I don’t know whether it’s true that life is unfair. But I do know that when people are negotiating, they use all sorts of tactics, and they’re often unfair.
One of the most unnerving of these tactics comes when a buyer challenges not your product, but you as a person. They may do this in a number of ways. They may question your expertise: “Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?” Or they may ridicule what you’ve said: “You can’t be serious with this proposal.” Or they may imply that you’re in some kind of emotional state: “Don’t get upset,” or “You’re being pretty difficult here.”
Of course, the real goal, assuming the buyer isn’t just cranky or having a bad day, is to knock you off your equilibrium and soften you up for concessions. How can you counter such tactics so as to reestablish your power and get the negotiation back on course?
How to respond
Let’s turn to negotiations expert Deborah Kolb, who has run programs on the subject at Harvard Law School and elsewhere. She suggests deploying one or more of these counter-tactics:
- Interrupt. You can do this by standing up and walking around the room, taking a drink of water, saying you need a bathroom break — anything to disrupt the advantage your buyer has tried to establish. Once you return to the subject at hand, the dynamic will have shifted back to a more neutral position.
- Name what’s happening. When you do this, you signal that you’re on to the other party. If, for instance, the buyer said, “You must be joking when you say that,” you could reply, “I see what you’re doing there. If I’m joking you don’t have to respond substantively to my idea. No, here’s what I meant.”
- Question what’s been said. If you don’t feel comfortable coming right out and naming the buyer’s tactic, you can instead ask a question. When the buyer says, “You must be joking when you say that,” you would reply, “What exactly seems funny about what I said?”
- Correct what’s been said. You could simply reject the buyer’s statement by saying, “Of course I’m not joking.” But it’s more constructive to correct it, with something like, “I do like a joke, but I never joke about serious business, which this is.”
- Divert the exchange. Here, you shift the focus off you and back onto the problem that you’re negotiating. You could say, “The point isn’t whether I’m joking or not. It’s that we need to figure out how to customize this solution for you. Let’s talk about that.”
Don’t get stuck playing defense
The whole point is to avoid being on the defensive. Playing defense isn’t going to get you where you want to go in a sales negotiation. So when your buyer tries to put you in that position, you can’t just acquiesce or try to ignore it and go on.
Instead, you need to respond in a way that rebalances the dynamic. These five counter-tactics can help you do just that.
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