To type, or not to type… The pitfalls of negotiating by email

Published: Sep 18 , 2015
Author: Simon Letchford

In 1978, US President Jimmy Carter brokered the first peace agreement between Egypt and a free Jewish nation in over 2,000 years. If email had been widely available, do you think he could have used it to save everyone 13 days at Camp David?

Many clients ask me whether they should negotiate by email, expecting me to say no. My answer is always the same – “Absolutely. Sometimes.” Here are some trade-offs to consider before you press SEND.

We all know that an in-person meeting provides the best opportunity for nuanced conversation. Body language and tone are important when exploring power balance, signals (areas of flexibility) and packaging issues. “Being there” gives you the maximum opportunity to explore the other side’s answers with follow-up questions, to watch their response to your proposals, and to gauge the “vibe” or temperature of the meeting.

For important deals, I like to assess the potential cost of a single missed signal (“We need a discount ofabout8%”) versus the expense and time of travel. In a large commercial contract, the ability to save 1%, add a wish list item, or repackage a deal based on a subtle signal might make the cost of flights rather insignificant.

But it would be impractical in today’s busy market to recommend that every negotiation be held in person. Phone (and increasingly, video-conferencing) is perfectly suitable for many meetings. If you’re negotiating in teams, one advantage of phone (apart from avoiding cancelled flights and bad airline food) is the ability to swap instant messages with your colleagues as the meeting unfolds. This can be extremely useful to share signals of flexibility, or advice on strategy – just try to be an adviser rather than a critic (“Whatever it is you think you’re doing - stop”).

The major downside of phone and video-conferencing is a loss of rapport. Trust and personal connection can be critical to difficult negotiations, and you’d be wise to consider the value of opening the meeting with a firm handshake and a personal exchange, rather than your hilarious “Crazy Frog” or “Sir Mix-a-Lot” ringtone.

Most people are more guarded, and hence closed with information, when communicating remotely than sitting down over a coffee. In my experience, the poorer the relationship you have with the other side, the more of an issue this becomes; lean towards meeting in person when establishing (or fixing) important relationships.

It’s a very big step down to email, with a dramatic loss of nuance. I’m not going to tell you not to use it – it’s quick, reliable and the method we now adopt for 90% of our business communication. It can also be a perfectly good method to send a written proposal. But it should never be used to build initial rapport, to explore needs and priorities, or to seek the other side’s response to your proposal – where a live conversation with follow-up questions is critical. Just make sure to give them a reason to take your call – (a topic for another day).

Remember - when choosing your communication method, it’s all about trade-offs. If in doubt, ask yourself what Jimmy Carter would do.


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About the author:

Simon Letchford
Simon has extensive negotiating experience in both the public and private sector including complex contract negotiations, teaming agreements, joint ventures, high-value development contracts and other commercial arrangements.

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