A Little Help?
It is generally better to deal by...the mediation of a third than by a man's self....Choose men of a plainer sort...than those that are cunning to contrive out of other men's business somewhat to grace themselves....Use...bold men for expostulation, fairspoken men for persuasion, crafty men for inquiry and observation....Use also such as have been lucky, and prevailed before...for that breeds confidence and they will strive to maintain their [reputations].
Written almost 400 years ago by Francis Bacon, these words still ring true. (And such practical advice from a philosopher!) In business, should you have someone else do your bidding? To this, I offer the quintessential lawyer's answer: It depends.
Let Them Work?
Deal-making can be competitive, confrontational and even downright nasty. Above all, negotiators keep hostility in check and principals on good terms. Through them, each side can test "aggressive" positions without committing to them. ("Hey, it's not me; it's my partner-he thinks he's Rambo.") But in addition, negotiators buy you time to reflect; after all, you and your representatives must consider and discuss the deal. And negotiators make your opponents work harder; now they have not one, but two or more of you to convince.
Take another look at Bacon's advice. Do you have shortcomings at the bargaining table? Are you superb at bluster but light on charm? Are you persistent but volatile? Are you easily rattled by a cranky opponent? Maybe you're just too busy. Maybe you need the credibility that a "player" brings to your team. Or maybe you find all the haggling, bickering and dickering demeaning. Regardless, negotiation is an undeniable fact of business life. So compensate. Pick someone who will complement your strengths and check your weaknesses.
When To Speak For Yourself
Lawyers, agents, brokers and other professional negotiators obviously take time and cost money. Many business deals are simply too small or unimportant to justify the expense of hiring such a rep. In those cases, you have no choice but to do it yourself.
Shrewd businesspeople also know that negotiators can create interference patterns. Remember playing the game Telephone as a kid? The more people in the loop, the greater the distortion and the delays.
More important, professional negotiators have their own agendas. Commission-based agents are acutely aware that they receive nothing if your deal doesn't close. A consultant charging an hourly rate might prefer a more leisurely pace. Your financial guru may be winking at the other side for future business. And if your lawyer insists on sweating even the smallest stuff, you may wish you were being eaten by a shark rather than represented by one.
Used Effectively . . .
For best results, handle your negotiators with finesse. If they're big guns, they like to take control. This can be good. They'll resolve issues smoothly and quickly, free up your time, and add value to your deal. But don't forget: No matter how powerful they are, they're working for you, not the other way around.
It's easy to say and hard to do, but be alert for the hidden agenda and the conflict of interest. Sadly, sometimes your worst enemies are sitting right next to you. Think carefully about what you see and hear. Ask the pointed questions. Also, giving written instructions can help keep your representative on the straight and narrow.
Changing negotiators in midstream is an interesting gambit. If you use it fairly, it can help break a deadlock or soothe any frayed nerves. Otherwise, it's just an unsportsmanlike attempt to exhaust the other side by reworking settled points.
Finally, know when to call off the hounds. Yes, backdoor conversations weaken your negotiator's effectiveness. But when time is of the essence, it's the principals who come to terms the fastest.