Improving your sales negotiation skills through hard bargaining, identifying your BATNA, and improving your emotional intelligence at the negotiating table

In the book Beyond Winning, authors Robert Mnookin, Scott Peppet, and Andrew Tulumello say that the worst thing that can happen to anyone in a negotiation is to be caught unprepared by hard bargainers. Surely you have encountered this often in your sales position.

Developing the negotiation skills to handle this challenge is a career-long process, but it could very well be one of the biggest challenges you’ll face in sales. It won’t be the people who hang up on your cold calls, or the leads who string you along through a proposal only to ghost before the ink hits the paper. It will be the leads who rake you through every inch of your contracts before signing on the dotted line.

In some cases, it can be a learning experience. Surely, you’ve had a client who ended up teaching you a few things about writing contracts, picked up on a typo, or found a way to make the language in your contracts more clear. But sometimes, you’re caught in a repeating loop of bargaining, with rounds of lawyer approvals, and it’s hard to find a win-win outcome.

To avoid being caught off-guard by these types of scenarios, Mnookin, Peppet and Tulumello recommend these 10 negotiation skills:

  1. Don’t let a strong demand “anchor” your expectations. Be clear going in about your own demands, alternatives, and the bottom line – and don’t be rattled by an aggressive opponent.
  2. Your opponent may say that his or her hands are tied or that he or she has only limited discretion in negotiating. Make sure that these commitment tactics are real.
  3. Offers are never nonnegotiable. Try ignoring the demand and focus on the content of the offer instead.
  4. When you make an offer, wait for a counteroffer before reducing your demands. Don’t bid against yourself.
  5. If your opponent keeps making demands, he or she is waiting for you to reach your breaking point. Don’t fall for it.
  6. Personal attacks can feed on your insecurities and make you vulnerable. Take a break if you feel yourself getting flustered, or name their tactics.
  7. Exaggerating and misrepresenting facts can throw you off guard. Be polite but skeptical.
  8. Recognizing threats and oblique warnings as the tactics they are can help you stand up to them.
  9. Have a firm sense of your best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), and don’t let your opponent shake your resolve.
  10. One of your opponents is reasonable; the other is tough. Realize that they are working together, and get your own “bad cop” if you need one.

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Adding your BATNA to your negotiation skills

Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation says you should always know your BATNA, or your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” This term was first introduced by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

They describe BATNA, saying that, “By cultivating a strong outside alternative, you gain the power you need to walk away from an unappealing deal.”

For example, “A homebuyer could improve her power in a negotiation with a seller by finding another house she likes just as much.”

In sales, your BATNA is the relief you’ll feel if a deal doesn’t go through. For example, if you run a small business with a small team, and you determine that a client has been too much of a hassle during the negotiation of a contract, they may prove to be too much work to manage as a client, and your BATNA may be not signing the agreement at all.

In more likely cases, it will be settling on a number, or a proposal that you feel is fair to both parties.

Improving your body language negotiation skills

Although it’s no secret that the way you look plays into people’s bias during any business negotiation, it may not always be the shoes you chose or whether your shirt is tucked or untucked. It could be how you engage during your negotiation. There are two big natural occurrences that happen during negotiation:

Mimicking

One common thing that happens during business meetings is that the person trying to land the deal, most often the salesperson, will begin to mimic the person to which he or she is presenting. If one person leans back in his or her chair with his or her hands behind his or her head, the other person may do the same. This rarely happens consciously, but Professor Tanya Chartrand of Duke University says that we view this mimicking as being persuasive and honest, so it’s a good thing!

Facial Expressions

According to Professor Maurice E. Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, people who are lying often won’t match their expression to what they’re currently lying about. They might nod yes while they are saying no, or vice versa. This is an important negotiation skill to know if you’re in the face of a hard bargainer and trying to see if you need to call that person’s bluff.

Improving your negotiation skills with confidence

Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania did a study on whether having anxiety when going into a negotiation can affect the outcome.

The researchers divided a group of participants into three groups. Two were made to do something that was anxiety-inducing. The first group listened to the theme from Psycho; the second watched an adrenaline-driven clip of rock climbers. The final group, called the neutral group, listened to classical music and a video of fish in the ocean swimming around. If you’ve ever sat down at the aquarium in the dome room, you can understand how relaxing this is.

The results of the study were that when given several negotiation opportunities, the anxious groups negotiated less and achieved worse results than the neutral group. However, when given confidence-boosting prompts, they were just as successful as the neutral group.

This study showed that a lack of confidence could hinder negotiation skills, and it may be worth working on a routine before going into any negotiation with a new lead or potential business partner. Read more about the study in “Can Nervous Nelly Negotiate? How Anxiety Causes Negotiators to Make Low First Offers, Exit Early, and Earn Less Profit,” by Alison Wood Brooks and Maurice E. Schweitzer.


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If you haven’t started already, it’s time to start honing your negotiation skills to further your career. If you have additional tried and true tips you’d like to share, please comment below.