The Fine Art of Negotiating

Demand for design services is up, but at present we are not seeing an expansion in design fees. Clients are still being careful about how they spend their money. They also have become accustomed to demanding more for less and to doing their own online comparison shopping. Unless you are in high demand, chances are very good you are spending a fair amount of time negotiating with clients over fees, purchases, expenses and such.

Negotiation is a skill that comes with practice. Even the best negotiators continue to learn with each encounter. Whether you consider yourself a skilled negotiator or dread the thought of having to negotiate, I want to recommend to you an outstanding blog post on negotiation for the Harvard Business Review by Michael Wheeler, a professor at the Harvard Business School. He makes the point that negotiation is art that requires both flexibility and finesse: “You can’t script negotiation. Instead, you need a supple strategy you can adapt to the situation at hand.”

No matter how well you prepare, says Wheeler, you never know what the other party may say or how you are to interpret what they say. You have to be ready to adapt to any possibility. At the same time, you don’t want to be buffeted about by the other party’s maneuvers. Focus on where you want to get to, rather than on how you are going to get there.

Let’s be clear. Bargaining is a type of negotiation, but negotiation is not merely bargaining. Your goal is not to try to determine what the client has in mind as their highest lowest price. You want to sound out the client as to how they perceive your value and where they are willing to make trade-offs. You both are starting out with a set of assumptions, mostly unspoken. The negotiation conversation is about bringing those assumptions into the light and then arriving at a mutual decision about what you both can live with. This requires compromise, not caving in.

Having clear in your own mind what is negotiable and what is not will help alleviate some of the stress of negotiating. And if at all possible, make sure you allow sufficient time and that the meeting takes place in a comfortable setting. Finally, and most important, keep in mind that as long as you are willing to walk away from a bad situation you always are negotiating from a position of strength. Never compromise your professional integrity.


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