Monday, May 9, 2011

Stop It!

“I can’t believe what just happened!” Verdi sputtered, red-faced. “We were meeting with the client to close out some of these tough issues. They brought in their corporate controller, who started negotiating for them.”

“That’s interesting but not unusual,” said Tyler Gitou. “Parties will often introduce new players when their interests are impacted by the deal.”

“Wait, that wasn’t the problem. This controller, Greg, starts talking ultimatums: ‘If you don’t agree now then we’re going walk away.’ That sort of stuff. I had my boss in the meeting for the first time as well. Before I know it, he’s making concessions left and right.”

“Oh boy,” Tyler shook his head. “I think I know the answer, but tell me this: was your boss in the prep sessions you had before this meeting today?”

“No!” Verdi said. “He showed up this morning and said he had come to help us get the deal ‘over the goal line’. We said that’s fine, but we have a strategy we’ve been working so please observe and don’t respond. What does he do? Responds and gives everything away! Now I have to deliver this work with one hand tied behind my back!”

“That’s too bad, Verdi. I always tell my teams, in negotiation and sports, ‘if you don’t practice you can’t play.’ We don’t want to bring people into the meetings who have not been part of our preparation for the negotiation. They don’t know the playing field.”

“So what should I have done?” Verdi asked.

“Stop the meeting,” Tyler replied. “Anytime something happens that takes you away from your game plan, call for a timeout.”

Verdi shrugged. “Won’t that seem kind of silly? We were just 45 minutes into the meeting. How do I ask for a break?”

“Make it very clear that you need a moment to talk to your team,” Tyler said. “You should give a legitimate reason but you don’t need to reveal exactly what the problem is. In your case, you could have said, ‘I’m sorry I just heard something in this exchange that I had not thought through. Can I just talk to my team outside for five minutes to get some clarification?’ Then you get outside the room and talk to your boss about what is happening, namely, he’s making undisciplined concessions because of pressure from a new executive.”

“I guess I never thought about stopping a meeting so soon after it started.”

“For a Deal Whisperer, the goal is to manage the process and the substance of the negotiation as best as possible to produce a mutually successful outcome. There are no rules that say when you can or can’t ask for a sidebar discussion with your team. If you need to clarify something, stop the meeting and clarify. Better to make sure your own team is communicating well than to stay glued to a chair and watch the deal go down the drain. When the negotiations start to feel like a runaway train, stop it! Reset. Then start again.”

“I will remember that,” Verdi said.

“When you have a moment I also want to talk to you about this new executive in the negotiation,” Tyler said. “Frankly, you should have stopped the meeting as soon as you found out you had an unexpected attendee. Let’s discuss that tomorrow.”


  1. This is an intesting tactic, but can the Deal Whisperers say more about how the client is likely to react to such an unexpected pause? I would imagine that they would interpret that as an obvious sign of weakness and push even harder for the concessions they're seeking...

  2. That's an excellent observation. If I were a new executive in the deal and I started making demands and saw that the senior person on the other side was ready to cave in for fear of losing the deal, that would not be lost on me! I'd be begging the other party to bring that guy back. Moreover, if that person is the escalation point for whoever is left behind, I would feel confident that I would get the concession whenever he had to make the final decision. Taking the other side, then, I need to focus on two things: 1. explaining how saying "yes" to the demands is not good for the deal; and 2. evaluating my BATNA and the weakness of the other party's BATNA. Regarding 1.: the issue I need to influence the other side to appreciate is that if I am forced to give in on the demands, it likely will impact the outcome of the engagement and the value of the deal. On 2.: If I have a strong BATNA or the other party has a weak BATNA, it means I can more critically evaluate their threats of walking from the deal if I don't say "yes" to the demands. Finally, if I have done my job well, I have built a strong, trusting relationship with the other party so that I have a back channel to go to and ask who this new executive is, why is he making these demands and when did their interests in driving to mutual success change. So while the request to call for a break may create a highlight, it is one highlight in the fabric of a larger tapestry of relationship, interests, legitimacy and BATNA