10 ESSENTIAL CONTRACT NEGOTIATION STRATEGIES

business negotiation around a table

Contracts are a necessary part of life, an integral part of many transactions and most deals—whether they are business-to-business or business-to-consumer contracts, employment agreements, car leases, real estate transactions, prenuptial agreements, and on and on. There is no doubt that at some point in your life you are going to be negotiating a contract. It is, therefore, critical that you understand the most common negotiating mistakes and most successful negotiation strategies.
[Source material: In Business As in Life You Don't Get What You Deserve, You Get What You Negotiate written by Dr. Chester Karrass (Karrass 1996)]

Here Are The 10 Contract Negotiation Tactics You Can Start Using Today

1. Don’t make the first major concession.

Man negotiating by phone call

Although one can make the first minor concession, when it comes to major issues it is best that you not be the first to give in. Making a major concession too quickly sends an early message to the other party that they ought to raise their expectations. At the very least, hold back and find out just how strong their position is.

2. If you are a buyer don’t give the seller a quick counter-offer to the asking price.

Whether you are a buyer or seller, my advice is that you make the other party work for every counter-offer they get, including the first one. They will appreciate your counter-offer more if they have to wait for it. The difference between getting a counter-offer and not getting one is vast, from a psychological standpoint. To the person waiting, it represents the difference between a negotiator who might be willing to deal and one who probably won’t.

3. Be stingy with your concessions and leave room to negotiate.

Whether you are selling, buying, or negotiating anything, this rule should be carefully considered: leave room to bargain when you open talks, and give in grudgingly as you move towards agreement. Your opening offer should be higher than what you expect to get and concessions should be made in smaller increments. Concessions, carefully controlled, lead the other party toward closure and provide them with a higher level of satisfaction with the final outcome.

4. Buyers should always try to get cost breakdowns. Sellers should not give them.

Getting good cost breakdowns from competing sellers can, with relatively little work, provide a buyer leverage to ask for large savings. For example, if you are looking for an electrician, knowing the breakdown of material vs. labor cost from the total price can save you money. Perhaps the material the electrician uses is overly expensive, or perhaps the electrician is charging you for an apprentice’s time as well as their own. Knowing the true cost of any product or service will put you in a much stronger position. The US government’s procurement regulations have long required sellers to provide a detailed cost breakdown with proposals on negotiated contracts. They would find it much harder to negotiate a fair price and terms without it.

5. Don’t say “yes” too quickly.

The other party will always appreciate the settlement price more if they believe they have worked for it and gotten closer to the bottom line. If not, their self-esteem will be bruised. They may be angry at you and themselves, perhaps for a long time. Instead of saying “yes” right away, use phrases like, “I’ll have to take it to my partner and get back to you,” or “We’ll have to run the numbers to see if this makes sense for us.”

6. Plead to a higher authority.

While it may seem like having more authority during a negotiation is better, this is often not the case. In fact, having limited authority is a source of negotiating power. Having a higher authority to plead to allows you to say “no” gracefully, since really someone else is saying no for you. It also puts pressure on the other party to negotiate around your limits. And if you threaten to take the issue being negotiated to your higher authority (be it your boss, the legal department, etc.), this creates even more pressure on the other party—as the higher authority creates a new unknown factor. There is sometimes greater strength in not having authority than in having it.

7. Shut up

The less the other person knows about you, the better off you are. The more you know about them, the stronger your bargaining power. Of course, some information must be exchanged in the give and take of negotiating. The problem is that what you say and what you show may be used against you if it reveals your weaknesses. How much you choose to reveal is a matter of business judgment. Less is better than more in most cases.

8. Be skeptical. Things are not what they appear to be.

The information provided by the other party may not be complete. Their expert may not be an expert at all. What you are not told may be more important than what you are told. The product or service you receive after an agreement is reached may not be what you bargained and fought so hard for. If this harsh view of business negotiation offends you, it is not meant to—but it is realistic. Be smart and do your due diligence on the party you are negotiating with, as well as the terms that are proposed.

9. Watch your concessions as the deadline approaches.

signed contract with people shaking hands in background

In a formal experiment with 120 professional negotiators, both parties controlled their concession behavior for most of the hour-long session. Towards the end of the hour is when most of the concessions were made and deals were reached. The next time you are in a negotiation, recognize that your tendency will be to give away too much as a deadline comes close. Discipline yourself to make smaller concessions and spread them out a bit longer. Also remember that most deadlines are themselves subject to negotiation. There is usually time enough to make another concession if you must.

10. What is our next choice if this negotiation breaks down?

Good negotiators will always ask themselves these questions before going to the table: “What will I do if this deal fails? What is my next best alternative?” The willingness to walk away and start over gives you more flexibility and lets you negotiate from a stronger position. Put in a more commonly, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Closing

Like any skill, the more you practice the better you get. Negotiation is no different. Comprehend these strategies and play out different scenarios before you enter into any contract negotiation. And remember, before you sign a complex contract it is a good idea to have a qualified attorney or professional look it over.

For a better understanding of how to become a master negotiator check out Effective Concensus (Karrass 2012) and Give and Take (Karrass 1974). Both books were written by Dr. Chester Karrass, founder of KARRASS, the world leader in negotiation training programs—having trained more than 1,000,000 people over the last 50 years.