Tuesday, 3 June 2008 Entries

The art of negotiation

A fact of life in the business world is that relationships sometimes go sour. This is nothing new and can come about from a variety of factors which if not dealt with swiftly can, in the end, become a dispute that needs resolution.

Thankfully, I can only point to a rare but recent case which arose after a number of years of a successful working relationship between us and our intermediaries (the people who liaised with our client).

Towards the conclusion of a specific part of a project, there arose a dispute on the interpretation on the scope of works and monies owed.

Put simply, it was a failure to communicate consistently between senior members of both teams. Pistols were drawn and each party matched email to email and spreadsheet to spreadsheet as proof of their respective cases.

After a few meetings, both parties agreed that there must now come a point of resolution or we would all go crazy with spreadsheet overload. This led to what we termed the ‘final meeting’, whereby a venue was chosen and strategies were put in place.

The intimidation strategy

To prepare for the ‘final meeting’, we put together a PowerPoint presentation to hit them with the facts, mark our territory and get them to see the error of their ways.

We also rehearsed in a mock presentation prior to the meeting with our in-house coach (AKA fellow office worker).

Another tree was felled with a copy of the PowerPoint for all parties and a hard copy of the spreadsheets. For good measure a member of our finance division attended the meeting to send a message that this was of concern to management.

The showdown

The meeting began with each party facing each other at either ends of a table. As the PowerPoint was switched on I detected an anguished sigh from the other side, followed by some glazed expressions on their faces. I would hate to presume what was going on their minds but here are some suggestions:

  • “It is nearly lunchtime”
  • “I wonder if there is a good restaurant nearby because I’ll really need a good drink after this meeting” or
  • “I hope I put enough coins in the meter because that would really bug me if I get a ticket’.

Finally a sum is mentioned, our team leave the room stony-faced to discuss the offer and come back with a counter offer. This decision is greeted with dismay, irritation and a sense of injury as they are really trying to help us and now have to negotiate our case with the client.

The deal is done, hands are shaken and pleasantries exchanged. Returning to our desks I hastily put away every bit of information relating to the case.

All textbooks on developing successful relationships will tell you a relationship should never get to the ‘final meeting’. But another group of business writers and psychologists have made a great deal of money by telling us how to deal with the situation once it has reached this point.

So what is to learn from this?

Firstly, it is difficult to adopt a style of negotiation and bravado if it is not already part of your character and way of doing business. In any case, does such a display really achieve anything given both parties already have their bottom lines and will not be wavering from it to any significant degree?

Secondly, the importance of regular meetings between parties is critical to ensuring that any misconceptions are put to bed as quickly as possible.

And finally, there needs to be continuity of staff dealing with the project at both junior and senior levels. The more change of staff there is with a long-term project, the more critical the need for regular and face-to-face communication.

Too save on the emotional wear and tear of the parties up to and including the ‘final meeting’ and the subsequent performance (unless there is a paying audience), perhaps each party should be put under the cone of silence, holding cards up to show the final sums that are to be negotiated. The parties are therefore trapped until there is an agreement of the final sum. Mostly the impetus would lie in the fact that each party just wants to agree to be able to get out of the cone of silence.

Further, the cone needs to be sufficiently small so it cannot accommodate your legal representative joining you. If it worked for Maxwell Smart it can work for us... or did it really work for him?

Maureen Jackson is a director at Davis Langdon.

Maureen Jackson | Tuesday, 3 June 2008 7:00 AM |