They said what?
Negotiating a business deal is tough enough. But when the room gets tense and the sale looks like it’s slipping away, a poorly placed phrase — or a frustrated expletive — can bring the talks to a screeching halt.
Every sales pro has a story like that, and they make for great cocktail patter. There are plenty of ways to avoid the heartburn in the first place, however.
“We mostly negotiate with people with whom we have or have the potential for a future relationship,” said Margaret Ann Neale, a professor of management at Stanford University’s graduate school of business. “If you want to leverage that relationship, then it’s not about taking no prisoners.”
There are many ways to avoid the brink — or step back from it. The first way people like Neale recommend is to do your homework.
“I’ve got to influence the other side to say yes, which means I’ve got to understand their motives, their preferences and why they’re at the table,” said Neale, co-author of Getting More of What You Want.
That kind of preparation can be difficult, or just tedious. Without it, though, you could be walking into a minefield — or into a deal that’s no good for your company, either.
Keeping your negotiating partners’ interests in mind will keep you from getting hung up on the specifics of an offer, said Tim Wackel, a Dallas-based sales trainer and executive presentation coach.
“The interest is kind of the ‘why’ behind the ‘what,’ ” Wackel said. “Once we find the why behind the what, I think the negotiation goes smoother.”
It’s also important to know how much you’re prepared to give up — and when.
“If you don’t think about the concession strategy and you’re shooting from the hip, that’s when you get caught with your knickers down,” Wackel said.
And avoid the temptation to settle the easy questions first, Neale said. “If you solve all the easy issues, what’s left? The hard ones,” she said. “And then what have you got to trade? Nothing. You end up fighting.”
One of the biggest ways a deal can crash is if the two sides go in thinking of the talks as a battle, a zero-sum game with winners and losers, Neale said, adding that negotiations should be “an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving.”
“As soon as I walk into a situation and you see me armored up, ready for a fight, what are you going to do? Exactly the same thing,” she said. “Now we have a battle, and the issue becomes who’s going to win, not what’s a good deal.”
It’s easy to lose sight of the goal when tempers start running hot, and there’s no reason to keep going if the mercury is climbing.
“If you start hearing your pulse in your ears, there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘Let’s take a 15-minute timeout,’ ” Wackel said. “I think it’s healthy and a show of strength if you’re able interrupt a negotiation and insert a timeout. It shows that you’re refusing to get lathered up . . . and sometimes that 15 minutes is a wonderful opportunity for both parties to calm down and rethink exactly where they’re at.”
If you’ve somehow misjudged what the people on the other side of the table are willing to accept — if their counteroffer is far different than what you’ve expected — that might be a good time for a break, too. And calling for a break shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness, Neale said.
“You’re at a point where that new information could change dramatically your strategy and tactics. You need to be able to adjust,” she said.
And if you’re taking control of the agenda, she said, “How can that be weakness?”
It’s easy to lose perspective in the middle of a tense deal. That’s why it’s important to figure out the stakes going in, Wackel said.
“When you make that deal the center of your universe, you’re going to make mistakes,” he said. “You’re going to be stupid about it. You’re going to let your emotion run, and you’re not going to be logical about what’s going on.”
Step back. Take a deep breath. If the deal tanks, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Odds are, your spouse isn’t going to die. Your kids aren’t going to run away. Odds are your dog’s not going to die,” Wackel said.
After all, sometimes no deal is better than a bad deal.
Not every deal should end in an agreement and sometimes if you make a mistake and you find yourself in such a bad position, put the shovel down. Quit digging. Walk away.
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