Lessons on negotiating from the streets

Learning the ancient art from life around us

Sanjay Handu

[Photograph © Sanjay Handu]

Though opinions may be divided on just what was the oldest profession in the world, undoubtedly the oldest skill that emerged as a consequence was negotiation. A skill bordering on art that can be learnt, just like singing. Observation, experience and practice are the best teachers, whether in the air-conditioned environs of a corporate setting or the little dramas of daily life that play out around us.

In essence, every negotiation is a conversation. Two parties engage with the intent of coming to an understanding on some issue. They are willing to give something to gain something in return. Interestingly, while negotiation most often implies a commercial transaction—money for something—the reality is that negotiation exists in almost all areas of life. Take the case of a child throwing a tantrum when denied a treat—peace for treat. Or one person in a relationship withholding affection when upset—affection for appeasement. A manager refusing to acknowledge a subordinate’s good work because she hasn’t been communicative—recognition for information. It’s instinctive and unscripted—a part of life.

Like all conversations, negotiation too has a basic structure—an objective, a beginning, the main body and finally the wrap up. Causal examples observed on the street and in daily life help illustrate the time tested, instinctive techniques that we use and their echoes in corporate life.

Set the stage

If every negotiation is a conversation then its foundation is a relationship—even if transactional.

If every negotiation is a conversation then its foundation is a relationship—even if transactional.

As a child growing up in the suburbs of what was still called Bombay, I would accompany my grandfather or aunt to the market every week.

Every visit, whether to our regular vendor for the hundredth time or to a new one for the first time, meant a warm greeting. Queries about the family from the regulars and the weather from the first timers. No jumping to the matter at hand of buying produce. Refreshing the relationship prior to the actual business created a conducive environment for talking price and terms.

It was the same every time I walked into one of the little family-owned sari shops with my aunt. After the initial pleasantries and offers of water and tea, we would be asked what we were looking for. My aunt’s usual answer was that we were just looking and weren’t sure if we would buy anything. The smiling reply would be immediate: "Sure look as much as you want ...who’s asking you to buy". With that pressure supposedly off us, we would be inundated with sari samples by the helpful sales staff. Every query would bring forth more samples. At all stages the staff appeared polite and unhurried—all key attributes of a good negotiation.

The scores of samples unpacked and spread all around us would soon lead to intense moral pressure to do the right thing and buy something. Anything. The vendor didn’t need to make a pitch.

Relationships are powerful negotiating and sales inducing tools. All else being equal, people like to do business with people they like. Our rational minds will even find a way to justify marginally higher price from a vendor with whom we have a better relationship. Patience and positivity in the course of lengthy negotiations lead to a better chance of a favourable closure.

Relationships are powerful sales inducing tools. People like to do business with people they like.

In lengthy corporate negotiations stretching over several weeks, patience and staying positive are often the winning edge. The negotiator who tires first is likely to give away more in the interest of an early closure. Impatience can be used as a negotiation lever too if one knows the other side is under time pressure to close out and can’t afford to prolong.

Thrust and parry

With the initial pleasantries out of the way, the stage is set for the conversation to move on to its main body. Here are five points that good negotiators always keep in mind:

Clarity on need: Silly as it may sound, it’s vital to be clear on the outcome you are seeking. It is easy to lose sight of in the meandering course of a complex negotiation.

Be clear on the outcome you are seeking. It is easy to lose sight of in the course of a complex negotiation

Accompanying my aunt on footwear shopping trips was a lesson in precision. She would look for current designs at very affordable prices even if not of the best quality. The vendor would show her pricier, higher quality samples, but she would stick to her price point. Her rationale: designs in ladies footwear change rapidly so she would be happy if her purchase lasted for four to six months, after which she could pick up a more current design.

In corporate situations, in a perfect world a buyer would expect the best quality product, delivered immediately and free of charge. In the real world he will have to prioritize—which elements are must-haves, and which can be given away?

In fact, smart negotiators will often introduce sacrificial elements in their charter that can be given away in the final countdown.

Smart negotiators often introduce sacrificial elements in their charter that can be given away in the final countdown

Competitive intelligence: While relationships do help, it’s also true that most commercial negotiations focus on price. Knowing about the product, market and competition is very important to help form one’s baseline on price, whether as a buyer or seller.

