How’s your poker face? Or your chess game? Skilled negotiators require both the ability to shield what they are really thinking and to plan ahead like chess masters.

The things that go on in negotiations can sometimes seem more like an elaborate game or performance than a business meeting. The games people play are amazing. That is why Stuart Whittle, head of IT at law firm Weightmans, sought out negotiating training from The Gap Partnership. “My background is as a lawyer and I have dealt with some heavyweight litigation in my time. Negotiations as a lawyer tend to be far more adversarial, so moving to my role as head of IT – where we were trying to maintain long-term relationships – for me was a totally different approach. It wasn’t about winning and losing,” says Whittle. “If our relationship with a supplier breaks down that would be incredibly expensive. It’s a contrast to litigation which is all about price.”

Leave your ego at the door

Even if you wield all the power in the relationship, it may not be in your best interests to exploit that at the negotiating table. Leave your ego outside the room and resist all temptation to emulate the House of Commons schoolboy bullying and one-upmanship.

It makes sense to put a lot of effort into getting a long-term relationship on both sides – the classic win-win. Do not screw a vendor to the floor since the implications of doing that are service goes out of the window. When the chips are down and you need a rabbit pulled out of the proverbial, that’s when you need that relationship.

"Negotiations as a lawyer tend to be far more adversarial, so moving to my role as head of IT – where we were trying to maintain long-term relationships – for me was a totally different approach"

Stuart Whittle, head of IT, Weightmans

Do your homework

Before you sit down for the verbal sparring, you should already have put in a lot of legwork. You need to think about your objectives; the timetable you want things to happen by and what you think is a fair price.
If you are buying commodity hardware or software, find out when is their year-end or quarter-end, as the vendor will probably be more malleable to discounts at those times.

Once you are clear about what you want from the deal, then you need to work out the best strategy to reach your goal. In fact, rather than one strategy, you actually need to have plans A, B, C and beyond at your disposal.

Simply reiterating an argument will not win any ground. You must think about what your best/worst scenario would be; where the supplier is weak or strong; where your own strengths and weaknesses lie; and how you can play to those strengths and cover up the bad points. In other words, get as much information as you can. It is a chess game. CIOs in negotiations should map out numerous scenarios and work out what would happen in each of those and how they would react.

Elements of the deal

Through this planning, you can work out the elements of the deal that are vital, other things that are important but not essential, and some other nice-to-have extras.

Do not agree to anything unless you have 100 per cent of things you definitely need, 80 per cent of things you really want and 20-50 per cent of the optional extras.

Steve Gates, founder of negotiation trainers The Gap Partnership, warns that CIOs should think about who to throw into the negotiating ring. “I find the more senior an individual is, the more empowered they are to say yes to things, because they are the ones who are the budget holders. The most dangerous person in that room is the most senior, so it may be better to delegate negotiation but with clear guidelines about what’s required,” recommends Gates.

Again, he flags looking beyond the price tag. “Company money seems to have a different meaning to personal money psychologically. Individuals fall into a trap of buying comfort because they do something in budget rather than valuing it in real terms as they would for money out of their own pockets.”

In search of common ground

Once you have made it to the negotiating table, start with establishing the common ground, before discussing the inevitable differences.

There are all kinds of techniques to influence the meeting, some of which are outlined in the box overleaf. These are not things you can pick up overnight, it takes time and practise – just like driving – before this behaviour becomes automatic. Imagine the quiet, unassuming type who turns into a firebrand, verbally ejecting the salesman and his insulting offer from the room, before assuming his quiet stance once more.

That is playing games but the stakes are for real. While aggressive tactics may work when the only haggling to be done is on price and plenty of other vendors offer the same product, it would clearly be disastrous if the relationship is to be long-term. Negotiating is about individuals, so it is fundamental to build relationships. There is very little value in becoming adversarial in any circumstances because the relationship goes out of the window. Robina Chatham, visiting fellow at Cranfield School of Management, is against using aggressive tactics. A former IT director herself and now running her own firm, Chatham will not have anything to do with these games, as she sees them.

“A lot of tactics are teaching people to be fox-like and adversarial and I don’t think that’s the right way to do it. I prefer to do business with people I like and I tend to put my cards on the table in terms of what I want and how I want to be dealt with. If a supplier doesn’t like that, I walk away,” she says.

Play fair

“I wouldn’t try tactics like having a seat that’s higher or trying to score points. You want a fair price and I’m all for open-book accounting.” She adds: “In my view negotiation is two things: understanding the person you’re negotiating with and putting yourself in their shoes.” These were certainly skills that Whittle felt he needed to learn. “When you’re negotiating in litigation you keep your cards close to your chest but now I have to be more open, so people can understand what we want.”

In fact, the poker face will not get you very far. According to research into the art of negotiating, feelings are important.

“I come to a meeting and open it by saying I’m delighted – it looks like we’re going to do business together,” says David Freedman, sector head for IT at sales and negotiating skills trainer, Huthwaite International.

Even when you are not happy, it is still good to get that out in the open. “Exploring feelings, whether good or bad, acts as some kind of lubricant,” he says.

"I wouldn’t try tactics like having a seat that’s higher or trying to score points"

Robina Chatham, visiting fellow, Cranfield School of Management

Question time

It is also important to ask questions – skilled negotiators ask questions 21.3 per cent of the time compared to 9.6 per cent of average negotiators, according to Huthwaite’s research, and they constantly try to check the other person’s understanding and to clarify points.

Although it is important to express what you feel about the deal, this is not a personal platform, advises Khalid Aziz, chairman of executive communications trainer, The Aziz Corporation. “The main thing is to try and keep everything cordial but to keep personal feelings out of it – this is often counter-intuitive for people,” says Aziz.

Skilled sales people or negotiators will look for body language or verbal clues that speak volumes about where your real motivations lie. Most of us do not realise how transparent we are – Whittle was amazed when he saw himself on video during his training.

“To watch yourself on video is uncomfortable but very instructive, even with artificial role play. You can see the signals you’re giving away. It’s not so much what you’re saying but how you’re saying it,” Aziz says.

“One of the things I was made aware of is when I negotiated as a lawyer, I didn’t tend to listen to what the other person was saying so much as marshalling my thoughts for my reaction. I’ve learnt to listen to what people are talking about.”

Take your time

However the meeting goes, do not be railroaded into agreeing anything before you are ready. “People are quite impatient and want to agree quickly to wrap it up. If they can’t think of an alternative idea, they tend to think well let’s just do it,” says Gates. “Take you’re time, or more importantly, do your planning to give you options and to reduce your stress.”

Whether you like it or not, you need to have more than luck to win at the negotiating table. As Gates says: “There’s no such thing as fairness. You get what you negotiate.”