The Art Of Negotiating

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For most Americans negotiating is a lost art. The problem is that Americans are just not used to negotiating for anything anymore. This is a shame because negotiating is one of the most important business and life skills we can acquire and practice. Here are a few tips to get better at negotiating.

1. Sales Steps and Communication

It’s helpful that the person responsible for bringing in the business isn’t just focused on the “ask” or the “close,” but also on all the information that needs to be gathered during the sales process that could help final negotiations and fulfillment. The business rep should be mindful of all the details that could affect other areas of the operation, then the pertinent details must be communicated to those taking over the relationship after the sale’s been completed. Sure, there is a sales process that has to take place to get revenue in the door . There are varying schools of thought on the proper mix of identifying prospects and performing research on potential customers, as well as different methods of outreach and engagement. But more important than specific sales process is how a small business engages and communicates with potential consumers.

To help you and your team get a prospect to say and keep saying “yes,” keep in mind what I call the “Three Gs to Gold”—gather, give, get—during the sales process:

Gather. Devise a cost-effective way to gather information about your customers and potential customers. Remember, current customers are also potential customers because you want to be growing the amount of money that customers are currently spending with you. Don’t focus solely on new business—focus on all business.

Take notes on your customers to make sure you understand what each customer truly wants, not just what you want to sell. To close a deal, you must not assume your product or service is the end all be all for your potential customers. We’re not living in a cookie-cutter world, so one size fits all is a terrible sales strategy. One way to do this is by using customer relationship management (CRM) software. Because there are a lot of products out there, you should be able to find an option that’s affordable for you. Salesforce is what I use, but Batchbook is another viable option, and Nimble uses its technology to feed in social data to your database. Whatever you do, find a solution that fits best with your company and use it religiously. I always tell my restaurateur friends that their waiters and waitresses should not only be taking orders—they should be taking notes.

Give. Once you know your customers, you can give them what they want and customize their experience to fit their needs and goals. But let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you change your products and services permanently to fit the needs of each of your customers. What I am suggesting is that you do what’s possible to customize the experience so your customers don’t want to go anywhere else. For instance, if you are selling a product such as pasta, I am not recommending you change your recipe to cater to one customer. But you should customize the experience so that customers do not want to go anywhere else. However, taking into consideration the restaurant advice provided above, by all means alter the meal to meet the customer’s wants . Your understanding of your customers’ needs and the relationships you develop with them may lead to a lifetime of sales as opposed to a single transaction. This second “G” will also greatly aid in the negotiation process and lead to a smoother back and forth to close a deal.

Get. Don’t just get your customers  to pay you—get their feedback, too. Once the sale is complete and you’ve provided your product or service, keep asking your customers questions so you’ll understand how to make your products and services better. The more feedback you receive, the better you’ll be at closing your customers again and again.

There are many ways to get this feedback—the key is not being afraid to ask. Companies such as Survey.com and SurveyMonkey can be helpful with broad-stroke questions and can even use social data to assist in verifying the validity of your customers’ answers. However, I’m partial to the “old-fashioned” way of doing things: personally asking your customers for feedback and insights regarding their experiences. Not only will asking them face to face or over the phone provide the data you need, but it will also assist in building relationships.

One last note: Don’t simply gather information so you can load each prospect’s profile with data. Instead, have your salespeople meet with the people who handle fulfillment to identify the data that can best assist them—this will help ensure that the nuances of the information aren’t missed. Having the information in your CRM system means the details will be readily available when it’s time to move on to the next stages of the process.

Just following steps to get one sale or your first sale is short sighted. For long-term sustainability, you must be concerned with the relationships you possess with customers and not just what they purchase from you. The Three Gs to Gold should guide you to make sure you are properly attending to the consumer to ensure not only one transactional sale, but, more importantly, a lifetime of sales.