While my grandfather made it a point to buy groceries and vegetables from his known vendors, he would causally ask other vendors enroute about prices. By the time he reached his desired vendor he had a feel for the spread of prices for a given commodity. With that starting point, the relationship helped to drive the desired price.

Experienced buyers in the corporate world utilise the same skills, though with more advanced intelligence gathering tools, to form a view on what the seller’s cost could be. While working at a large industrial parts manufacturer, a large part of our procurement spending was dependant on the price of underlying commodities and currency rates, so we tracked these indices. We also reached out annually to various vendors for their offers.

Similarly, seasoned sellers make it a point to learn about the buyer’s true need before making an offer.

Aggressive opening positions: Opening positions are the benchmark against which all further discussions will play out and it’s important to leave enough headroom to allow the give and take that must naturally follow. The challenge often is to overcome one’s own hesitation at not wanting to be seen as unfair or unrealistic. The reality however is that an aggressive primary offer/counter offer allows more flex.

An aggressive primary offer/counter offer allows more flex.

As a dutiful nephew I have been an embarrassed, squirming accomplice to my aunt’s negotiations with the vendors on Bombay’s streets. At 30%-50% of the asking price, her counter-offers were often so ridiculously low (to my inexperienced self) that I was sure it would lead to an outburst. Amazingly enough, the sales personnel didn’t ever throw us out and at the end of the negotiation we would emerge with a successful deal at perhaps 60% of the original offer.

In corporate scenarios, there is certainly more arithmetic involved in deciding offers and counter offers. So for example, pricing a product below the cost of underlying commodities is unrealistic but clever negotiators will overload their primary demands, on price and terms/conditions, rather than keep them lean and minimal. This allows them to give away certain points while retaining their must-haves.

The fine art of saying no: The key to negotiation is to come as close to one’s desired outcome as possible. It’s vital to practice the art of giving away something but always gaining something in return. It boils down to how one says no and yes. These words carry an air of finality, but experienced negotiators modulate their delivery such that they leave room for the conversation to continue.

Practice the art of giving away something but gaining something in return. It boils down to how one says no and yes

As a silent spectator to my aunt’s negotiation it was interesting to see that though the vendors clearly didn’t like her counter offer, they wouldn’t react with an outright no. Rather they would offer a similar product with lesser features or quality at her price point. Or they would say her price point was possible if the quantity was double/triple/quadruple. In essence, it was an implied no and then quickly adding a new element in their offer. This allowed the engagement to continue.

Managing highly talented, productive and ambitious team members was one of the most challenging tasks I faced. It was not unusual to be confronted during the assessment cycle where someone would want to know why they hadn’t been promoted or got a bigger increment. Often the reason was that someone else had performed better or their current responsibilities did not call for a higher position and salary. In essence I had to say no to their demand—a loaded situation as the team members were good performers. What worked best was to explain to them that their current delivery in scope and level did not warrant a better reward, however, they would have a better chance at achieving that if they took on more responsibility and/or did better. In my experience, most people took it as an aspirational challenge to do more.

Walking away and the power of touch: This technique is a classic—physical movement to indicate the supposed end of the negotiation.

At times when my aunt and a vendor couldn’t come to an understanding on price, she would call to me and indicate that we were leaving. She would also add to the vendor that the deal wasn’t happening as he was being unreasonable. In her wisdom she would keep her hand on my shoulder to slow our exit and allow the vendor time to reassess and make a counter offer. In 9 out of 10 cases the vendor would hail us with a far better price.

From a seller’s point of view, a potential buyer turning away is an indication to move quickly or lose the sale, and a classic way of re-engaging is touch—either physically or vocally. A light touch on the shoulder or calling out is often all it takes to recall the buyer and continue with a counter offer.

As the procurement head for an engineered products organization, my negotiations mostly happened in an office, so physical disengagement wasn’t always possible. What worked equally well was a move signalling the end of the conversation—a firm moving back from the table, standing up, shutting laptops and diaries—followed by a clear statement that we didn’t have a deal. In most cases the other party would react with a move that would allow the engagement to continue. This was typically indicated as “we hear what you say; will check and revert”, followed with a date for the next discussion.

The illusion of an end to discussion can be a great catalyst to accelerate agreement in a negotiation.

