Silence: a powerful negotiation tool

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grandportSilence is a powerful tool to leverage in the last stages of your pitch where the key issue is your fee.

The discussion with your prospective client has gone well. You’ve listened actively, asked all the right questions, taken a good client brief, showed you understand his objectives, presented your USPs, and illustrated how and why you are the best professional to solve his problem. The client is interested in your services and enthused by the manner in which you propose to tackle the project.

The signals are all green. You’ve achieved precommitment.

Don’t let them turn orange.

High added value services, convincing fees

Let’s face it. It’s rare for a prospect to hear a fee proposal and accept it without blinking — regardless of your rate.  (Should that happen, start to worry: either you’ve sold yourself short, you’ve missed a key component in the project’s detailed specs, or the client is a poor business person.) A prospect will strive to get you to lower your rate or to get more for less. It’s a predictable phase in the negotiation process and you’re prepared to exchange a few concessions. Successful negotiations are reciprocal, each party walks away with something. The “giving up” is balanced.

Facing a monkey wrench

What happens, though, when the music stops and there is no choreographed dance? What do you do if the prospect states flatly “your rate is too high” or turns silent, putting the onus on you?

How do you typically react? Do you try to prove your rate is in line with the service offered? Do you try to convince your prospect again of the benefits of working with you, running the risk of overselling? Do you get a tad defensive, explaining how hard the job is, the time it is going to take you to accomplish it?

Make friends with silence

Most of us are ill at ease in the face of silence or in being silent ourselves. It triggers anxiety, discomfort, fear or guilt. Rarely does it feel natural or comfortable.

In a fee negotiation, striving to fill the silence is rarely a winning tactic: it dilutes your message, distracts both parties from paying attention to the key issues that brought you together and weakens your credibility.

As Mahatma Gandhi said: “The more efficient a force is, the more silent and the more subtle it is.” Try to remain confident and quiet, let the prospect break the silence.

Three possible outcomes

1. The prospect commits. You’ve won the negotiation hands down. It’s smart then for you to reward your new client in some way.
2. The prospect offers a compromise. The discussion is reopened on more balanced grounds, it’s up to you to show goodwill if the prospect’s suggestion is reasonable.
3. The prospect walks away, the negotiation is closed. Don’t regret losing the project, the conditions for winning it would not have served you well. And sometimes, prospects do come back.

Remember, if you sell yourself short, the prospect may worry you’ll sell him short.


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Comments: 4

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  • Great post Patricia! You are *so* right; when there’s an uncomfortable silence, I *always* have the urge to fill it with some babble about rates or value or something. But just as an example, I recently hired a professional service provider myself, and when I asked her rate, she told me and then immediately said “But you know, a lot of people charge much more. My rates are not that high for how long I’ve been doing this.” Whereas my feeling was that her rate was really quite reasonable and I was not going to object to it; it seemed odd to me that she immediately started justifying her price before I had even responded. So, I do think that it’s good to just resist the urge to say something and let the client respond first.

  • Wise words! I love “make friends with silence”!
    Sometimes, if a prospect comes back with “Whoa…that’s really expensive!” one thing to try is to ask “Expensive as compared to what?”. That helps reframe the conversation and keep it moving in the right direction…forward!

    • Or, in French (and one of my favorites), with perfect dead pan tone: “Et alors?” 🙂

      The day after I published this post, a prospect who had walked away in February for a “cheaper” option (outcome 3, above) has come back, asking for help to get him out of a tight spot. His nearly 10,000 word translation is not fit for purpose, even after having asked the agency to revise the copy. I am doing an audit of a sample (pass the Pepto Bismol, please) and may be asked to redo the entire project, budget permitting.

      The prospect should be applauded for sensing the translation would damage his company’s image and having the courage to turn to the professional he’d previously and graciously turned down (we had parted on good terms and kept in touch) for help. We can advise, warn and counsel that selecting the right professional is a smart investment, and an inexpensive translation can prove to be the most expensive there is. This prospect has learned it the hard way: in all likelihood, he’ll pay for this project twice.

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