On Guard

Don't get taken by bargaining ploys.
Magazine Contributor
4 min read

This story appears in the February 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

According to negotiating lore, the legendary Clarence Darrow would insert a thin wire lengthwise through his cigar to throw his opponents off during key negotiations. As his stogie smoldered down to a butt, his adversaries would become increasingly distracted, wondering why the ash didn't fall.

Whether you're playing the negotiation game with good sports or bad, everyone is looking for an edge. If you're not careful, these classic ploys can jinx your game:

1. Today only. Few good deals have to be done yesterday. Skillful deal-making requires careful deliberation, goal-setting and communication from both sides. A phony deadline short-circuits all that by trying to scare you into a quick close on your opponent's terms.

Whenever you're given a "today only" deadline, test it: Press the other side for a detailed, plausible explanation, but be skeptical of what you hear. Ask for an extension to see whether their reaction fits that explanation. If you can, contact an expert in that industry or an insider for additional verification. Consider becoming suddenly "unavailable" or preoccupied. Or, if you feel gutsy, just call their bluff. If you do lose out, remember what one of my clients used to say: "A good deal is like a bus. Another one will come along in 15 minutes."

2. Rope a dope. "Stay in one room. Lock all the doors. Don't eat. Don't drink. Don't go to the bathroom until you've got a deal," says banking baron Hugh McColl. Obviously, negotiating those big deals late into the night on unfamiliar turf takes stamina. But you should also watch out for the sneak attack--for example, the opponent who dulls you with wine and rich food the night before. At the bargaining table, the race doesn't go to the swift, but to the strong. No matter how long you've been at it, once you lose your concentration and start to falter, you'll lose your shirt as well.

3. The withdrawn offer. You've been bantering for a good while. At $50 per unit, the deal is acceptable, but you're sure you can haggle it down to $45. Then, for whatever reason, the seller comes back and says $60 is the best he can possibly do! Forget about $45--you're thinking you'll be lucky to close at $50 . . . and that foxy seller knows it.

Because it blows a hole in your aspirations after you've mentally closed a deal (and made yourself more vulnerable), this maneuver can be tremendously effective. Whether you decide to counter it by reviewing your absolute bottom line, protesting, demanding new and tastier concessions, asking questions to expose the ruse or walking away altogether, awareness of this tricky tactic can strengthen your continued defense.

4. Dirty data. Is the other side feeding you bad information? Stooge intermediaries, the vicious rumor mill, off-the-record asides or "leaked" confidential memos are all designed to use your own cleverness against you. So be unrelentingly critical of everything you hear.

Trickier still are documents, financials or specs with errors you suspect are deliberate. They place you in an ethical hall of mirrors. Oh, sure, it's easy enough to correct the mistakes in their favor. But what about the ones in your favor? Have they been planted? Is your opponent planning to catch them just in time? Or are they simply testing your honesty? Of course, the more obnoxious your adversaries, the more you'll want to take advantage of their errors. Resist that temptation. Fight fairly. Always proofread. Be sure to crunch your numbers. Don't worry. If you're a strong negotiator, you can make a good deal without relying on a sucker punch.

A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power: 6 Foolproof Steps to Making Deals of Any Size (Owl Books/Henry Holt). You can reach him at MarcDiener@aol.com.

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