There are so many books on negotiating tactics. So very many. Often these tactics are framed around “winning” negotiations, and it feels that way when the stakes are high.
I’ve had to negotiate like my (work) life depended on it. I was a recruiter for 5 years. I worked in a commission-driven business model where competition from other recruiters was endless, opportunities to build relationships with clients were hard-won, and sometimes when you successfully “sold” a placement, the person you fought to place at a client changed their mind at the last moment. It was selling in a really commoditized way like selling copiers, but if the copiers could decide they didn’t want to work at Astra Zeneca thanks anyway tho. Unrelated, I have lots of grey hair.
The stakes only get higher in client services, especially if you’re selling consulting services. When you’re selling a “how” not a “what.” Winning negotiations becomes even more critical when more and more people on a team are depending on your successful sales outcomes. You negotiate with procurement, you generate consensus among large groups of stakeholders, and then if you’re really lucky you get to negotiate with legal. These are professional negotiation winners. Talk about bringing a knife to a gun fight.
With this much on the line, and this much effort invested in negotiating, you may start to employ pricing strategies, or be tempted to construct elaborate negotiating tactics, or otherwise overcomplicate an already complicated decision. You’re working to protect your interests. You’re defending against vulnerability. I know, I’ve done all of this, to positive and negative results.
I remember an agency owner telling me that when their firm suffered through layoffs, they were 100% honest with clients about what was going on, why it needed to happen, and how it would impact their relationship and work. The agency negotiated a brief pause in all client work as they reorganized, and they and their clients weathered the storm. I thought this was crazy. I’d never entertained being that transparent, but there was real power in the trust earned in that investment in honesty.
What I’ve started to experiment with (because life is too damn short) is employing a level of honesty and transparency that I found scary at first, but that I realize has become a powerful way to build trust and rapport with my own clients.
I’m completely leveling with my clients. Not just about what I want and what I need, but about what I perceive to be their priorities, their concerns, their needs. I’ve had to disclaimer this approach at times, warning we are about to engage in some “next-level transparency” up in here. I’ve explained to them what I think they were being too polite to plainly say. I’ve been transparent with them about my business requirements and plans.
There is real risk here. I may not be 100% accurate in my assessment of what my clients are struggling with in making their decisions. I open myself up to the risk of being wrong. There is a vulnerability in being honest with someone, and not protecting yourself by positioning or jockeying. I know I’ve rocked a client or two back on their heels a time or two as a result. But in every case, we’ve settled into a more honest and transparent conversation.
The team I’m supporting is smaller now that I’m running my own business (there are four of them and they’re all named Rinaldi and they all live in my house), but they depend on me a helluva lot more than my former coworkers ever did (boy’s size M compression pants don’t pay for themselves you know). So there are some real stakes, and a lot to lose if I can’t successfully negotiate with my clients.
Granted, in my current line of work I began by working with people I already knew, and in many cases already trusted. Honesty is easier in those cases. But I’m well outside of that roped-off, protected little swim lane now. I’m encouraging a level of honesty with clients I barely know, and the feedback has been that they don’t feel like they’re being “sold.” In consulting services that level of trust is a valuable currency. It’ll come in handy when I need to lead my clients. So while I’m dialing up risk by employing vulnerable levels of honesty, I’m dialing up trust and positive outcomes even more. You may feel like you’re exposing yourself to vulnerability by being honest, especially when it’s an unglamorous flavor of honesty, but I’m pretty certain it’s a good policy to adhere to. Some say the best.