One topic that has been coming up regularly in my recent client discussions has been the need to adjust our negotiations for the current online environment. The fact that face-to-face conversations have been restricted, and will continue to be restricted to some degree at least for the foreseeable future, is something that we need to take into account in our business negotiations.
To some extent, the difference in pre–Covid negotiations and post Covid negotiations is limited. Most business negotiations take place over a number of communication modes. Face-to-face is generally how the negotiation starts, but then communication via telephone or email is common. While it is only the face-to-face part of the process that has been impacted by current events, this is a critical part of negotiation relationship and sets the tone of how the negotiations will play out.
This article will give you some ideas on how to adapt your negotiations while face-to-face negotiation is not possible.
Preparing for online negotiations
The same fundamental principles apply to negotiations regardless of the mode in which the negotiation happens. The basic concepts of negotiation still apply:
Consider what is important for each party to achieve and what they are hoping to avoid.
Brainstorm options to create maximum value.
Think about the objective evidence you will use to support your position.
Consider what each party will do if no agreement is reached.
Preparing for a negotiation in terms of collecting the relevant information and thinking about our negotiation strategy is largely the same. The biggest difference is the fact that our communication is altered when we take the face-to-face element away.
Starting an online negotiation
Generally, negotiations start with face-to-face communication. The parties will get together and build a relationship that will support the negotiation. These initial communications often include the swapping of personal information and information that is much broader than the current deal at hand. Creating connection and understanding between the parties builds the rapport and trust required to facilitate open communication in the negotiation.
In the online world, we tend to spend less time in online meetings then we would spend face-to-face. Without the pleasantries of a shared drink or meal to focus on, business is conducted much more “efficiently” when done online. These personal conversations are excluded.
Also, when large groups get together online, the organic small group discussions that happen face-to-face are lost in the virtual meeting room. While we have capacity to send people to electronic breakout rooms, the formality of this process removes the organic nature of these side conversations.
Where you are negotiating online with an existing business partner, the foundational relationship has already been set and not much will be lost in moving online.
In starting a new business relationship, it will be important to recognise what is missing. It may be worth considering only committing to a small deal until such time as the parties can get together and build these deeper relationships. This can ensure that any long-term deal has the advantage of a fully developed business relationship.
When negotiations proceed in an online mode, it is important to recognise that the risk of miscommunication is higher than when the communication is face-to-face. This has always been a risk with written communication and, to a lesser extent, with telephone conversations. Unfortunately, miscommunication can be a bigger issue when the foundational relationship is not as strong.
The verbal and visual cues of face-to-face communication are an important part of the negotiation process. While videoconferencing tries to allow some of these cues to be shared, they do not come across as strongly. Often, the placing of someone’s camera can cause issues as they are can be looking at a screen which is in a different location to their camera. All eye contact is lost. We also know that there are distractions that arise in online meetings (those notifications in the corner of your screen that you just can’t figure out how to stop) that would not happen face-to-face.
You may face a counterpart who goes silent, who you feel is being rude or ignoring you to get an advantage. Or perhaps you’ll have a counterpart who keeps talking over the top of you. It is best to give the benefit of the doubt and check their intention before jumping to a conclusion. A quick “is everything okay?” or “there seems to be a lag in the conference” will be much more productive than taking offence at an assumed insult.
Just as we did when face-to-face negotiations were still possible, we should be using a mix of communication modes throughout the negotiation. Get as close as possible to face-to-face in the early stages of the negotiation. Once there is a degree of rapport that is built, and you have an understanding of the other party’s interests, moving to phone or email can be appropriate.
Negotiation after Covid–19
As we experience the “new normal” of online negotiations, there is no doubt we will discover what are perceived as time and cost efficiencies in this mode of negotiation. Being able to conduct negotiations from the comfort of your office without time and expense of travel is appealing to many.
Before moving to make this the permanent normal, I encourage everyone to remember that nothing can replace the power of looking someone in the eye and shaking hands. The cost and time saving of online negotiation may be lost multiple times over through delivering less efficient deals and deals that become more transactional and less relationship based.