ah, good question, but no lawyer could say yes and survive. After all, the American legal system is not routinely described as “an adversary system” for nothing.  Here lawyers represent parties who may have entered a negotiation with no desire for a settlement. For example, parties may have retained a lawyer to obstruct a solution because they figure that delay is in their interests. Architecture and construction, at least at the outset, are less conflicted. At the start of every project everyone wants the project to come in on-time, on budget, and with no claims. And everyone wants to make a profit.

Additionally, risk is handled differently in the legal setting than on the construction site. Lawyers are taught to think liability first and foremost and to figure out ways to foist liability on the Other, freeing their client to risk without responsibility. Sophisticated parties in design and construction, however, recognize that risk and reward go hand in hand. To them, the easiest way to achieve success is to assign each exposure to the party most capable of managing it, and to give that party all the responsibility and the power—both authority and fee—needed to manage that exposure well. In other words, they forge strategic alliances with and among the parties with mutual success being the overriding goal.

CHG: You know quite a bit about the psychology of sales through Neil. Are there any sales insights that fit with your sense of negotiations?

AJA:  For many a person Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Fisher and Ury was their introduction to negotiation. There Fisher and Ury set out a staged theory of negotiation that building on common ground should produce a shared solution that meets the parties’ key interests and needs, and solves the problem that brought them to the table in the first place. The book and many of its derivative works, though, are less eloquent on how precisely do you do it.

For me, Neil’s book, SPIN Selling filled in that missing blank. By asking questions, particularly Implication and Need/Payoff Questions, one can uncover the explicit needs of the Other and address them. With that knowledge common ground can be more readily identified and built.

How powerful a tool are questions? Inestimable. Questions reveal the Other’s needs, values, and priorities. They help with elegant option development. They expose problems in your own thinking. Questions are a solid alternative to saying no. They help you manage the negotiation, giving you time to process the information you hear and figure out how you want to deal with it.

Questions help you build trust. There is nothing more powerful than listening and using the information you are hearing to build common ground. Nothing convinces the Other more that you care and are worthy of their trust.

CHG: Part of why this book resonated so well with me is the fundamental stress on relationship; that’s what trust is so much about, too. I know you’ve thought about trust, presumably about trust as it relates to negotiation and mediation. Do tell us what you think about it?

AJA: Trust is a matter of choice.You can choose to trust, or not. You can choose to be trust-worthy, or not. You can negotiate with people whom you trust and with those whom you do not. Trusting appropriately just makes negotiation easier.

Clients use proxy measures when deciding whom to trust. It is clear from research that clients look for competence, candor, and concern in the professionals they retain. The more the client sees the consultant being competent, candid, and concerned about the client, the more the client tends to trust the consultant. It is easy to say, “Be candid, concerned, and competent,” but it is not always easy to do and even harder to prove that you are being candid, concerned, and competent.

Try proving you are trustworthy by saying to someone, “Candidly….” Saying that invariably puts the Other instantly on guard. Additionally, it raises an issue where none existed: Were you not being candid before? When will you deceive again? There are clearly ways to prove you are Other-focused. Asking questions helps prove to the Other that what they say, think, and feel is important to you. Disclosure of internal information helps, too, particularly when it makes your motivations and perceptions transparent.

Your book brings this all home. In one of the best books on earning and deserving trust, The Trusted Advisor, you and your colleagues, David H. Maister and Robert M. Galford, take these earlier findings one step further, developing what you called the trust equation where trust is a function of credibility, reliability, intimacy, and self-orientation. You found that the more credible, reliable, and intimate one is with and about the Other and the less self-oriented they are, the more they will be trusted by the Other. Words to live by.

CHG: Let’s get beyond architects alone here. Is there a Single Biggest Mistake people make in thinking about negotiation? Or a Big Three?

