From the April 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

We all know the key to winning a new customer is communication . . . right? Conventional wisdom says you present the facts about your product or service, show how it will meet your prospect's needs, and then ask for the order.

The founder of a Boston voice-mail company, Milo O'Connell, tried doing that. His client, a manager at a defense contractor, sighed, "Milo, you have an excellent messaging system. Unfortunately, I have no budget for it."

"But . . . but . . ." Milo tried several counter-arguments. Nothing worked. Milo walked out in a daze. Where did he go wrong?

It's not enough to know what you want. While Milo knew he wanted to make a sale, he neglected to consider what specific action he wanted his prospect to take. What, specifically, should she do to get the money to buy the messaging system?

Milo developed several options. It was near the end of his prospect's fiscal year. Could the manager propose an increase in next year's budget to cover a messaging system? If not, Milo had a fallback plan: Since she liked his product, could she refer him to two other managers who might also be interested? If several managers pooled their budgets, perhaps they could afford the purchase.

Once Milo knew he wanted his prospect to request an increase in next year's budget, she did. The VP approved it, and Milo got the sale.

The moral? To get what you want, create the other person's next move.

What specifically should they do? Sometimes you believe you have identified what you want the other person to do for you, but in reality, you haven't because the action you want them to take is far too vague.

We've all been to meetings where everyone shows up with no clear idea of what they want anyone to do. They want the other person to "do something constructive" or "make an offer."

"Make an offer"? What does that mean? If the person makes any offer, will you be satisfied?

Get specific. What precisely would the person have to do for you to perceive there was progress? Once you crystallize your objective, you can think strategically about how to approach them.

Don't fall victim to the "Selfishness Syndrome." The benefit of creating the other person's next move is clear. Yet some of us instinctively avoid doing it. Why? One client of mine, an attorney, explained, "I'm going to do what my side wants. I'm not going to worry about the other guy!"

It's a law of human nature: When we are consumed by a problem, we become self-centered. We focus entirely on ourselves and on what we are going to do. Designing a move for the other person to make is the furthest thing from our mind.

But when you're trying to influence someone, your goal is not to indulge your emotions. It's to get results. Adopting any posture, aloof or warm, is useful only if it helps you achieve your goal.

Instead of asking yourself "What should I do?" ask "What do I want the other person to do?" The next move you should make depends on the next move you want them to make.

Get realistic about what the other person is willing and able to do. Our attempts to influence people often fail because we're asking them to do something they're not ready or able to do. Recognizing the other person's limit is vital to developing a realistic move they can make.

But there's a problem with the way we've been taught to assess someone's limit. There's a difference between what the other person can do right now and what they might ultimately do. Focus on their immediate limit, not their "bottom line."

Many business books would suggest Milo push Sally to her bottom line--the most she could do for him ultimately. It's much more useful to focus on her immediate limit--the most she is willing and able to do right now. Ultimately, she might sign a $50,000 requisition. But now? Perhaps the most she'll do is agree to talk to a few other managers to see if they'd like to split the cost.

If you ask for too much now, the person may balk. Set your goal at the immediate limit, not the bottom line.

Uncover the immediate limit. There are three techniques you can use to do this:

1. Examine their perceptions. How much do they believe they should do for you at this point in time?

2. Test by pushing. Make a proposal or take a stand and see whether they budge. If they absolutely refuse, you've reached their immediate limit.

3. Monitor conversational cues. These are signals people send to indicate what they are prepared to do for you and when you are reaching their immediate limit. Many conversational cues are indirect. Take, for instance, the case of Linda, who had recently moved her publishing company to Chicago. Movers had damaged her office furniture, and she was haggling with the insurance company about how much it should pay for refinishing a desk.

The claims rep mused aloud: "Even if I were to agree with you about the desk, we'd still have to agree on the compensation for the antique chairs that got scratched."

Fortunately, Linda recognized this conversational cue. The claims rep was hinting he might budge on the desk--if she accepted a compromise on the chairs. "Well," Linda replied, "we might be able to work out something on the chairs."

Shifts in attitude are often accompanied by conversational cues, so get in the habit of watching for them.

Be realistic, not optimistic. To make sure the move you're creating is realistic, you've got to identify the person's immediate limit. In seminars, I demonstrate this by saying "Pick the farthest place in the room that you'd like me to go in my next step." Inevitably someone picks a spot 30 feet across the room. I say, "Now here's the problem. I cannot go across the room in my next move. See my immediate limit?"

I stretch out my leg so everyone can see: At most, I can go 3 feet in my next move.

What if you want them to make a big move? The solution is to . . .

Break the problem apart. When you subdivide a problem into manageable moves for the other person to make, an impossible goal can become realistic.

Consider Sandra Blumenthal, whose Silicon Valley firm was facing a problem with two battling managers. When Sandra tried to make peace by suggesting the managers get together for a seminar on teamwork, each balked, blaming the other guy.

"I realized asking them to go to a seminar was too big a step," Sandra says. "So I created a smaller move for them to make." She met privately with each manager and asked for his complaints about the other one.

Next, Sandra created a joint list of issues and invited the two managers to meet with her to refine it. They were each eager to do that since they each wanted the other person to change. They agreed everything on the joint list needed to be resolved.

Then Sandra set up a timetable for working on the issues. Within two months, the managers had reached agreements on everything. "They didn't want me to force a workshop on them," Sandra comments, "but they did want the other manager to address their concerns and change."

It's tempting in a dispute to try to come up with a brilliant answer that will settle the whole problem all at once. That's like walking up to a stranger and saying "Marry me." There are smaller steps required before you reach that point. Persuasion is like courtship. You've got to lead the person one step at a time.

What if you don't have time to go step by step? Surprise: Proceeding incrementally is the fastest way to get what you want. The slowest way is to push for too much at once. That's when the other person gets defensive and refuses to budge. But if each move you invite them to make is easy for them, you'll make progress quickly.

Don't plan all your steps at once. Even when you know exactly where you want to lead the other person, it's best at the outset not to develop every step you will take. Especially in delicate situations, you need to tune in to the person's immediate limit and decide what to do. Your greatest asset is responsiveness, not rigidity. You've got to respond to the situation as it unfolds.

From the book/audiobook When Talking Makes Things Worse! Resolving Problems When Communication Fails (Whitehall & Nolton), (c)1997 by Dr. David Stiebel. Distributed by Andrews and McMeel, (800) 826-4216. Reprinted with permission.

Dr. David Stiebel is a negotiation expert at the University of California, Berkeley, and an advisor to CEOs and government leaders.