Prevent An Ambush: Five Tips

Ambush in NegotiationsIn a recent seminar, a client described a negotiation crisis he'd had: at a meeting he believed was going to be an information exchange with his wholesaler, he was ambushed: without warning, the other side brought a team of eight from his company, made a lowball offer, and then announced that they no longer needed our client's business.  What to do?

Our client was less stunned than he might have been -- the same person had pulled the same stunt two years before. Why was our client still doing business with him? A surprise attack is for competitive, not collaborative negotiations, since it tends to sacrifice the relationship to the outcome. And indeed, our client had avoided contact with the bully after the last deal, believing he would be gone by the time the contract needed renegotiation. Ending the relationship was difficult, because the bully's company had become our client's sole source of distribution.

When you have to negotiate with a bully, here are five tips for preventing and defending against a surprise attack:

Keep Working on Relationships. Like nasty neighbors, hostage-takers, dictators, oligopolies, and sole-source suppliers, a wholesaler who is has a large portion of your market is difficult because you can't avoid them -- you have to find a way to have a relationship with them. Prior to bargaining, work harder than you otherwise might to find affiliations, make gestures of friendliness, and get to know other people on the team and in the company. Even if you find the "bully" difficult to deal with, you will get to know him or her better, which will help you anticipate tactics and resist the angry reaction that a surprise attack can trigger.

Build a Strong BATNA. Your BATNA is very important in this kind of negotiation, because it is more difficult with a sole distributor. Finding alternatives to a deal with your main distributor requires a lot of probing, conversation, and relationship-development with other potential wholesalers and retailers. You may be able to negotiate with second-tier wholesalers, or plan an "end-run" around the bully and offer a deal directly to retailers. Do this legwork before an information exchange.

Develop a joint agenda. Get the other party to agree ahead of time on what will be discussed in a meeting. If an ultimatum or something comes up that you didn’t discuss when you negotiated the agenda, remind the other side that their new item is not on the agenda both parties agreed to and will have to wait for the next session.  

Focus on Interests. One way to help distract from the hostility or negativity created by a tactic like a surprise attack is to focus on your own interests, and on the legitimate interests of the other side. What is the real reason for the hardball tactic? What do you really need out of the deal? Consider your BATNAs and the possible BATNAs for the other side.

Manage emotions. If you find yourself faced with a surprise attack despite your attempts to prevent it, it will be critical to keep your cool. Anger blurs thinking.  Our client wisely did not respond to his counterpart's ambush and mostly kept his cool -- then went to gather intelligence about the other side. He found that the bully had treated a number of other companies to a similar tactic, but had not met with most of them. Thus our client discovered he had more bargaining power than he realized.

Our client's plan after our discussion was to circle back to other retailers and wholesalers and explore his options and strengthen his BATNA before returning to the bully. Stay tuned for an update!