In my recent consulting clinic, we spent more than a day on negotiating—assignments, prices, conditions, schedules, and just about anything in the relationship between consultant and client. As homework, we were all supposed to negotiate something. I got a free meal for two. Someone else got $50 off the price of a jacket. One participant got on the phone and doubled the fee he had been receiving from a client.
For Americans, at least, negotiating seems to be a dirty word, a taboo—a taboo the homework was assigned to overcome. We learned many thing about negotiating, but the most important were about the emotional barriers we erect for ourselves. To learn about such barriers, let's look at two scenarios of negotiations that went wrong for consultants who were retained to produce a software component for a client.
Here's Scenario Number One:
Bob (the client boss): Fay, what's your estimate of when that component will be ready to ship to testing?
Fay (the consultant): If I get the equipment I've requisitioned, I'm pretty sure I can have it ready in 14 weeks.
Bob: [looking disappointed] Oh.
Fay: Isn't that okay?
Fay: I suppose I can really push and get it in 12 weeks.
Bob: [still looking disappointed] Oh.
Fay: Darn. Well, if everything goes exactly right, I can make it in 10 weeks.
Bob: [brightening a little] Did you say eight?
Fay: Okay, I guess I can push for eight.
Bob: [smiling] That's terrific, Kay. I knew you could do it!
Here's Scenario Number Two:
Darlene (the client boss): Ira, what's your estimate of when that component will be ready to ship to testing?
Ira (the consultant): If I get the equipment I've requisitioned, I'm pretty sure I can have it ready in 14 weeks.
Darlene: [standing up and raising her voice] Ira, that's simply not acceptable. I want it in eight weeks, not a day later!
Ira: [eyes lowered to the his shoelaces] Uh... But there's just too much to ...
Darlene: [turning red, and raising her voice another level] Ira! I hope you're not about to say something negative! You know we're a team here, and we don't have room for nay-sayers!
Ira: [trying to swallow when his throat is dry] Well... I suppose I could...
Darlene: [breaking into a tight smile] ...you could do it! I knew you'd find a way, Ira. [turning towards the door] All right, then. I have your commitment, so don't disappoint me. See you in eight weeks! [out the door].
Q: What's the important difference between these two scenarios?
A: Nothing. Nothing important, that is. Bob used a soft approach; Darlene used a hard approach, but nothing was really different. Successful negotiations usually involve trade-offs among schedule, resources, and technical specifications, but these two contain no trading off at all—just different kinds of manipulations to make one person submit to another person's desires.
Scenario Number Three, which should produce a better result
Annabelle (the client boss): Myron, what's your estimate of when that component will be ready to ship to testing?
Myron (the consultant): If I get the equipment I've requisitioned, I'm pretty sure I can have it ready in 14 weeks.
Annabelle: [looking disappointed] Oh.
Myron: Isn't that okay?
Annabelle: Well, not really.
Myron: If the schedule is that important, we can look at alternatives.
Annabelle: I can't give you any more people. We're shorthanded already.
Myron: Darn. Well, actually, new people right now might be more disruptive than helpful. Well, something has to give—we can't reduce schedule and hold resources and specs constant.
Annabelle: That's certainly true. But I do need something to show to my marketing team in eight weeks. There's that business expo where we have to do a demo, and I can't change that date.
Myron: Okay, I guess we'll have to see what features we leave out of the demo, or perhaps fake a bit.
Annabelle: [smiling] That sounds like what we'll have to do, Myron. Let's take a look at what you can give us that will look good in eight weeks.
And so Annabelle and Myron get down to the business of examining which features will contribute most to a good demo (her problem) while at the same time being within Myron's team's capabilities (his problem). Nobody was forced; nobody was manipulated. The negotiation stayed open and based on facts, not speculation or screaming or placating.
Of course, this kind of negotiation takes trust—trust in the other person, but even more, trust in yourself.
- You must feel that you can be honest without being taken advantage of.
- You must be confident that you understand the trade-offs on your own side of the business.
- You must have enough self-esteem to be able to say what you don't know.
- It also helps to know that agreements forged through manipulation will be weak and unreliable agreements.
In my experience, at least half of the problems consultants have with clients are the result of poor negotiation—usually the result lack of skill and will to deal with various forms of conscious or unconscious manipulation by their negotiating partner.
Do you understand? I have your commitment to learn to do better at dealing with manipulation, so don't disappoint me!
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