AJA:  To answer that question, let us pin down the kind of expert negotiator I have in mind. Based on Huthwaite research I have come to classify as “expert” those negotiators who share three characteristics: They have a track record of reaching agreements, a track record of their agreements being implemented successfully, and a track record of the Other being willing to negotiate with them again. In other words, I value, as experts, people who, time after time, successfully resolve their principals’ long-term and short-term problems through negotiation and in such a way that the Other is willing to work with them again.

What do these experts have in common? They prepare and strategize for the negotiation before the negotiation so that when they sit down with the Other they have freed themselves to listen, and they listen hard and well. They use the information they hear to locate an idea they can support and build on, ultimately yielding common ground. And even as they close in on a negotiated agreement, they prod. “How will that work?” What if x happens?” “How will it play out if all things go well, and if they do not?” "Is there anything we can do to build success into the effort?"

These negotiators are committed to long-term success of the parties and the agreement. If the agreement is to fall apart, they want it to fall apart before it is signed, so that they can pick up the papers, shake them off, and try again. And that is why they and their clients succeed and the Other is willing to negotiate with them again.

CHG: Ava, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for ‘stopping by’ to chat with us, and for sharing your wisdom and insights.

Disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate and receive a very small commission for products purchased through my Amazon links.

## Do Lawyers Behave Rationally?

Of course they do. Just ask them.

They—at least those in the US—will also tend to define “rational” as based on linear, deductive thinking. Not unlike the law.

Dispute resolution, from this perspective, is largely a zero sum battle. That “win-win” stuff may work in business, but not when the chips are down in a court of law. Right?

Well, not so fast. Jim Peterson is a lawyer who handled European litigation for one of the global accounting firms; an American in Paris, he has a lot of perspective. And he shared with me this story:

I picked up a valuable lesson early in my expatriate experience in Europe – where the importance of personal contacts and relationship-building can elude the grasp of typically impatient Americans.

When I first arrived in Paris, I inherited a file on a long-standing claim by a French company against my American client. The suit was pending in Germany, where it had been largely dormant for five years, partly because of the ponderous system for large commercial litigation but more because local German counsel felt they were handling an annuity matter that would fund their retirements.

With this lack of urgency, the parties had had only desultory contacts about settlement, and the case management budget steadily hemorrhaged legal fees.

My first task was to contact my opposite in-house number about some trivial interim topic. From a brief telephone call that barely got beyond the “new guy in town” introductions, it was clear that for the time being the two companies had nothing to talk about.

Notwithstanding, as a new resident I triggered a follow-up call, to invite my French adversary to lunch. The explicit condition was that we were not to transact business or mention the litigation.

In summary, a good time was had, over an excellent meal.

More years passed, with no activity other than the ongoing drain of fees, until suddenly the settlement cork was pulled. Led by the Germans, there was real progress but an eventual make-or-break impasse. The local clients and outside counsel had gone as far as they could.

We inside counsel re-convened in France. Drawing on the modest but real stock of personal good will built up over lunch those years before – in truth not much more than the prosaic “How’s the family”– we were able to negotiate successfully and bring the matter to a mutually satisfactory close.

Could it have happened other ways? Perhaps. Had a long-term friendship been established? Clearly not. But I would never underestimate the value of the pay-off, from two hours invested in the sole achievement of a fine French meal and a measure of camaraderie.

Did Jim pursue a “rational” approach? If by “rational” you mean did it make sense, did it achieve outcomes, quickly and inexpensively? Absolutely.  In fact, the "French lunch strategy" beat the crap out of the usual adversarial system.

But if by “rational” you mean according to cognitive rules, case law and the procedures of the court—no way Jose. The traditional “rational” approach would have resulted in, as Jim said, only in an annuity for many lawyers.

Sometimes it makes sense—a ton of sense—to completely avoid the “rational” set of logical processes and systems.

Sometimes it’s rational to just be human. (Not to mention more pleasant). Yes, for lawyers too. Even American ones. In fact, for all service providers. (And it probably even works with California wines).

(Jim used to write a column for the International Herald Tribume. It continues at Re:Balance, where his current post compares Lehman Brothers’ fall with that of Arthur Andersen).

