“Extreme” Negotiations with Customers

By Jonathan Hughes, Partner, Vantage Partners; Ben Siddall, Partner, Vantage Partners; and David Chapnick, Principal, Vantage Partners

In November 2010, Jonathan Hughes, Aram Donigian, and Jeff Weiss published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Extreme Negotiations” that highlighted lessons in effective negotiation under extreme pressure from the U.S. military that also apply in the business world. Today we revisit those lessons in a very different world. The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken world markets, created significant political and financial instability, and reduced business predictability. Many companies have experienced a slowdown in business activity, with resulting revenue losses over the past several months.

As the news changes every day, timeframes for recovery are uncertain and will vary significantly by industry sector. As we saw in the 2009 financial crisis and subsequent recession, challenging contract renegotiations are a predictable result of this new reality. As companies in many industries confront shrinking demand, higher levels of unused inventory and increased uncertainty, they will undoubtedly turn to suppliers for cost savings while simultaneously looking for guarantees of supply assurance.

Sales teams will need to respond to heightened pressure from customers to reduce pricing, while negotiating to protect revenue and margins — even as they work collaboratively with customers to meet their needs and address their constraints. The current environment thus raises the stakes in customer negotiations and also increases the risk that negotiations become adversarial.

A key insight underlying the ideas in the 2010 HBR article is that negotiation behaviors tend to be deeply ingrained and are often reactive rather than deliberate, especially in high-stakes and stressful situations. Today’s environment can be viewed through the same lens. These strategies are not only useful at the bargaining table but can (and should) also serve to reshape planning and positioning far in advance of formal negotiations that we know are coming. A strong (collaborative) offense is the best defense.

Editor’s note: This article has been edited for length. The full piece, featuring multiple customer examples, will appear in the Fall issue of Velocity magazine.

Strategy 1: Broaden your field of vision, question assumptions, and rethink objectives

Start by identifying key assumptions and subject them to scrutiny; use negotiation planning and execution to continually gather new information and revise strategies accordingly.

One hallmark of the “extreme” negotiation is a feeling of danger creating pressure to act fast to reduce the level of perceived threat. In the face of this pressure, negotiators often begin acting before they fully assess the situation. They act and react based on gut feel and initial perceptions. Given the added pressure to look strong and gain (or remain in) control, they tend not to test or revisit their initial assumptions even as the negotiation progresses. As a result, they often negotiate based on incomplete or incorrect information. This often leads to conflict, impasse, or, at best, a resolution that addresses only a part of the problem or opportunity at hand.

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Sense making in sales starts with making sense of Procurement: My view on Gartner’s most recent research on the “Sense Making Seller”

By Jens Hentschel, Founder & CEO, THE FIVIS PARTNERSHIP

Gartner, a global research and advisory firm, has just redefined what makes a high-performing seller — at least according to them and their new research. It is what they call a “sense maker,” which they define as:

• An individual who rescues the drowning B2B customer from the flood of high-quality and sometimes conflicting information.

• A trusted advisor to the customer that not only shares but also explains and contextualizes information, assisting the decision-making process through guidance, providing perspective and support in evaluating data and tradeoffs

• A seller who doesn’t “tell customers what to believe, but rather helps them to develop a mental framework to make their own decisions.”

In its study Gartner defines the buyer as the internal requisitioner of a service or product within an organization — the marketing leader, IT director, operations executive or R&D researcher — who reaches out into the market, encounters overwhelming and conflicting information and desperately awaits a white knight in the form of the “sense making seller” who arrives to help make sense of it all.

I am not disputing the increased availability and abundance of information at our fingertips, or the sometimes confusing nature of this information. What I do frown upon is the fact that the buying process described by Gartner leaves out one very critical element (arguably the most critical element of all) — namely, the role of the professional procurement function in this. The concept of procurement assisting the internal requisitioner, and ultimately leading the interaction with the seller, is not addressed at all.

The word procurement is not mentioned once in Gartner’s report. That does not make any “sense” to me.

The B2B buyer journey

Based on my experience as a professional B2B buyer at Procter & Gamble and elsewhere, let’s take a look into what actually happens when the aforementioned requisitioner requires a service or product. He or she will not approach this task in the same way they would book a holiday or purchase a mobile phone — by consulting search engines and social media, as highlighted by Gartner. This would undoubtedly lead to this overwhelming onslaught of information that one might struggle to make sense of.

Most employees, rather, turn to their professional procurement department to have their needs fulfilled. It’s Procurement that plays the role of providing structure to the buying process, enabling and guiding the internal requisitioner. It is Procurement that navigates the decision-making process, and it is they that help the requisitioner to make sense of the available options in the market. Procurement’s role, in other words, is to be an advisor ensuring that business needs are clearly defined, that external capabilities are identified and assessed, and that a purchasing decision is achieved in a timely fashion. 

