I can’t remember the last time I didn’t get everything that I wanted from a client. My wife suggests that it’s because I don’t charge enough. I think it’s because I’m a good negotiator. Most people don’t realize how much time they spend negotiating. Most parents think that they just tell their kids to go to bed. Of course, what actually happens is that the parent tells the kid to go to bed, the kid says, “After this show is over,” the parent responds with, “Just a few minutes,” and they’re negotiating. Another example is when I turn to my wife and say, “Let’s go out for dinner,” and she responds with, “Where to?”—we’re in a negotiation. My guess is that in both of these scenarios, neither party thinks of what’s happening as a “negotiation.” That’s not a bad thing: I think that one of the hallmarks of a good relationship is that we don’t think of most of our negotiations as “negotiations.”
When you think about it, you spend more time negotiating (be it with your boss, your clients, your peers, your significant other, your children) than almost anything else that you do. If you spent as much time running as you do negotiating, those love handles that you’re worried about would be gone. Heck, you’d probably be in the Olympics.
While many negotiations are very casual, negotiation is something that I take very seriously. Most people, faced with a formal negotiation, don’t prepare enough. At best, they think very carefully about what they want. For consultants, that often means just thinking about “How much money do I want?” I’m not denying that’s an important thing to consider, but it’s the last thing that I want to worry about.
The first thing that I want to think about is “What does my client want?” I suspect that they want to pay as little as possible, but I also suspect they’re far more interested in getting good things from me. So my first goal should be to consider all the good things that I could do for my client. Unfortunately, I usually don’t know what “good” means to my client. I learned a long time ago that what I think of as “good” is often very different from what anyone else thinks of as “good.” I’ve discovered that, given a chance to talk about their project, most of my clients can’t wait to tell me about what they’re working on. My job, at the start of the negotiation, is just to ask questions and let them tell me about themselves. If my client starts to wind down, I can take what I’ve learned and suggest things about their project—if I’m right, I look like a genius, and if I’m wrong, I get an explanation that tells me more about my client.
Only after I’ve started learning about my client can we start talking about all the good things that I could do for them. I’ve also discovered that, for most of my clients, the initial agreement is just the doorway to working together. As we work together, we discover even more good things that we can do for each other and our relationship develops. And only after we’ve decided what we’re going to do together can we talk about how much money will change hands. And by that time, we both have a pretty good idea of what we would consider a fair price.
You know, now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time that my clients didn’t get everything they wanted from me.
As an example of getting what we both want, I’m going to be in Europe at the end of May to present at the SDN conference in the Netherlands. As long as I’m in Europe, I’m working with Smart Access reader Frans Truyens. Frans runs a training center, and we’ve talked on several occasions about having me put on a high-level technical seminar in Brussels. Since Arnhem (where the SDN conference is held) is only a few hours from Brussels, this trip seems like a perfect opportunity to put our plan together. So now, I have to start negotiating with my potential customers in order to put “bums in seats” (otherwise, Frans and I will end up sitting in the class by ourselves). So, over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be trying to see what potential “good things” people in the Benelux area are interested in having me do for them. Only then can we decide how much they’re willing to pay for that.