Best practices -Negotiations – How A Shoe Shine Helped Remind Me About Fundamental Principles of Negotiations and Good Business.

As I write this article I am on a flight to Las Vegas to attend the annual Conference of the American Institute of Architects.  As we taxied down the runway, I was thinking about an interaction I had at the airport I wanted to share with you.

As I was making my way to my gate, I passed a shoe shine stand.  As I walked by, the man called out in a voice just loud enough for me to hear, “Quick Shoe Shine”.  He must have noticed my scuffed leather boots which I love to wear but have not cleaned in a while.  I continued walking, but started thinking that I did need my shoes shined. Since I don’t typically carry much cash, I stopped and checked my wallet, confirmed that I had enough to pay and sat in the center chair.

The attendant, Joseph, was a middle aged man in his fifties from Liberia.  He shared with me that he had 5 daughters, the youngest was 18.  We talked the whole time exchanging small details about our personal lives and sharing common points of view on life and the world at large.

Joseph did a great job shining my shoes.  I don’t think they ever looked this good.  The price was quite reasonable too.  As approached the end of our time together, Joseph shared with me that he had a perfect rating from his customers.  He had printouts from online surveys that showed 5 stars from every rating and a couple of paper certificates with Joseph’s name on them saying that he was the employee of the quarter for several quarters running.

Of course I was very impressed and I congratulated him on his achievement.

Joseph has a simple job.  He shines shoes.  There is not much complexity in his job.  If Joseph did not do his part correctly, no one would have much to say.  They would simply not come back, and given the transient nature of an airport, that seems like a negligible consequence.  The fact that so many people have taken the time to rate Joseph was impressive to me.

As I think about Joseph and contemplate how he endeared himself to me.  Even through his thick accent, I felt connected to him.  I am certainly apt to come back the next time I am in Newark Airport and I might even specifically seek him out.

How did this man who fills such a small and innocuous role manage to connect with so many people in such a transient place and with such a short amount of time?

Let’s consider what my time with Joseph was like.

I started the conversation by asking where he was from.  That simple question opened the door for him.  He began by telling me about his family.  From there we discussed politics in his country and the cost of auto maintenance. The conversation was light, but lively.  It was a very respectful but casual.  We never spoke about shoes except for when he asked me to confirm the color was right.

At the end when he told me about his rating, he did not ask me to rate him, he simply told me that others had rated him highly.  When he shared his awards he did so with demonstrated pride.

As I contemplate this interaction and thought about my own interactions with Clients I want to capture how these simple actions made me want to do business with Joseph again.

Here are my observations:

Be your authentic self

The best thing about Joseph was that he was not pretending to be anyone other than his authentic self.  He was not pretentious, he did not put on airs, or have a chip on his shoulder.  Joseph seemed happy in his role and owned it with pride.  The message was simple, I shine shoes and I do it well.

This kind of authenticity comes through in the way he treats people, the way he takes pride in his work, and how he performs his job with a smile.  So many people walk around wishing they were doing something else.  They make excuses for poor performance or blame others when things don’t go their way.

Be yourself, own your stuff.  Don’t make excuses and be your authentic self.

Treat people with respect

The tone between Joseph and myself was one of mutual respect.  He was never rude and I was never demeaning.  He held himself with self-respect never appeared meek or small, but he treated me with the regard of a revered customer.  I responded in kind and we shared a mutual respect for each other.

We may not always enjoy the company of someone who reciprocates with a respectful tone, but leading with that and sticking close to a tone of respect is more likely to engender the same in return.

Treat your customers with respect even if they don’t give you the same regard.

Be Personable and Share a little about Yourself

Despite living in an era where people are obsessed with sharing insignificant details on the internet, when it comes to face to face discussions we fall short.  Too many of us don’t know how to relate to one another in person.  We pass up live opportunities to share genuine human interactions and squander opportunities to connect.  During face to face interactions we need to open up and share a little bit about ourselves.  This helps us come across as genuine and builds deeper connections.

There is the risk of sharing too much.  Topics I tend t avoid are politics, religion, and relationship issues, but sharing details like; recent milestones in your life (graduation, promotion, new roles, marriage, birth of a child, etc.), recent family events, vacations you were recently on, or even a movie you just saw (and what you thought of it) are great ways to connect.

Be open and willing to share about yourself in order to connect more deeply.

Ask about the other person

In this case, I led Joseph to talk about himself, but it did not take much to get him talking.  He also reciprocated by asking about me.  There is no better way to endear yourself to someone than to ask about them.  A simple gesture like asking about a family member goes a long way towards making a connection.

I cannot tell you how many time I have been in a meeting with someone where I got them talking about themselves but they never asked anything about me.  This shows little regard for others and is a big turn-off.  This kind of disregard is perceived even if only subliminally and could cost you great opportunities.

Take genuine interest in others in order to show regard for them.

Show your pride

I love the fact that Joseph shared his ratings and awards with me.  Doing so triggered a critical lever of negotiations which is referred to as consensus.  Consensus is when popular opinion guides our thinking.  This is why marketers use spokespeople or share testimonials.  If all those other people thought this was a good shoe shine, so should I.  By sharing his rating and his company’s recognition of him, Joseph told me that others thought he was good and that reinforced my perception that he was.

Too many of us (myself included) feel that sharing our successes is boastful and unbecoming.  Joseph showed me that you can share your success without appearing boastful.  He appeared proud and did not use it to get me to shine my shoes.  In fact it was only after my shoes were shined that he pointed to the stack of papers in the chair beside me.

Tell the world how good you are and let them know when others give you praise.

Shine the shoes for the next time not for this time

There was one thing that Joseph did at the end of our interaction that stood out as the most insightful.  As I was getting ready to pay, I realized all I had was $7.00.  Now the shine was $6.00 so I had enough to cover what I owed, but because Joseph was so personable and the shine was so good, I really wanted to give him more than just $1.00 in tip.  As I handed him the money, I showed him that this was all I had.  I excused myself by saying apologetically “this is all I have”.  At that moment, Joseph looked at me and said with a smile, “that’s okay, I did not shine your shoes for this time, I shined them for next time”.  Amazingly, this man who’s job is so small and caters to a transient clientele just told me that he not only hopes I will come back, he expects me to come back.  What an amazing perspective!

Don’t dwell on what benefit you receive Today, think about the long term benefit and do your best with the expectation that you will work together again later.  Following my own advice from number 5, I will share that this is a fundamental tenet of my own business ideals and reflects the way I treat every engagement.  Regardless, seeing this behavior in this context was a good reminder of the value this mindset brings.  “Do your very best” is probably an overused phrase, but this idea takes on a different dimension when we bear in mind that we will be interacting with a Client again in the future.

Keep in mind that a good deed Today is likely to result in greater benefit Tomorrow.


I’m so happy to have met Joseph.  Despite how good his shoe shine was, in a week these old boots of mine will probably need to be shined again.  If I’m anywhere near Newark Airport, you can bet I will seek him out, but the business lessons I got from Joseph will stay with me much longer.

I hope you gleaned as much as I did from this interaction.  I hope you will take these lessons forward into your own interactions and learn from Joseph the way that I did.

What about you?  Which of these lessons will you adopt?  Are any of these fundamental in your life?  Tell me your stories.

Thanks for reading.  If you enjoyed this content, please feel free to browse my previous articles and please like, share, comment, and subscribe.  This helps promote my content and is greatly appreciated.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.