## Meeting Price Objections from Trust

When the customer says, “I don’t know, that sounds kind of high to me…” what do you do? How does Trust-based Selling™ handle customers’ concerns regarding price?

First, note the sales jargon for this situation—it gets called “objection handling.” The wording is revealing. It suggests we have a conflict with our customer, an oppositional situation—their side is objecting to our side. And our job is to “handle” it. Kind of like a counter-move in wrestling.

But what if you’re trying to create a trust-based relationship with a customer? In that case, this isn’t about “objections,” much less “handling” them. Instead, it’s about a mutual inquiry as to whether joint value can be created—or not. Price is—at bare minimum—a simple and necessary part of the discussion.

But much more importantly, when we hear price comments as “objections,” we immediately jump to a place of high self-orientation—the trust-destroying denominator in the trust equation. Omigosh, they’re pushing back against me—I’ve got to counter-attack.

Thought one in responding from trust—it’s not about you. In fact, it’s never about you. It’s always about the customer. What looks like a threatening price objection is actually a great opportunity to learn something important about a customer, and a chance to add value right in the sales process itself. Here’s why.

Most price “objections” are simply expressions of dismay or concern—feelings—on the part of the customer. Most fall into five categories. Helping the customer identify these feelings and these categories is a positive help in and of itself. The actual words spoken can be identical: “— that sounds kind of high to me.” But they mask very different meanings:

The categories are:

1. Naïve. Uh oh, that’s way bigger than I thought. Subtext: "I feel ashamed; I didn’t understand what was involved in buying this product/service before talking to this person."

2. Out of Date. That’s more than we can afford. Subtext: "I feel embarrassed—I invited this person in thinking we could do it in this year’s budget. Now I see that won’t work."

3. Engineer. Wait a minute, I don’t see why it should be that much. Subtext: "That doesn’t make sense—they must be quoting me the fully-loaded version, let’s reverse engineer it."

4. Comparison Shopper. Hey wait—how do I know you’re not screwing me? Subtext: "I want to get a good deal, maybe not the best, but in the top half, so I need to know the real prices."

5. Bazaar Lover. Aha, the game is on! Subtext: "I don’t care what you quote me, I’m going to get 20% off! I love this part of the buying process!"

Each of these subtexts requires a very different response. The good news is—the responses are obvious. All we have to do as the seller is to ask! Ask the buyer what’s behind their words; what kind of concern are they expressing when they say, “I don’t know, sounds a little high to me.” What are they feeling?

Our job is simply to explain that all reasons are valid, and that we simply need to know which is operative here. Simply by stating them for what they are, buyers one and two feel relieved of their shame and embarrassment. And while this transaction won’t happen, you just vastly increased the odds of them buying from you in the future.

Number three becomes a simple job of itemizing features and costs—as long as we are not attached to the margin on every little feature. An easy sale.

Number four is solved by the willingness to be transparent, within the bounds of what’s legal. Another easy sale—as long as your price is fair.

Number five just wants to have fun. So build in a little upside, and be prepared to give a little more up; and enjoy yourself along with the buyer.

This is not about “handling objections.” It is about using curiosity and customer focus to build relationships. The profits follow—as long as we remember we’re supposed to be on the same side of the table as our customer, and in a relationship that is the sum of multiple transactions.

## Competing With Your Supplier is Not a Best Practice

Fortune’s Geoff Colvin writes in the July 21 edition about Gary Reiner, GE’s CIO, in Information Worth Billions: General Electric’s CIO Tells How He Makes Infotech Pay In a Big Way.

Reiner reports directly to Jeff Immelt, GE’s CEO. Immelt wants three things from him—one of which is sourcing. Says Reiner:

"…we were one of the first to do e-auctioning. Our job would be to commoditize the item as much as possible and then leverage IT to have our suppliers bid for the business.

Of course, Reiner says that though GE loves to buy through reverse auctions, it hates to sell that way.