Gartner describes today’s B2B buyer journey as a messy, complicated, unpredictable reiterative and time-consuming process. But is this a fair representation of reality? I would argue that any company that struggles to bring structure to its buying procedures should seriously ask itself what is broken in its procurement setup. If, as Gartner claims, purchasing requests are indeed being delayed or cancelled because of information overload and companies’ inability to deploy the analytical skills to make timely decisions, then I would go so far as to challenge the professionalism of these companies. At the end of the day, these are the fundamental business management skills of organizational leaders that Gartner puts into question here, namely: digesting information, making assumptions and coming to a timely decision.

The solution? Enable procurement.

By no means am I discounting Gartner’s research that customers appreciate an impartial and consultative salesperson who can make sense of the abundant information out there in the market — a salesperson who can back up his data with third-party sources and who builds credibility through advising and not just selling. Every customer appreciates this – the procurement professional, and B2B and B2C customers alike. 

Is Procurement immune to the oversupply of quality information? (Certainly not.) Are we not also struggling to weed our way through the various sources of data coming at us? (Yes, absolutely.) The difference is that we are trained to analytically digest this information and to make sense of it. This is why business leaders empower us to manage and own the buying journey for them.

In my view, today’s sales teams should not focus on the requisitioner only but instead zero in on the question of how to enable their procurement counterparts. Helping “make sense” to someone who is trained to analytically digest an abundance of data to come to a procurement decision (i.e., a procurement professional) is obviously different than assisting someone (i.e., a requisitioner) who may not be trained to manage the entire end-to-end buying process.

What I am concerned with in Gartner’s research is the fact that the procurement dimension of the buying process is totally omitted. It is absolutely crucial in my view that sales teams are not only aware of Procurement but also learning how to deal with them. A well prepared, customer-centric salesperson who understands the procurement processes, the KPIs and ways of working can complement Procurement’s work to steer the organization through the buying and decision-making processes. 

Modern sales theories — including Gartner’s, I am afraid — have completely lost touch with reality on how advanced companies are managing their companies’ expenditures — namely, through professional procurement teams. Leaving out this dimension entirely is not only a miss but a dangerous one for any salesperson who is actually being faced with the reality of needing to interact with professional buyers day in and day out. 

Making sense of procurement

So how can you be that sense-making partner for your procurement counterpart? How can you build a close relationship with your professional buyer? Involving instead of avoiding is where it all begins. Reach out to the procurement function proactively, early in the process, together with or in parallel to the requisitioner. 

Walking in the shoes of your purchaser and putting yourself into their analytical mindset will be the ultimate key to success. As a matter of fact, a professional buyer looks for five key behavioral traits in a sales person. Understanding them, incorporating them into your ways of working and living up to them will help you build that winning relationship with Procurement.

Here is what you need to do: 

  1. Care! Care about my needs. Understand my company, my stakeholders, the end consumer and the nature of the business that I am in. I don’t have time to explain over and over again what my needs and requirements are. Invest the energy up front to understand the constraints, opportunities, risks and KPIs of my organization. A salesperson who can relate, is empathetic and has built credible knowledge of my business and industry has laid the foundation for gaining my trust.  
  2. Compete! Know where you are at vis-à-vis your competition. I have spent a lot of time to assess your strengths and weaknesses, and so should you — before you come and meet me! Understand where you are strong and where you lack expertise. Ask for feedback and consider it a gift. Be upfront about your opportunity areas and where you might fall behind your competition. I do not expect you to be the best but to always try to become the best. That is the spirit I am looking for in a salesperson.
  3. Improve! The status quo is never acceptable. Continuously and proactively think about how you can make our relationship even better. Don’t wait for me to bring up what needs to change because by then it is already too late. Improving what is already good will allow you to form a trusting relationship with me.
  4. Respond! My timeline should be your timeline. And at times, sorry to say, it might not fall into your 9-to-5 framework. Understand my own and my organization’s communication requirements, communication frequency, channels and the language that should be used. Not responding or making me wait for your response can be painful. Adjust and adapt your communication strategy to my needs. Understand the stakeholders in my company, and assume the responsibility to be responsive.
  5. Win! Know what you actually want to get out of this relationship. There is nothing more deflating to me than when a salesperson does not know the answer to this question. Just making the quarter is not good enough, I am afraid. Inspire me by articulating what you want to achieve in our winning relationship in the next two, three or five years — and let me know what I can do to make you successful. Believe it or not, I am actually invested in helping YOU win because only a successful supplier can deliver value to MY organization long term and sustainably.

Make sense? 

Jens Hentschel, Founder & CEO of THE FIVIS PARTNERSHIP. The Consultancy That Gets You Your Oomph back! www.fivis.io