Freelance consultants are always the little guy. We possess agile talent and experience that bring value-added to so many mission-critical projects, but we never control the process. We value our savvy and survival skills, but we are alone and vulnerable, truth be told. We navigate and negotiate our way through work assignments and do whatever we can to obtain billable hours.
As we enter into negotiations in pursuit of contract assignments, prospective clients will sometimes seek to take advantage of us. Passive aggressive withholding is the usual weapon. Prospects are known to play ugly games, sometimes to bargain down our already quite reasonable fee, other times to sneak more work into the agreed-upon scope of project work (mission creep) without paying a supplement for the extra duties.
Negotiation skills are a crucial defensive mechanism that help us to protect our integrity and our income and maintain good client relations as we do. Deepak Malhotra, author of Negotiating the Impossible (2016) and professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, has a few suggestions that will help us to respond when a prospect or client decides to become an adversary.
Tactic: “We will never…”
This is an ultimatum. Malhotra recommends that one should simply ignore ultimatums because he’s found that they are usually NOT deal breakers. Ultimatums are frequently issued in the heat of emotion, or as a tactic to intimidate or control.
Avoid acknowledging the ultimatum and you allow the person who put it out there to slide away from it down the road, because you never started a discussion about it. The other party will not lose face should they contemplate surrendering their tough position.
If ignoring the ultimatum is impossible, then try to reframe the statement in less harsh language that gives the other party an out. “It may be difficult, I understand…” or “It could be costly (or time consuming or put you into unfamiliar territory)…”.
Tactic “Oh, and we also will want…”
The other party may have a laundry list of add-ons and conditions that delay agreement. Malhotra observes that there are a couple of likely motivations for this behavior. One, they sense that doing the deal is important to you and they aim to exploit that. Alternatively, the conditions might possibly be meaningful to them in terms of obtaining satisfactory ROI.
Malhotra recommends that you put a cap on the demands by stating that if something is truly important, you would like to understand why and that you will work with them to accommodate any legitimate concerns or objectives. However, you are not willing to negotiate an individual element so late in the negotiation process.
If adjustments are critical, he says, then tactfully make it known that it will be necessary to propose and discuss concessions that they would be willing to make in exchange. The other party must be willing to give some easement and flexibility on issues of value to you as well.
Tactic “Great– I’ll confirm this with my boss.”
Malhotra advises that first of all, make sure you are negotiating with the person who can really approve and set into motion the terms of the negotiated agreement. Sometimes, unfortunately, the other party will not be transparent. Negotiations can be handed off to a gatekeeper while the real authority remains behind the scenes.
To head off this possibility, ask clarifying questions of the other party before you get too far along into the negotiations. Inquire about who will need to sign off on or otherwise sanction the deal that is struck. Ask what factors might speed up or slow down the process. Learning the process of the one across the table shows you are someone who respects the organization and allows you to set expectations for the outcome you can achieve. Do you want to invest time talking to these people, or should you walk away and find a potentially better prospect?
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