The illusion of an end to discussion can be a great catalyst to accelerate agreement in a negotiation. As a buyer, use it as an ultimate technique, but be prepared with a fallback plan in case you don’t hear that voice calling you back.

When you are down and done, but the deal isn’t

There are times, of course, when you simply can’t close the deal favourably, when the other party has you pinned down and you have no further plays left. Here are three possible approaches that could help salvage something from the ruins.

Just state the honest truth: Look the other party in the eye, state why you need to do this deal—it’s an appeal to the other’s sense of fair play.

As an inexperienced young man, it fell upon me to manage the sale of an ancestral property. The tenants had been residents for four decades, paid a ridiculously low rent and refused to vacate. With no other source of funds to complete our new house, this sale was critical.

When it became clear that we were out of negotiating levers, we dropped all our carefully prepared offense/defense arguments and stated our predicament honestly: we need funds to complete our future home. We were only trying to protect our family’s wellbeing.

This struck an emotional chord with the tenant; they agreed to buy the house at a discount. Not the best deal for us, but a huge improvement compared to receiving a monthly pittance for eternity.

Add humour as a softener: The two parties can sometimes take very adversarial stands, with tempers flying and stands hardening. Introducing some self-effacing humour can help soften the situation.

Introducing some self-effacing humour can help soften the situation.

I recollect walking past the maidan (open playground) close to Mumbai’s bustling Churchgate station and idly picking my way towards the Fort area to meet friends for lunch. I had time to kill so I paused to view the offerings and listen to the street vendors’ sales spiel. A sports shoe vendor caught my eye—he had every global brand, neatly laid out on the pavement. At Rs 200 a pair, clearly they were rip offs. I engaged him in casual negotiation, with no intent to actually buy anything.

I played the role of a picky customer: I asked for Nike when he showed me Adidas. Coloured soles when he displayed grey ones. Different colour combinations on the uppers? Flat laces instead of round ones? Something with more cushioning? He met all my demands with patience. Running out of time and arguments to put off the sale, I unleashed the final point in my armoury: would he be able to guarantee the product? I was sure I had him there. Then he flipped the shoe contemplatively, gave me a disarming smile and said “Sir aaj kal aadmi ka guarantee nahin hai, yeh toh sirf joota hai” (Sir nowadays there is no guarantee for human beings; this after all is only a shoe). I’m not ashamed to say that I bought that pair.

As the regional sourcing head for a large corporation, I remember participating in a   business meeting in the Netherlands where an Asian colleague was explaining to an irate group of internal customers why our Asian suppliers were having so many problems related to quality and delivery lead times. He was trying to negotiate for more time from the belligerent group that wanted matters resolved yesterday. Pushed to commit a better deadline, he reiterated his earlier best commitment and then with a disarming gesture added “even you kill me, can’t do better”. After a moment’s pause the room erupted into peals of laughter. The storm had passed and we eventually came to a mutual agreement.

Walk away to negotiate another day: Some negotiations you just can’t win. You’ve tried every technique to little effect and the cost of saying yes is just too high. Walk away. Not the walking away we spoke about earlier as a technique, but with finality. This needs strength as it means walking away from invested time and effort. Unless it’s truly a matter of life and death (and most negotiations are not) you would be well served to walk away and then negotiate again another day.

Every negotiation is an experience of human nature. Be an astute observer and you will learn lasting lessons that will prepare you for a better conversation the next time around.

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Shubham Aggarwal on Dec 26, 2016 5:50 a.m. said

Great article Mr. Handu. Loved the techniques and small points that could turn the face of the negotiation in one's favor.

About the author

Sanjay Handu
Sanjay Handu

Corporate Consultant

Sanjay Handu has three decades of experience in diverse sectors like automotive, hardware, defence and heavy engineering. He has worked with large organizations like BOSCH, DEC, Larsen & Toubro and TE Connectivity. His most recent role was with TE Connectivity where he led the Aerospace, Defence and Marine business unit and prior to that was the global head of Strategic Sourcing across several emerging economies. He writes and speaks on business-related topics and is a member of industrial think tanks and educational advisory boards. He now focuses on supporting organizations with their strategy, supply chain and driving business transformation. He is passionate about travel, the outdoors, jazz music and anything with two wheels.

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