"…the more commodity-like the part or service is, the easier it is to auction; and the more differentiated, the less easy it is to auction…we try to make more of our business portfolio be products and services that are non-commodity—that are differentiated. So we are not as auctioned on the sell side as we are on the buy side.

All well and good. And of course (insert here your favorite paragraph on the fabulous track record of GE, Jack Welch, etc.).

And yet, and yet…

I’m left with the inescapable feeling that Reiner—and Immelt, and GE—view business as being exclusively and exhaustively about competition. Including competing with your suppliers. And competing with your customers.

With suppliers, it’s about extracting the best price from an auction. With customers, it’s about extracting the best price by avoiding an auction.

In both cases, it’s about extracting maximum price in a zero-sum transaction whose boundaries are limited to product features, product quality, and price. What’s good for me is not good for you, and vice versa. We are inextricably opposed.

If that sounds perfectly obvious and normal to you, then think about what’s missing.

A relationship. An approach of collaboration. A view that this transaction isn’t a carefully negotiated one-night stand, but rather a joint journey. A view that gets beyond mere product characteristics and price. A sense of commitment to customers or suppliers. A feeling of responsibility for the health of both parties. A willingness to pool information, rather than use it as a wedge.

That’s some of what’s missing.

Let’s call GE’s view the “competition-centric” view. It was given intellectual expression and validity by Michael Porter in his 1978 classic Competitive Strategy. In that book, Porter laid out quite clearly the nature of business: it was to compete. And the nature of competition was equally clear. There were five competitive dynamics facing the firm: two of those five were the competitive struggle between the firm and its customers, and the firm and its suppliers.

In other words—business, by this view, is quite specifically about competing with your customers (and suppliers).

This view is not “wrong” per se. It helped a lot of companies—including GE—to survive and prosper.

But this is not your father’s business world. Nor Jack Welch’s. Not any longer.

Today’s "flat" business world—30 years after Porter—is about extended enterprises, not hard-walled corporations. It’s about supply chains, not about monolithic vertically integrated organizations. Best practices today are about collaboration, not competition; about influencing, not managing; about commercial relationships, not competitive ones. It’s about 1+1=3, not "do unto others before they do unto me."

Those who succeed today aren’t those who play “hardball,” but those who learned early on to play nicely in the sandbox with others. Because in today’s business world, there is no longer any separation worth the name; in a globally scaled world, everyone outsources pretty much everything. A competitor today is a collaborator tomorrow and a customer or supplier on alternate Tuesdays.

Exhibit 1: the auto industry. Toyota has a genuine cost advantage over Detroit because it has always treated its suppliers as an extended organization—not as enemies to be kept at bay and bled nearly dry. That collaborative advantage is the competitive truth—not the self-serving excuses (by Welch, among others) about health care and pension costs (which were after all freely signed into contracts by Detroit management without a gun to its head).

Yet the dominant business ideology in the West continues to be—competition. These antiquated belief systems are increasingly at direct odds with the horizontal, extended, diffuse, globally interdependent world we now live in.

And of course, that’s how it works. Beliefs die hard—well after the conditions that birthed them are long gone. Ideology is the last vestige of a changing world.

Competing with your customers? If that was ever a “best practice,” it should now be relegated to an increasingly bygone world. It’s not “bad” or “wrong”—it just doesn’t work as well anymore. And that trend is only increasing.

## Walking Away Equally Unhappy

Ever hear the phrase “a good negotiation is one where both parties walk equally unhappy?”

I’ve heard it attributed to various negotiation programs, and always intuitively knew it felt wrong. Applied to the metaphor of relationships, which I feel is a better metaphor for matters of trust, it comes up wanting.

In the relationship metaphor world, “both parties walking away equally unhappy” is a recipe for divorce.

I figured that for a tidy little blog topic, so I googled the phrase “walk away equally unhappy”—but found only eleven instances in total.

Of the eleven, only three used the phrase approvingly: once by a divorce attorney, once by an estate lawyer, and once by an online commenter talking about buying used cars online. Hey, I just report the news.

