How to be a better negotiator
The Romans are generally credited with inventing negotiation. Even as Romulus and Remus frolicked along the banks of the Tiber River, some guy in a toga was trying to figure out a better way to resolve a dispute with the Scythians and Parthians.
With apologies to Otto Von Bismarck, I believe that negotiation (not politics) is the art of the possible. How you manage a negotiation is in large part a measure of your professional skill set. There are shelves of books that will tell you how to negotiate. There are expensive courses given by experts to provide tips, hints and secrets. They will give you systems, pass/fail measures and algorithms. But frankly, I am not sure if they are written to help you or to sell themselves. If you are considering one of them, check the revision date of the book or the copyright date of the course before you spend your Pro D money.
I’d rather hear a purchasing pro stand up and explain how he or she conducted an intense negotiation for a software license or a cleaning contract with performance measures, or a complicated HVAC system. I want to hear what worked and what didn’t work.
Negotiation is a broad topic, and everyone has his or her own style and personality. So let’s deal with some general factors. First, both who you are and who you negotiate with affect your style and strategy. Your opposition across the table determines what you do, just as your actions determine what he or she does. Everyone has sentiments, emotions, experiences and a past that form part of who they are. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you bring it all to the table. So just accept it and try to filter out what isn’t necessary for the task at hand. And hope the other person can do the same.
Get the authority you need before you negotiate. If necessary, get it in writing (a board resolution, a memo of understanding, etc). There is nothing worse than concluding an agreement and then having to say, “I need to check back with my boss.” It takes away from your abilities.
Frame the issues early. Don’t hand them a list. Speak conversationally and use the language, terms and expressions of the market area. Make sure you have agreement on definitions that are used.
Be nice. Even if it kills you, be nice. If they come to your place to negotiate, provide them with a room, computer, telephone, fax machine and whatever other amenities that can make their life easy. They should do the same for you; if they don’t, then it’s an indication of how they feel about you and the issues. And don’t go into a negotiation with the mindset that you will get everything you want, and leave the other party nothing. Each party has to walk away with something, or else future dealings with them will bite you in a very rude place.
Be polite. If you need to talk to your team, just say, “We need to discuss some things, let’s take a break” or “I could do with some lunch or a snack.” Chances are at that point they need to do the same.
If you feel you are at a stalemate, move to another topic. Move from specific to broader topics. It usually results in more discussion.
Establish goals, use available lead times. Keep your eye on the clock and don’t let time be your enemy. Most negotiations are concluded as time runs out.
Acknowledge differences in attitudes, feelings, values and perceptions. They help establish common ground.
Be skeptical of experts, numbers, graphs and averages. They can be manipulated to suit whoever is using them.
These are just some random thoughts on the process. Think about what you want to accomplish, manage your expectations, rehearse what you and your team want to say and practice, practice, practice. It will make you a better negotiator.
About the author
Frederick Marks, CPPO, VCO, is a retired purchasing officer who has held positions as a supervising buyer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as well as director of material management for Northern Virginia Community College. Contact Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org.