Stuart Farr offers some timely advice on making sure you get the best possible deal in any given negotiation

© Pixabay: Gerd Altmann

So there it is…at the time of writing, the EU negotiators have dipped the WTO stick in the proverbial “merde” and offered it over to the Brits to grasp with both hands.

Of course, there’s still (limited) time left to get a trade deal. Deadlines slip and who knows, by the time you read this, someone might still have been able to find a bit of old rag and give the stick a wipe

However, let’s face it, did we realistically expect our EU counterparts to capitulate after we’d poked them sharply in the eye with the very same stick—by voting to leave all those months ago? 

As such, it was a stroke of political genius to put the French in charge of the EU negotiating team. They are respected for their hard-nosed and uncompromising style.

Besides no-one could suggest, in my view, the French have more to offer than they need to protect. We share many passions (motors, agriculture and fishing to name but a few) but our respective national values are very different. 

Whether or not the UK government were able to secure some form of deal with the remaining EU states is one thing. The truth of the matter is that when deals on a national basis are negotiated there will always be winners and losers, the disillusioned and the agnostic. 

For those of you in the UK who trade abroad, however, the harsh reality is that after 1 January commercial life just got a bit harder. Faced with a pandemic, an expanding economic crisis, huge national debt, potential for record numbers of insolvency and perhaps the worst ever peacetime unemployment, it is not too difficult to imagine the next few years being tough… very tough indeed. 

The art of the deal 

All your business skills will be called into play. “Doing a deal” isn’t going to be all about displays of comradeship, derring-do or breast beating… for some, it could well be a matter of sheer survival.

There have been many books published about the so-called “art of negotiation” and I would suggest an equal number of them should be confined to the dustbin.

It’s perception as a dark art should be abolished. Negotiation is not an art. Nor is it a science. It is something else and whatever label might be used to describe it (a discipline, methodology, or even a philosophy), in my experience negotiation always boils down to one thing… you! 

What constitutes a good negotiation is personal to everyone and for that reason negotiation cannot be described by reference to one single or unilateral form of terminology.

Lawyers, like me, who conduct negotiations on behalf of their clients day-in-day-out generally do so with a number of distinct advantages. In commercial deals we can take all of that accumulated commercial knowledge and experience from different sectors and apply it objectively to the task in hand in order to structure the best commercial deal possible. 

In a litigation context, the disputes lawyer also has a number of procedural tools at his/her disposal which can be used either to apply pressure or, as an incentive, to release pressure (not “torture” I hasten to add but more akin to “informed persuasion”). Even then, however, the legal principles behind a deal will only get us so far. It so often boils down to a plain and simple horse trade. 

Trading places 

For that reason, when things get down to the real nitty-gritty it is important to figure out how to reach the sweet spot quickly. That means having to work out your own personal set of boundaries or principles to keep you on track and heading in the right direction.  By way of example, here are a few of the principles I generally work to (in no particular order): 

  • Do your due diligence—read the small print (!) and understand as much as possible about the person or entity you are negotiating with. Are they financially strong; what are their motives and aspirations behind the deal and, importantly, their “must have” needs and potential weak areas? 
  • Build a rapport (if possible) and keep it going—a negotiation inevitably becomes harder when the parties are at loggerheads with each other. Building the right personal connections can be time consuming initially but can make for a much speedier and more productive deal in the long run.
  • Don’t deal in round numbers—by this I mean simply that a reasoned negotiation where the terms or figures offered are justified at each stage can be a powerful tool because it narrows down the scope for argument and illustrates those areas on which you are prepared to concede and those where you are not.
  • Consider the package deal—many negotiations fail because they focus too much on one thing (usually money) whereas each party may have something else (and potentially just as valuable) to offer which can sweeten a deal immensely. This could involve future trade in other areas, discounts, labour, parts, training, warranties or even just time and support.
  • Splitting the difference—it’s tempting to use this strategy far too early and it often sends the wrong message. Be cautious. If possible, let the other side offer it first and only accept where the figures are so insignificant as it makes no major difference either way.
  • Principles/putting differences aside—many deals will have a fundamental point of principle which, in the mind of at least one party, cannot be compromised, a line drawn in the sand if you will. Sometimes getting past these can be problematic. Knowing what these are from the outset can play an important role in unlocking the deal and bringing it to fruition without either party losing face. 

Haggle, barter, negotiate 

Cultural differences are important too and the Brits are no exception to that. The French, as I have said, are renowned tough negotiators and don’t yield ground easily.

Our friends around the Mediterranean often introduce more emotional content into their negotiating style, whereas those countries around the Balkans are generally more matter of fact in their approach. 

In the Middle East and many parts of the Far East negotiation is expected and if the ticket price isn’t open to a good haggle then forget it. Russians, in my experience, generally prefer to ensure they start negotiations from a position of strength whereas across the Atlantic, our North American cousins enjoy driving a hard bargain but generally thrive on doing deals involving nice and big round figures tied up with long and wordy contracts. 

The Brits, on the other hand, generally prefer “fair play” and allow their principles to play a more fundamental part in the negotiation process – sometimes, it has to be said, leading to results which can be counter-productive. No style, I hasten to add, is bad or wrong. The point is simply knowing a little about the differences between them. 

They say “better to have no deal, than a bad deal” but I see many commercial deals where the small print tells a very different, much more ‘one-sided’, story. The trick is getting the right balance and that is where your personal negotiating skills come into play.

Part of that could involve gathering a team around you to look at various facets and to provide informed feedback to be used as part of the process. For everyone, becoming a Deal Ninja is a journey through both success and failure.  

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