Working with Your Agent – and Someone Else’s – In Negotiation

By on / Conflict Resolution

Adapted from “When to Use an Agent” by Lawrence Susskind

Negotiation, March 2004 

Negotiations become especially complex when agents are involved on two or more sides.

In the course, of their research, Robert Mnookin and Lawrence Susskind discovered that many negotiators often mistakenly assume that an agent representing the other side:

(1) always has a clear mandate from her principal

(2) always has aligned her interests with those of the principal.

Often, neither is the case. For this reason, you should be aware of the potential pitfalls and follow a few general guidelines.

1.    Explore the other side’s agent.

The interests of the other party’s agent are probably not aligned with those of her principal, but how can you find out for sure? 

Consider asking your negotiating partner for a written statement that spells out his interests.

If he doesn’t cooperate, try writing down your understanding of his interests and send it directly to him (not his agent) for confirmation. By doing so, you’ll discover the nature of his relationship with his agent and the type of bargaining you can expect.

An agent paid a percentage of whatever deal she generates may be in a rush to close because she needs the cash.

  • Meanwhile, her principal might actually prefer to seek wise tradeoffs that could enhance the deal.

2.    Make the Other Party’s Agent Your Ally

Whenever possible, frame proposals that will provoke the other side’s agent to advocate your interests with his client. 

After all, if you aren’t able to speak directly with the client, her agent is the only person who can argue on your behalf. It’s in your interest to arm him with the strongest arguments you can muster in support of your desire outcome.

In addition, you should seek out ways to meet the interests of both the agent and his principal. Make it easy for the agent to explain why your proposals should be accepted.

A basic understanding of their contract could be useful, though this information may be difficult to verify.

3.    Put forward a variety of arguments. 

Because the other party’s agent may not be interested in expanding the zone of possible agreement (ZOPA), you’ll need to work at identifying the trading zone.

Don’t hesitate to put multiple written proposals or packages on the table (making sure you can live with all of them).

In doing so, you’ll ensure that the agent will discuss the choices you’ve offered with his principal.

Once you and the other party have reached agreement through your agents, remind your own agent that the final decision is yours to make.

This power will not minimize your agent’s ability to create value or generate a strong package (although your agent might argue otherwise in the hope of gaining more authority).

Finally, when it comes time to seal a deal, don’t hesitate to insist upon a face-to-face meeting with the other side (with your agent present), even if your agent has been handling most of the contact up until that time.

While professional agents can complicate negotiations, their presence is likely to enhance the ability of first-time negotiators to reach the trading zone.

The key is to remember that agents on both sides will always have interests that vary to some degree from those of their principals.

  • By carefully crafting a written agreement with your own agent and staying attuned to the agenda of the other party’s agent, you will build a strong foundation for fruitful, collaborative negotiation.

Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


 

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