Despite the coronavirus pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns and travel bans, businesses must continue to run. To do so, one of its most critical activities — negotiating — has moved to the virtual realm, just like most human activities ever since the pandemic struck. But depending on whether you are a seller or buyer, you may view online negotiations differently.
For one, many virtual negotiators think and act like it’s the same as negotiating face-to-face; it’s not. This is especially true if you’re a seller. There are times you would meet a client on Zoom, start with pleasantries, begin discussing your proposal, justify your price by stating some cost-benefit analysis and try to wiggle out of a hard-bargaining buyer.
If you’re the buyer, there are times you may find yourself irritated by the spotty internet connection of the other party, going straight to discussing the pricing and driving a hard bargain because you could not comprehend what the seller was saying.
Earlier research on online negotiations cited by Fast Company shows that, compared to those who negotiate face-to-face, those negotiating online are less likely to reach deals and more likely to end up at an impasse; less likely to develop trust and more likely to lose it during the process; less likely to build rapport; and when reaching deals, these deals are more likely to be less “win-win.”
The key to acing virtual negotiations is recognizing its differences from face-to-face ones. One major difference is that in virtual negotiations, conversations and discussions are linear — i.e., an agenda or format should be followed, or else it would be hard to sustain people’s attention and have a meaningful discussion.
You have probably noticed that when you’re attending a Zoom meeting or webinar, you find it easy to let your mind wander and think or do something else. A recent Firsch and Greene study on running virtual meetings revealed that “attendees often interpret virtual meetings as a license to multitask.”
This is the nature of a virtual negotiation: it is two-dimensional. There is nothing physical to latch on to it and no body language to be conscious of. Instead, only a screen connects the participants amid the distractions. It also renders moments of silence as inappropriate and uneasy. While silence in face-to-face negotiations gives the parties time to think and strategize, silence in virtual ones may be seen as marking an impasse.
So how can you effectively negotiate in a virtual setting? Like in face-to-face negotiations, building rapport and trust in virtual ones are also important. I previously wrote about cultivating empathy, conveying authenticity, finding similarities and discovering shared experiences in a virtual setting; there are nuances when you execute these online.
Just as important is mastering the online medium. How? By taking care of and being mindful of the conversation setup, connectivity, platform, video, sound, lighting, background and yourself as the negotiator. I also previously wrote about this.
Another important consideration here is that before meeting to negotiate, you should send the agenda and even the proposal to the other parties. This prepares their mindsets and sets a structure for the negotiation flow.
One key feature of successful virtual negotiations is the use of online collaboration tools to mutually brainstorm. Google Spreadsheet and Microsoft PowerPoint, Google’s Jamboard, and virtual whiteboarding are just a few of these tools you can use to find solutions with other parties. In fact, when a seller use approaches, such as mutually brainstorming new ideas, 95 percent of decision-makers said doing this would make them more willing to negotiate with them again, according to the book Top Performance in Sales Negotiation by the RAIN Group Center for Sales Research.
Having clear roles for multiple-party negotiators are also required. This is especially true for large-stake negotiations where both parties bring in other participants. It is critical to assign roles to each attendee and use messaging platforms to provide cues for the main negotiators. Practicing this seamlessly requires the precision of theater directing, where the different roles in the negotiations help members of one party pass on information and cues among themselves without being noticed by the other party.
Finally, holding and ending negotiations with empathy, by being sensitive and cognizant of the situation of others during the pandemic, would help strengthen trust and rapport, and help in coming to an agreement.
The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.