One of the most important lessons that IT consultants must learn is that, unlike product-based businesses, service-based businesses are personal, and services don’t exist until they are experienced by the client.

And since all experience is subjective, services are judged and evaluated through the client’s preconceptions, previous encounters, and prejudices. Understanding this is the first step toward understanding the nature of the consulting business.

With this in mind, it’s clear that negotiation for IT services is not a cut-and-dried interaction between two rational businesspeople. It’s a delicate dance of ego, emotion, and perception that must be approached with subtlety and sensitivity.

This is why all of the negotiating methods of the past—which relied on subterfuge, manipulation, and selfishness—are being discarded in favor of strategies that focus on clear understanding, mutual concession, and respect for the emotional and psychological realities that make compromise possible.

In this article, I’ll outline some of the techniques I’ve learned in my quest to become a better negotiator.

Second in a series

The first installment in our series about negotiating skills for IT consultants focused on some of the basics of negotiation. The next article in this series will discuss developing proposals that both parties can accept.

Check yourself
When I mentor rookie consultants, I often find that they affix problems to the client: “The client doesn’t understand the technology; they don’t know how to use consultants; there’s too much politics….”

My response to this is always the same: Check yourself. Did you articulate the technology? Did you explain the consulting process? Did you assess the political risks?

In negotiation as well, the most important first rule is to check yourself. What assumptions do you bring to the bargaining table that might influence or impede your understanding? What prejudices or preconceptions do you harbor that could cause you to misinterpret the other side’s needs?

If we agree that understanding both our own and the other party’s position is critical to negotiating success, then it follows that anything that colors that perception can have a negative impact on the process. While most of us believe that we see things as they are, we all have hot buttons that get our emotions fired up and preferences that impinge on our ability to take people for what they are.

Preconceptions about appearance, for example, such as men wearing long hair or sandals in a business setting, have been blown apart in the last few years. What other assumptions, perhaps about regional accents or personal characteristics, do you harbor that could cause you to prejudge the needs or motivations of a negotiating partner?

Speak clearly
In negotiation, as in all phases of consulting, communication is key. Language has different meanings to different folks and among different cultures. Strong negotiators go the extra mile to be sure that they’ve clarified the intent of the language used by the other side, by restating and summarizing to ensure shared understanding.

One of the communication shortcomings that we have as specialists in a highly technical field is the use of jargon and other technical language that may be unclear, or interpreted differently, in our negotiating sessions. Use plain English when negotiating.

What are they thinking?
As important as it is to realize our own assumptions, it’s also critical to understand the other side’s motivations and preconceptions. What is their bottom line, and how will they take it if you try to budge them from that line? What are they afraid of in this negotiation?

What do they most want to accomplish? What ego, prestige, or power needs are they trying to satisfy beyond the surface content of the negotiation?

The best negotiators seemingly read the minds of the other side, offering the exact outcomes visualized. They do this by examining the other side’s human needs and using that knowledge to offer up a negotiating stance that satisfies the client.

Set the tone
We all come into negotiating situations with fears: Will I be intimidated? Will I be bamboozled? Will I be outnegotiated or manipulated?

Knowing this, the experienced negotiator makes a special effort to allay these fears, to reassure all participants that they seek a fair and honest outcome. Wise negotiators explicitly and implicitly project themselves as fair, likeable, trustworthy, and ethical.

By seeking areas of commonality, by using nonthreatening body language, and by doing small things—like sitting interspersed with the client instead of gathering on one side—smart negotiators use the atmosphere and tone of the meeting to impart qualities of honesty and trust. From the level of your voice to the questions you ask, every element in the bargaining room either reflects mutuality and trust or tears them down.

Avoid arguments
It’s also critical to be sure that negotiation never turns into argument. In Getting What You Want: How to Reach Agreement and Resolve Conflict Every Time, author Kare Anderson proposes a method she calls “The AAAA Approach” to guide negotiators through the tense moments of conflict in a bargaining session. When emotions start to flare and conflict begins to bubble over, think of the four A’s and use them to defuse the situation:

  • Acknowledge their position. Simply restating their position indicates that you’re hearing them.
  • Ask for more information. Asking them to clarify or restate their position can give them a chance to restate their requirements in a less divisive manner.
  • Align with their needs. Make an honest effort to see it from their point of view, to understand why they are insisting on their interpretation. Find some way of expressing your sympathy for the importance they place on their position, even if you disagree.
  • Add more information. Now, help them understand why you are so adamant about your needs.

Bottom line
By understanding and avoiding your own hot buttons and preconceptions, you enable yourself to get a clearer picture of the other party’s needs and desires. By communicating clearly and without jargon, we ensure that the words we use and hear mean what we think they mean.

By acknowledging that both parties bring fear, ego, emotion, and preconception into the room, we focus on creating an unthreatening atmosphere of mutuality and trust.

Rick Freedman is the founder of Consulting Strategies Inc., a training firm that advises and mentors IT professional services firms in fundamental IT project management and consulting skills. He is author of The IT Consultant: A Commonsense Framework for Managing the Client Relationship and two upcoming works: The e-Consultant and Building the IT Consulting Practice, both scheduled for publication in 2001.

When did you lose it?

After reading this article, you should know how to calm a tense negotiation session, which in certain situations, can be likened to a demolition expert defusing a bomb. Has there ever been a time when you’ve tried to save face and instead lost your deal? Share your story with us. (You don’t have to give your name.)