The Briefcase Technique: How to Negotiate a Higher Salary

One thing I’ve always hated about job interviews is when they ask what my salary expectations are.

What do you say to that? Your primary goal in the interview is to get the job in the first place. Once you start talking salary, it’s like fighting a war on two fronts. Will you say something way too high and be dropped from consideration? Will you shoot to low and win the battle while losing the war?

I think the best strategy might be this: price high, then justify.

Of course, Ramit Sethi has an even better strategy. It’s the exact inversion of what I just described: Justify then price high.

It’s called the briefcase technique and here’s how it works.

The Original Briefcase Technique

Ramit Sethi, author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, created the briefcase technique for freelancers looking to land clients.

The work starts before you meet with the client. You research their business and try to spot specific issue that they might be having. Problems, pain points, challenges, things they could be doing better if they had more resources, etc.

Then you create a 1-5 page proposal document that is a “menu of options” for them to choose from.

When you meet with the potential client, the issue of your rates will come up. They’ll ask you a question like “how much do you charge?”

Instead of answering immediately, you say: “Just a second, I have something I want to show you before we talk about that.” And—with a dramatic flourish—you pull your proposal out of your briefcase and hand it to them.

If you did your homework well, you’ve just handed them something incredibly compelling. They now have potential solutions to problems that have been perplexing them. Now, whatever price you ask, is justified.

This exact plan works best for freelancers, but it can be applied to two other groups as well: job hunters and those looking for potential raises or promotions.

The Briefcase Technique for Job Interviews

If you’re interviewing for a company where there’s going to be just one interview and then they’ll pick someone, the briefcase technique is going to be pretty tough to pull off. You’ll need either:

  • Really good research skills, or
  • Intimate knowledge of the industry and its problems

Fortunately, most job openings involve a lengthier process where there will be multiple interviews. This is where you have an opening.

Let’s say your first interview is a phone interview with the manager of the department you’d be working for. At some point they’ll ask you if you have any questions for them.

This is a golden opportunity to research their business. You want to ask questions like:

  • What problems or challenges is your business facing?
  • What are some of the problems your department in particular is struggling with?

Take notes, listen, and ask follow-up questions to dig deeper. “Oh, your processes are executed inconsistently because there’s no documentation? That’s interesting. What have you been doing to address it?”

At home, research how others have dealt with the specific issues you uncovered. Read case studies. Ask questions on forums. Rack your own brain for ideas.

You have the building blocks of a proposal.

Here’s a question, how many other candidates for the job will come with a 1-5 page proposal that offers real solutions to real problems?

The Briefcase Technique for Landing Raises

When you already work for a company, you have an unfair advantage. You work there. If you are observant, you know what problems the face your company and your department.

One easy way to catalog these is to pay attention anytime someone complains (which is a lot). Be interested in what they have to say. Why are they upset? What is the real problem they see?

As you notice problems on your own, take note of them and come up with ideas to fix them.

One strategy for landing a raise is to do good work, fix problems, and hope your employer will recognize your efforts on the back end. The briefcase technique suggests that this approach might be backwards.

Schedule a meeting with your boss and ask what it would take to earn a raise or promotion. There’s an off chance that she might have a clear and ready answer for you. If so, great. Decide how you’ll know when you’ve earned the potential raise, document your conversation with an email, and schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss progress.

If she doesn’t know how to answer you, say “well, I was thinking about some ideas to improve the department…” and pull out your proposal with style.

The unfortunate truth is that if you proactively addressed these problems, there’s a chance it would be rewarded and a chance it would be chalked up to you just doing your job. You want to make it clear that your proposal is above and beyond the normal scope of your job. You don’t just want a raise, you want to earn a raise by making things better when you could just coast.

If you’ve done your homework, you’ll make a compelling case.

More Negotiation Tips From Ramit

Ramit was really a big influence on me. He opened my eyes to just how many things could be negotiated. Not just salaries, but also late fees, credit card interest rates, etc. He often urges his readers to “negotiate like an Indian” and shares stories of going with his dad to a dealership over the course of several consecutive days to haggle over a car. He says he remembers eating breakfast at a dealership one time.

He shares a ton of negotiation tips and scripts in the book I Will Teach You to Be Rich. You can find most of my favorite tips of his in my review of the book.

Final Thoughts

The briefcase technique was a brilliant idea. Possibly its best feature is that it can be applied outside its original intended use with a little creativity.

The moral of the story is clear: Do your homework and you’ll be in a much better position to ask for what you want.

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