Most uses of the phrase were said by way of disapproval—the bulk coming from Diane Levin. Diane is a lawyer by training, but a mediator by inclination. An early champion of ADR (alternative dispute resolution), it’s clear from her writings (I don’t know her personally beyond her “about me” section) she is well versed in and receptive to the idea that one plus one is very much what we make of it.
Whether the arena is corporate negotiations or divorce or contract disputes, her motto is “only connect,” which she does online as well as in real life. Negotiations need not be adversarial interactions; each such interaction is another opportunity to create unlimited value.

At the risk of appearing un-objective—she is completely right.

Yul Brynner reportedly said, “We come into this world alone, and we leave it the same way; if someone offers you friendship along the way, you don’t spit on it.” That’s the minimalist, barebones, ironic statement of the proposition. It’s true even said that way.

We have a choice about how to deal with others. We can take the risks of trusting, and of being trusted. Or we can shut down. If we do the former, sometimes we get burned. That’s life.

Butif we spend our lives, and build our institutions, and conduct our economies, so as to avoid getting burned, we end up losing our life too. Just a little more slowly, and qualitatively. But no less in the end.

Kudos to Diane, who won’t settled for people walking away equally unhappy. Good for you.

## Negotiation and the Short Term Performance Trap

Economists and psychologists love intellectual puzzles like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, a game that posits a 2-person bargaining or competition situation.

In The Prisoner’s Dilemma, one person goes free if he “rats out” the other prisoner and the other prisoner stays mum. Unfortunately, if both rat out each other, they each get life in prison.  If both stay mum, they each get off with just a year.

When the game is played with strangers—one time only—the most common result is the double-rat-out.  Oops.

The challenge to economists is to explain why people so frequently do not act “rationally.”

The answer shows up when you play it ten times in a row. With a friend. With eye contact.

But—especially—from playing it ten times in a row.

Then the players quickly learn to cooperate.  (Though sometimes they’ll turn vicious again the last round.  Or maybe not. Think reality TV shows.)

The point is: it’s smart to think collaboration, cooperation, medium to long term focus.  Not a one-time, zero-sum, confrontational me-vs.-you outcome.

The learning for managers, sales managers, brokers, etc. is clear: if you think you’ll never see this customer again, nor have to deal with this customer’s spouse, friend, or cousin, and you think no one will ever hear what you’re about to do, and you’ll gladly trade a good reputation for money—then go ahead, squeeze the customer, try to win the negotiation—treat it like a transaction.

All others: operate on the assumption of multiple transactions—which, for lack of a better term, let’s call relationships.

Assume you will have repeat customers; that your reputation matters, even in terms of simple self-interest; that what goes around comes around; that six degrees of separation in today’s world is a vast overstatement, and it’ll bite you if you don’t believe it.

It’s a simple enough answer. People in social situations routinely act as if they’re a member of an ongoing social group, even if they’re not. (See for example similar results regarding The Ultimatum Game).

That, however, is in social situations.  At the business level, particularly with customers, another belief system often gets in the way.  I hear it frequently.  It sounds like this:

You don’t understand, Charlie; around here, you get measured on short-term results. So there’s a lot of pressure. You have to be a lot tougher on customers—terms, pricing. Trust is nice and all that; but I’ve got a job and a bonus structure and I’ve got to make a living. Go tell it to my boss.

OK, let’s tell it to”your boss.”

Every time you treat a customer from a transactional point of view, you are hurting your long-term profitability. And the short term has a way of turning long-term very quickly. You run out of new customers to squeeze to get all you can in one deal.  And if you rat-out your customer, and your customer rats you out in return, you just bought yourself long-term low profit prison terms.

Put another way:

The best short-term performance does not come from short-term management—it comes from medium- and long-term management done well.

Management, that is, based on the presumption of a relationship, not a series of oppositional transactions. Management based on principles, not self-interest.  If you want to be in charge of your own long-term career, don’t let “your boss” ruin it with short-term management.  Your customers will remember your behavior, not your boss’s words.

Trust makes money.  Prisoners who rat each other out lose money.