Business: The Gentle Art of Negotiation


I'm sure that at one point in your life you've heard something at least close to one of the following statements: “Don't concern yourself with the sticker. This baby gets much better gas mileage than what that says.” “This property is diamond with breathtaking water views and space galore.” “You don't even need an oil change for the first 100,000 miles.” “This one's a cozy one bedroom that's absolutely spacious.”

Car salespeople and real estate agents are the top two types of professionals that I despise most. Perhaps I've just had bad experiences, but I've had so many experiences with both disciplines, and every one of them was unpleasant. I'm consistently amazed that these people have the utter gall to say things like this with a straight face. The mileage on a car rarely lives up to what's printed on its sticker, and I don't care if you tell me that the engine's made with forged metals from the Orion Nebula. There's absolutely one guaranteed way to destroy any vehicle's engine, and that's by not changing the oil once in a while. Incidentally, I've found that in the world of real estate, the words cozy and diamond are interchangeable with minute and crap-hole.

It's all about getting the sale, and some people will literally say just about anything to make it happen. It was the motivating factor that drove me from the sales end of the entertainment industry. The early days of my professional background included working for a moving light sales distribution company as a product specialist. As natural transformations in business changed the needs of that company, I quickly found myself being pushed toward a role in sales. I was adamant about not going into sales and knew that it was time to become a freelancer in the world of entertainment production. And what did I find myself doing? Sales! It is the nature of the freelancer to have to prove to a prospective client why he or she is better than the other option, and basically, I have had to sell myself every day since. Producers, tech directors, and anyone else who is in a position of hiring me have also been placed in a sales role. They consistently have to sell me on why a production needs to be done at a certain price or, to say it more bluntly, why my price needs to be low. You see, no matter how much we may not want to get involved in sales, we are all in it to some degree or another.

So what's the counterpoint to all of it? Negotiation. Whether you're about to buy your next car or sign a contract for the best project of your career, you have to quickly realize what you're dealing with, adapt to it, and then negotiate an outcome that is, at its best, desirable to both parties involved or, at its worst, at least desirable to you.

At the base of every negotiation, you basically have someone who doesn't want to part with funds and another party that is trying to obtain those funds. The ensuing verbal tug-of-war can easily become disheartening and, in some cases, completely ruin business relationships. I used to dread the thought of having to negotiate with a client, but during the years the process has become far less painful. Friends of mine jokingly attribute it to my becoming a ruthless negotiator, but I'm always quick to disagree. The general populous considers a “great” negotiator to be someone who will squeeze every possible dime toward his favor, and I honestly don't agree with that principle. I believe that a truly great negotiator aspires to complete the job of coming to a financial agreement that is in the best interests of both parties. In short, everyone needs to be fair.

Very often there is a complete breakdown in negotiations. This comes about due to the skewed perception of what one party considers being fair and inevitably revolving around that party's expectations being unreasonable. In a recent issue (Live Design January, p.14), a fellow designer, Michael Appel, wrote about the best advice he was ever given early in his career. In simplified terms, his response was in reference to being told that his department wasn't the only one that needed tasks accomplished and that he would have to learn to compromise so that everyone could complete the finished product in a collective fashion. His well-given advice rings true even at the level of financial negations. Your individual budget isn't the only one that needs to be considered for a project. There are plenty of other disciplines that will be vying for their pieces of the monetary pie. This isn't to say that you should cave in and give away your services. It simply goes back to being fair. Everyone needs to come to the finer agreement that fair services are being contracted at a fair rate and neither party is being taken advantage of.

In the end, it simply pays to be fair. First off, everyone agrees to be happy. Secondly, there's no bad taste in anyone's mouth due to the hard feelings caused by someone “winning” the negotiation process. Most importantly, you start your project off on the right track. Both you and the client should be feeling good about what's been negotiated, and there's already a gold star next to your name, increasing the chance of being hired back for the next project. You see, there's nothing that will turn a producer sour toward you quite like making him feel as though he's paying too much for your services, regardless of whether he really is or not.

It's very much akin to how you'd feel if you were doing a 100,000-mile oil change on that broken-down car in the driveway of your spacious crap-hole.

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