2. Negotiation Preparation

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The more information that’s gathered during the sales process, the more efficient the negotiations are likely to be. The data should include details on the type of personalities that will be on the other side of the table, such as their negotiating style and personal information. Having a fix on the people involved in the negotiation process is sometimes more important to the details of the deal—understanding the egos at the table can be very helpful in getting a deal closed quickly. Prior to any prospecting, never mind negotiation, you must research potential clients and build profiles on them  to understand their makeup and characteristics. Understanding who they are will greatly aid in communicating with them to get to a closed deal. This will also help to break down barriers between the two sides. Often the animosity in a negotiation stems from not truly knowing the party on the other side of the table. The sales process and taking notes should complete any of the research done prior to the sale.

When I first started my company, TrinityOne, a three-employee operation at the onset, I lost a deal because I focused too much on the services we would provide instead of paying attention to the characteristics of the main person doing the negotiating for the other side. I was so sure we were the best option for this potential client, I lost sight of the fact that the ego on the other side of the table wasn’t negotiating for services; he was negotiating for superiority. He needed a win, beyond the logic of how the services would make his company better.  I wasn’t in tune with the personalities as deeply as I should have been. I probably could have closed the deal if I’d handled it the same way I did when I had the sports team’s brand behind me. But as a startup, I didn’t have the luxuries of a big brand, and I should have negotiated differently.

What I learned was that the services we provided were only one aspect of what the client wanted. Keep in mind these five negotiation nuggets to help you set the table for a more conducive and expedient way of getting the deal done:

  1. Understand the goals the client wants to accomplish in using your product or services.
  2. Know how the client wants to work with your company and the role you need to play.
  3. Have a full grasp on the “wins” of a client. (Remember, “wins” go well beyond company goals.)
  4. Be mindful of the client’s style and whose style in your group fits best.
  5. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when appropriate. It will lead to a deeper respect for you.

3. Meeting Expectations

Advancing from making the sale and negotiation to getting the signed contract and payment in a deal can be a satisfying experience . But the deal isn’t complete until customers receive what they  bargained for and, if you’re a great business, you go above and beyond what was expected. Understanding the process of fulfilling the deal and knowing that your company can actually get the job done are critical for business success. If you can do all that you say you can and exceed your customers’ expectations, it’s likely that you could not only recognize revenue from the closed deal, but also earn additional future revenue from the same company and from referrals.

Also, realize it’s those stated and implied expectations that need to be met, not just the list of fulfillment items on the agreement. It’s helpful to keep something in your “back pocket” to give to the client during the execution of the deal. Something of low cost or no cost is preferable so you don’t erode the margins of the deal.

When I was working for the sports team, we would take people down on the field pregame as an extra bonus. These on-field passes were not part of the deal and always made the clients feel extra special. You can likewise give something to a client that is not part of the deal, but makes them feel special.

Let’s go back to that restaurant example, but now, you’re the customer: Think about how you feel when you order a meal at a restaurant and it doesn’t meet your expectations. Perhaps the restaurant brought you the type of food you ordered, but it missed the point on how you wanted it prepared. You’re probably unlikely to return for another meal at that same restaurant or recommend it to a friend. But at the end of the meal, if you are given a complimentary drink or dessert, that extra special treatment may change how you feel, and you may be willing to look past small mistakes. Obviously, I am not endorsing mistakes, and am just trying to serve up the power of giving more than your customer bargained for.

Perfectly nailing this third area of the sales process is so important because there’s a ripple effect that starts with your performance. The ripples can either cause revenue growth or lead you to business destruction.

If you think fulfillment isn’t part of the sales process, you’re sadly mistaken. The sale continues way beyond the “yes” and is a fluid, living process for the entire existence of your business. Consider the process neverending if you want to generate consistent revenue and growth.

Lou Imbriano serves as managing partner of the Imbriano Group, a venture firm that provides intellectual capital and revenue building business strategies to organizations of all sizes. He also serves as president and CEO of TrinityOne, a sports marketing consultancy that works with organizations to turn around their marketing efforts and increase profitability. Imbriano was the vice president and chief marketing officer of the New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium for nine seasons and chief operating officer for the New England Revolution for three seasons.

Read more articles in our special section on Getting New Customers.