In an organisation of any size, you are unlikely to find yourself all on your own in a complex negotiation. Chances are there will be subject matter experts, finance, legal, sales or procurement, operations… maybe even human resources if the deal will impact directly on staff. This can be immensely comforting, as it enables you to share some of the burden of responding to questions and resolving issues.

Not surprisingly, though, having others involved in ‘your’ negotiation can sometimes be as much of a hindrance as a help. Why?

To address this question, let’s think first about the fundamental purpose of your negotiation.

What outcomes do you want to achieve? These will be made up of lots of component parts, all of which are interrelated and linked together through the deal you’re negotiating. They might include:

  • Particular tangible deliverables, meeting specified quality and performance criteria
  • Intangible deliverables that will facilitate operational benefits within your business
  • Financial objectives, to do with price, cash flow and payment terms
  • Risk management objectives, to limit your company’s legal and commercial exposure to its own and the other party’s failures
  • Personal objectives, related to enhancing your own personal performance, image or credibility
  • Positive contribution to corporate goals such as sustainability, fair partnering or equal opportunities

During your negotiation planning you will have created your own list of objectives covering all of these areas and more, as appropriate to your business and the deal you’re negotiating. You will have prioritised your objectives and identified those that are directly (or sometimes, inversely!) related. You will have considered, for each of these priorities, where your opening point for negotiation should be, and at what point you will walk away.

And, of course, you will have conducted a similar exercise in respect of the other party, doing your best to figure out what their objectives are likely to be in all of these areas and how you can align the two.

This process, so neatly summed up in a couple of paragraphs, can be extremely complex and time-consuming. Resolving prioritisation issues within your own list can be a great challenge – is timely delivery more important than price? Or can you sacrifice some cash to receive benefits sooner? -And despite your expertise and experience, you will not be able to document all of these priorities, their relationships and the factors that impact upon them in exhaustive detail. Instead, their interplay will be dynamic and will rely upon your own assessment of matters as they develop throughout the negotiation.

So what happens when we add people to the negotiating team?

Let’s consider this from two perspectives – the conscious team member and the accidental team member.

The conscious team member is an individual who has been invited to participate in the negotiation process by you, the negotiator. In any team negotiation, each party may have only ONE negotiator.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that only one person on the team can be empowered to make concessions and share information with the other party.

That doesn’t mean that all negotiations should be channelled through that single negotiator, with the rest of the team huddling silently on the side lines. It means that the negotiator takes responsibility for EVERY concession made, and EVERY item of information shared. The negotiator should be co-ordinating the negotiation to make sure that concessions made in one area (such as price) are congruent with the overall negotiation strategy and objectives, and are reflected by reciprocal concessions in another area (such as delivery time).

So what do the other team members do?

Other individuals will be part of the team because they have a specific value to add. This might be technical expertise, legal knowledge or understanding of the other party.

They may, however, have an additional role to that of subject matter expert. In a face to face negotiation, the negotiator will welcome the support of:

  • the summariser – this person’s job is to note all points discussed and agreed throughout the negotiations, and to be able to read them back to the negotiation when requested. This helps to cement progress, and gives the negotiator valuable breathing and thinking space.
  • the observer – this person will be watching the interactions among the other negotiating team. They will be looking for indicators of power and influence in respect of different negotiating points, spotting disagreements and watching for physical clues that support or contradict the other party’s stated position on the issues.  

It is the negotiator’s responsibility to allocate these roles to other individuals on their team, and to ensure they have the knowledge, skills and experience to perform them adequately.

Those team members who are present because of their subject matter expertise should understand:

  • that they are not the negotiator (even in their own area of expertise), and may not make concessions or give information without the consent of the negotiator. This consent can be given in advance (during the negotiation planning session), or may come during the negotiation itself. If the latter, depending on the sensitivity and complexity of the issue concerned, it may be wise to request a ‘time out’ so that permission can be sought, discussed, and given or refused in private.
  • how their area fits into the ‘big picture’ priority list, and what the company’s boundary points are in respect of the issues that fall into their expertise, taken together with their related issues in other areas.

