Dear Negotiation Coach: Close to the finish line? Take a step back

By on / Business Negotiations

Q: I work for a company that develops custom software to help large facilities maximize their energy efficiency. I’m close to finalizing a deal with a company that would be our biggest customer to date. It’s taken six months, but together we’ve crafted a design that will meet the customer’s unique needs. Now we just have to iron out the scope and pricing of post-installation service. We’ve used Skype and a secure data-exchange service for all our discussions. One of my colleagues has urged me to conduct this final phase of the negotiation face-to-face, but I’m not eager to travel cross-country if it’s not necessary. We are a tech company, after all. More important, I don’t want it to look like we’re desperate. Should I consider changing the process even though it’s gone very well so far?

A: Since this is a big customer, you’re smart to carefully consider every move you make. But before getting to your specific question about meeting in person or virtually, I encourage you to think more deeply about whether you really are on the verge of closing this deal.

I hope that’s the case, of course, but from this distance, scoping and pricing post-installation service don’t sound like minor issues to me. Your customer may have different expectations about the value of such service (and your costs in providing it). Even if you are near the finish line, there’s a danger in becoming too complacent.

I also wonder whether, as the discussion shifts from technical design to financial matters, you may find yourself negotiating with someone else in the customer’s organization. A money person may have a different outlook than someone in operations. He or she likely will have to be brought up to speed on what you bring to the table.

With these concerns in mind, this strikes me as a good time for you to initiate a process check with your counterpart. You should have three objectives:
1. Mutually confirming the progress you’ve already made and communicating shared enthusiasm for concluding a deal.
2. Achieving clarity about whether anyone else on either side is needed to bless the deal (and therefore should be involved in discussions).
3. Reaching agreement on the process going forward, including whether Skype is fine or a visit on your part would be helpful.

Treat the choice about a Skype or an in-person meeting as one where you and your potential customer have aligned interests. You both want clear communication, and you both are seeking a productive, ongoing relationship.

“Our Skype discussions have gone fine,” you might say, “but if you have colleagues that I should meet or if you’d prefer to meet in person yourself, I can squeeze in a trip. Your facility sounds great. I’d love to see it.”

Such a statement might let you have it both ways: You’d get to express good will but not have to board an airplane. What if the customer would prefer to see you in person? If that would increase the odds of closing the deal or getting better terms, even on the margin, then go ahead and book your flight.

The broader question of where to negotiate depends on the circumstances. In some cases, traveling might be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, but in other situations, it’s in your interest to put the customer at ease. In addition, making the trip could give you a better understanding of the other organization’s culture and who really calls the shots. This type of information might spell the difference between impasse and agreement.

These tactical choices are important in negotiation, but always remember to step back and consider them in a strategic context. Sometimes the best process decisions are those that the parties make jointly, and this sounds like such a case.

Michael Wheeler
Class of 1952 Professor of Management Practice
Harvard Business School

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