Billy Rose, the famous showman, asked in one of his essays: "Did you ever wonder how short, middle-aged men end up getting beautiful young women to marry them?"

His answer: "They ask them."

I find that this approach works just as well for people looking for a break on services.

I am amazed at what airlines, hotels, stores, and banks will do for you if you just ask, "Don't you have something cheaper?"

For example, the desk clerk at a hotel recently told me his lowest rate is $109 per night. But when I challenged him, he said, "We do have a rate of $89 a night, but that comes with a free breakfast."

Figure that out.

An airline representative tells me, "Our lowest rate to Chicago is $229."

I go to another airline and am offered $159.

On my way to the plane, I stop and tell the first agent the rate the other line gave me.

"Oh, we have that rate too," she replied. "It's just not the regular rate; you have to ask for it."

Appliances and car purchases give the best (or worst) examples of this "you have to ask for it" principle.

Everyone hates the bargaining involved in buying a car. No matter how low the final price, you feel you could have done better.

I remember complaining about this in my column a few years ago, and an auto dealer responded in a letter, saying:

"If Mr. Nadler had only been willing to pay the standard price posted on the window of his new car, he would not have had this unpleasant experience."

I remember only once feeling good about the price I paid for an appliance, a video cassette recorder that was on sale.

"That price is so low," the salesman said, "we can't afford to accept credit cards in payment. It must be cash or a check so we don't have to pay the discount to the card issuer."

Does the same bargaining take place in banking? You bet!

In many lending transactions, bankers practice the philosophy that if customers accept their rate without bargaining it means they have little intention of paying off the loan.

Customers routinely win disputes over fees imposed for overdrafts, excessive check writing, late payments, or drawing on uncollected funds.

When consultants are brought in to improve profitability, they know that one place to look is waived charges.

The officer usually takes the attitude: "Why should I care? My department gets no credit for the fee income, and I become a hero with my customer."

One solution is for the bank regularly to publish a list of the officers who have waived the most fees. Finding themselves high on this list often makes officers less generous.

Why does the bank allow this? Does leniency make it look good when customers find that they can get lower interest costs or fewer fees? No.

Rather, it makes the customer feel like a fool for accepting without a struggle any charge the bank imposes.

I remember cashing a check at an out-of-town bank where I was giving a talk and asking the president how much the transaction cost.

His honest answer: "Someday we hope we'll know."

Well, this is someday. We can now determine costs far more accurately than when I cashed that check. So why not set fair fees based on costs and stick to them?

When a bank lets borrowers renegotiate loan terms or waives fees, word of mouth spreads pretty rapidly. And the institution will soon be pressed to do the same for many others. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is a professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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