As well as sharing this information with the other team members, the negotiator must also seek information from them. Specifically, we want to know what objectives each team member has for the negotiation, in all of the areas we listed above. These will almost certainly differ across departmental interest groups, and the more of them the negotiator can bring out onto the table during your negotiation planning, the more coherent and productive a team you will be.

The best way to achieve this is to involve all members of your conscious negotiating team to participate in your negotiating planning. This will enable them to argue their points about why achieving concessions in their area of expertise should take priority over achieving concessions on other areas. And, if the negotiator feels differently, this meeting will allow the negotiator to share their own views and obtain buy-in to them from other team members. Good negotiators on the other side of the table will quickly spot divisions and differences of opinion within your team, and will exploit them to their own advantage – make sure such inevitable differences are resolved in private before you get close to the negotiation itself!

This is all well and good when dealing with the conscious team members – but what about the accidental negotiators? These are all those subject matter experts, customer touch-points and other interfaces that might be approached (directly or indirectly) by the other party in the course of negotiations, but who are not intended by you to be involved in the negotiations at all.

The approach might be innocuous fact-finding (“Sylvie, please could you send me through the latest SLA performance figures?) or it might be lobbying (“Dave, your legal is insisting on retaining the IP in this, but you know that what you’re going to develop for us is so bespoke that it’s of no use to your company outside of this project – don’t you?”).

Many a negotiation has been swung by information and influence obtained through accidental negotiators. Indeed, many negotiations are conducted like undercover marketing campaigns, using the accidental negotiating team to negotiate unknowingly against its own company on behalf of the other party.

Considering who has the potential to become an accidental negotiator within your company, and briefing them accordingly, is an essential step in managing your complex negotiation effectively.

So how do we manage our conscious negotiating team?

Once the team members each understand their roles, they must agree a protocol for dealing with attempts by the other party to pull them outside of their authority to act. Such attempts are inevitable, whether deliberate or inadvertent, and it’s as well to have a strategy for dealing with them in advance of negotiations beginning.

If a team member is asked for an opinion on a matter that they are not empowered to negotiate on, they should, of course, respond in accordance with the agreed team approach to that issue. However, if the other party proposes a concession that has not been previously discussed within your team, they may wish to be a little more proactive and use it as an opportunity to explore a problem-solving opportunity.

Such explorations should be encouraged, provided they can be managed appropriately. They can be caveated with “That’s a very interesting suggestion. I’d be happy to explore it further with you, but I’m not empowered to make any decisions on that matter.” If all members of the team understand the fundamental inter-relatedness of different deal points, they should have no problem using language of this kind. For, while a particular way forward might make perfect sense in their own area of expertise, when taken together with concessions given in other areas, it could cause real difficulties for the organisation.

What about changes of negotiator?

Of course, you might under some circumstances have to change negotiator. This can occur because negotiations have reached a roadblock, or because an individual is no longer available due to ill health or other commitments.

If the negotiation planning has been conducted properly, and records of negotiations have been maintained, a change of negotiator should not be a big issue. Inevitably individuals will have different styles (and this may indeed be the very reason for the swap, if a change of style and pace is deemed to be desirable). But the overall fundamental objectives of the negotiation should not have changed, just because there is a new person in charge of the process.

You might be requested to take over a negotiation which the other party tells you has been badly handled by your predecessor. Even if you feel the same, it’s important to find language to deal with this appropriately. References to personal style can be helpful (“Peter’s a highly experienced negotiator in this area. Some folks find his style a trifle direct, but others love the fact that they don’t have to beat around the bush with him!”). Scoring personal relationship points at your predecessor’s expense should be avoided at all costs – remember, there’s every possibility that the other party will have to deal with your predecessor again at some point in the future. And even if they don’t, disloyalty will reflect poorly on your organisation and suggest to the other party that your team can be easily divided – and therefore, conquered! Attend our negotiation workshop to pick up practical techniques to help you in future negotiations or contact me to arrange in-house training to make your team more effective in negotiations.

Tiffany Kemp
Founder and Managing Director, Devant