3 ways to negotiate more effectively

I would like to share my negotiating tips with you, learnt from 12 years as a lead negotiator for one of the UK big four supermarkets. The UK Grocery Industry, and particularly the UK supermarkets, have a reputation for being tough, demanding and ruthless. On a world stage, our supermarkets hold their own, and as Napoleon later discovered, “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers” (England is a nation of shopkeepers). The environment was exceptionally conducive to learn how to negotiate more effectively.

My experience of working for one of the big four UK supermarkets meant that I have had over 2,500 meetings with suppliers, negotiated agreements from point of sales (Advertising monies) worth £250 to annual contracts worth over £50m and ultimately managed a buying team whose combined sales exceeded £1bn. During my time, I was trained by 5 different external negotiating training companies, culminating in role plays with top union negotiators and being tested to be the very best in our company and in our industry.

I have run Making Business Matter for 12 years, a training provider with a unique training method ‘Sticky Learning’. In these ‘3 Ways to Negotiate More Effectively To Get What You Want’, you can learn my top tips so that you can get the very best deal:

1. Listen carefully to the ‘little’ words used by your opponent

Whenever I read a blog post and one of the top tip is ‘to listen’, I always feel patronised and immediately stop reading. So, if you are still with me, please let me explain that this is more than ‘just listen’. The words we use in a negotiation give us away and effective negotiators know to listen for these ‘quickly said and completely overlooked’ words because they can help you to get what you want.

A negotiation between myself and a fruit supplier in the late 1990s was in full swing. The variables were many, the stakes high and tension could be cut with a knife. My opponent had spent the last 45 minutes logically arguing why the price had to increase based on foreign exchange movements, yet something was not congruent from his words to his body language.

I was first alerted by the way he seemed less confident each time he asked for the +12.3% increase. I asked an open question, ‘How much of the 12.3% price increase did his business need?’. He replied with an extensive answer re-iterating the foreign exchange logic and pointing at the graphs, and then finished what he thought was a final reiteration. What he actually said was, ‘The business really needs about 12.3%’. This one small word gave him away – ‘about’ – because he didn’t need 12.3%, he could have lived with less, and he did, a lot less.

Action: To negotiate more effectively, listen carefully to the little words that are used because they give us away. For examples, ‘needs about 12.3%.’, which means I could take less, ‘…that’s difficult…’, which means it is not possible, and ‘…around £2,500’, which means there’s room to negotiate and £2,500 is not the figure I really need.

2. Delete your understanding of how an effective negotiator acts

As I started in buying I saw and learnt from the people around me. They were tough, demanding and ruthless. They would keep suppliers waiting, ask a question & count 30 seconds to put the supplier under pressure to make a decision or play good cop & bad cop. It was early on that I decided that this was not the negotiator that I wanted to be. I wanted to be a negotiator that was known for being demanding, but fair and someone who suppliers could work with and trust. Of course, there were times that I was not able to be true to what I wanted to be, but I knew that if I had an idea of the type of negotiator that I wanted to be, I could work towards that every day.

Now, as a trainer in negotiation skills supporting learners through our Negotiation Skills Training we help learners to be the negotiator that they want to be. A recent learner shared with me in our 121 coaching session that her image of an effective negotiator was that of her Dad. A tough man who was ruthless with the people he negotiated with and told stories of how he’d achieved a win: lose. After some discussion the lady was able to replace the understanding, she was an effective negotiator with her own style, which was more collaborative, trusting and tough, but in a pleasant way. Some of the most effective negotiators we have seen graduate at Top Gun have been marketers because they are more naturally more collaborative than salespeople.

Action: Delete your understanding of how an effective negotiator acts and replace them with 3 words that describe the type of negotiator that you want to be. The 3 words I chose for my style are demanding, fair and trustworthy.

3. Find out what is important to your opponent because the information is very useful

In most negotiations, price is the key factor. Most inexperienced negotiators end up locking horns with their opponent because their preparation has been poor and/or because they have found out very little about what their opponent actually wants, beyond price. Effective negotiators spend a good amount of time asking a lot of questions to find out their opponent’s situation, needs, and concerns. Of course, the price will be high on their agenda, but what else is on their shopping list, what drives their reason to negotiate, what would a great deal look like to them.

Time and time again I see ineffective negotiators get locked on price and achieve deadlock. Preparing open questions beforehand will help avoid deadlock. And most of all, using questions such as, ‘Of the items that you are looking for, what are your top 3?’ Or, ‘I understand that price is important to you, what else is important to you?’. By identifying other items in the negotiation, known as ‘variables’ in negotiating circles, you have the ‘grease to keep the wheels moving’ because whilst you cannot achieve £2,500, you could get free delivery or quicker delivery, or better quality or money off next time, a referral, etc.

Action: Find out what is important to them by spending time asking open questions. Those questions that cannot be answered with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, and keep digging, without interrogating to find out everything that is in their head about this negotiation.

Summary of ways to Negotiate More Effectively To Get What You Want

Here is a summary of the 3 tips above and their actions:

  • Top tip #1 – Listen carefully to the ‘little’ words used by your opponent
  •    Action: Listen carefully for the little words that give us away.
  • Top tip #2 – Delete your understanding of how an effective negotiator acts.
  •    Action: Choose 3 words to describe how you want to be as a negotiator.
  • Top tip #3 – Find out what is important to your opponent because the information is very useful.
  •    Action: Ask open questions to understand what is important to your opponent.

Darren has been working in the world of UK Supermarkets & Suppliers for over 30 years.

He began his career as a buyer at big 4 UK supermarket and after 13 years he decided to leave to set-up Making Business Matter because he wanted to help suppliers and supermarkets to work better together.

Behaviour, human behaviour, has fascinated Darren from an early age and he writes about this as The Word Whisperer. Helping you to understand what people really mean by the words they choose.