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Pick Your Battles

Are you really outgunned, or are you just being outmaneuvered? find out how to tell the difference.

I take strong issue with negotiating gurus who declare that everything is negotiable. That just ain't so. Perhaps there is more room to bargain than we sometimes imagine. But when you're the little guy, expect your opponents to protect their time and position by steamrolling you.

According to ancient Chinese military genius Sun Tzu, "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious." As always, put yourself in the other side's shoes. Businesses often establish uniform policies to help them run smoothly and economically-policies that, for good reason, are set in stone. A large company isn't likely to retool its accounting system, product line or management structure on demand. To do otherwise invites confusion in the ranks, mistakes and potential liability. This rationale we can accept.

At other times, however, taking an issue off the table is just another way to bully you. The trick is knowing the difference. Here, the value of your business network becomes obvious. Your best sources of information are either inside that company or have years of experience negotiating against it. In some cases, the type of business intelligence you need can be bought from professionals or various kinds of information brokers. And if you're feeling lucky, try the Internet. There are pearls in the public record; Google and other search engines may help you find them.

In any event, you'll have to negotiate. Try to keep your agenda short. Stay focused on the issues that are most important to you. There is a time and place to make dozens of demands, but not when you're playing David to the other side's Goliath. Use your slingshot-it can be extremely effective.

Expect resistance. You can take "no" for an answer, but not without a plausible explanation. Question the glib negotiating cliches you'll hear: "That's how we always do it." "It's our policy." "Take it or leave it." Use open-ended questions-those that can't be answered with a simple "yes" or "no" and that begin with "who," "what," "where," "when," "why" or "how." They will get the other side talking. Sometimes you'll buy what they say. Other times, it'll be painfully obvious that you're being sandbagged by your opponent's sloth and inertia.

In rare instances, you may go over someone's head, but this can easily backfire. Strong managers stand behind subordinates. Later, that subordinate will be waiting for a piece of you. Another popular technique is the "most favored nations" clause-a contractual obligation to treat you no less favorably than the other people who are also making deals with that company. On offense, it ties you to someone with more clout. As a fallback, you may not get the point you want, but at least you'll know you're not the only one.


A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is authoring of the Deal Power.

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This article was originally published in the November 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Pick Your Battles.

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