Improving Results From Your 'Virtual Negotiations'

Published: 15 May 2012 Average Rating: 5 / 5 Print
This article appeared in Contracting Excellence magazine on 15 May 2012 view edition

Author: Paul Hennessey

Virtual  'Being on or simulated on a computer or computer network.'  Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    Over the past decade contract negotiations have become more global, less personalized, more process-oriented...and increasingly virtual.
Our research and client projects suggest a shift in the dynamics of negotiation. Different approaches are needed to get the best outcomes. Globally, negotiation has expanded and the use of phone, voice mail, email and other technologies make it more challenging to manage the inherent language and cultural issues. As the amount of negotiation using virtual platforms increases, misunderstanding, relationship erosion, and impasse may also increase. Costly errors may abound.
By Paul Hennessey, Executive Vice President, BayGroup International
Copyright 2012 BayGroup International 


No silver bullet techniques guarantee success in virtual negotiations, but some common sense best practices can help avoid predictable mistakes and improve outcomes.

Success starts with an understanding that virtual negotiations take place on a continuum.  Some online media offer relatively rich visual and auditory input like high-definition telepresence meetings and webcam-supported conference calls.  Other media involve much less, like email and instant messaging. 

And yet -- even within this shift to a fast paced, virtual negotiation environment -- smart negotiators still value the importance of reading the other party's tone, body language, and cultural nuance in negotiations.

Mix Your Channels

Email communications don't provide the kinds of auditory or visual cues that are so important to successful face-to-face negotiation.  It's important to write email with more “information rich” communication.  For example:

  • Whenever possible, make your kickoff meetings live (face to face, teleconference, or phone). This can help you build relationship equity.  In effect you are “putting money in the bank” that could later be withdrawn if misunderstandings occur in virtual communications, or if it important to “get tough” with the other party to finalize an agreement.
  • Intentionally mix your virtual media as you proceed. Move back and forth from email to phone to webcam-supported meetings as a negotiation progresses.  In today's multi-time-zone business environment, it is tempting to engage in an “email only” interchange.  This can sometimes work, but making a conscious effort to connect via voice or teleconference can help maintain relationships, build trust, and avoid misunderstanding.
  • Consider using the phone to precede or follow up a difficult negotiation message. This helps avoid possible misunderstandings by preparing the other party for what might be bad news…or providing an opportunity after the fact to explain the rationale for your position. 

Improve Your Content

When using email, avoid sending short, dry messages.  Although this is a fast way to keep things moving, a dry message can create distance between the parties, reduce the quality of personal relationship, and erode trust. 

Strategies here include:

  • Build non-task “relationship enhancers” into your emails.   For example, when possible, find some non-business area of common interest, and mention it from time to time in your messages (“I hope you enjoyed that golf trip.  I'm certainly looking forward to mine next month…”). 
  • Summarize and check accuracy first.  Are your virtual communications understood accurately? One research study found that that 78% of email senders felt their messages communicated clearly, and 89% of receivers felt they had correctly interpreted those messages…when in fact only 56% of receivers actually interpreted those email communications correctly. It is vital to test assumptions before responding. Communications seminars have taught us that effective listening in a “live” setting includes some element of “feeding back” the other party's ideas and checking them for accuracy before responding.  You can do this in email.  Try to summarize the other party's ideas before sending an immediate response or counterproposal. 
  • Appeal to cultural preferences in your email content.   Leading researcher Geert Hofstede (in his book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind) suggests that people from different cultures have preferences that affect their motivations when negotiation:  individualism vs. collectivism; high vs. low sensitivity to hierarchy and “position power”; need for certainty vs. tolerance for ambiguity; long- vs. short-term orientation.  One way to improve any cross-cultural negotiation, especially those conducted online, is to find ways to frame your message to appeal to those cultural differences.  For example, at a key point in a negotiation a proposal might be described as “an approach that ensures you respond flexibly in response to changing market changes” (when negotiating with someone from a country with a high tolerance for ambiguity) and as “an approach that gives you a step-by-step process for ensuring success” (when negotiating with someone from a country with a high need for certainty).   Successful negotiators know that their job is to shape the subjective perception of value, and this kind of cultural “framing” can help them achieve this.

Avoid “Delivery Land Mines”

Even if you're doing it right – by mixing your communication channels and enhancing your message content -- you can still suffer misunderstandings in virtual communications. Because it is so easy to compose quickly and send, it's impossible to “unsend”.  Consider these strategies:

  • Read it aloud before hitting the “send” button.  Most negotiators find that taking this step—even putting aside the email and returning to it later helps them improve content, tone, and impact.
  • Watch your CCs. Don't ignore the impact of “copying” the wrong people on an email.  No one wants to look weak to peers or ineffective negotiators to their superiors.  This is especially true in cultures where negotiators pay particular attention to their company's hierarchy, or are relatively more sensitive to the possibility of losing face within the group they represent in their organization.  Sometimes a judicious “one-to-one” message, phone call, or voice mail can clarify a thorny problem that would otherwise escalate when discussed in email with multiple parties copied.
  • When in doubt, sleep on it.Negotiations can often turn emotional.  Responding ineffectively in the moment can easily make things worse. Always ask yourself,  “Can I sleep on it and review my response strategy tomorrow?” Negotiating with a cooler head usually produces optimal results.

Virtual negotiation—especially using email—has become globally ubiquitous.  But conversely, the benefits are enormous if we take the time to implement these common sense ideas to help avoid predictable pitfalls of the process, and improve results.

Paul Hennessey is Executive Vice President of BayGroup International, a global performance improvement firm that helps Corporate Leaders achieve critical profit improvement, cost containment, and team effectiveness goals quickly, with high impact. 


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