It is part of the role of many professions to negotiate on behalf of their client; lawyers, brokers, estate agents, accountants, surveyors, actuaries, to name a few. And this certainly brings questions and concerns that do not arise when you only have yourself to consider.
Interestingly, some people actually feel more confident negotiating on behalf of someone else but, either way, there are many things you specifically need to take into account when representing a client and in this article we will highlight three of the main issues.
(For the purpose of simplicity of language, we will take the legal profession as our working example, but the same will apply to any situation where you are negotiating on behalf of your client.)
Helping your client help you help them
Firstly, you will obviously be working alongside your client to get the best outcome for them and your client will need to help you with it. But they don’t necessarily know how to help you so, as a proactive professional service provider, you need to help them help you.
You will need to fully understand their situation but the client isn’t always forthcoming with the necessary information. In fact, they may actually deliberately mislead you: for example, they may not trust you will fight hard enough for them so they give you a higher bottom line than they are really prepared to accept.
So this means asking lots of open questions about, around, above and beyond the details of the specific deal. This will help clarify any miscommunications and fill in any unintentional omissions but it will also give you the client’s background context that is crucial for achieving their optimum result. Many clients are excellent communicators but it is worth starting from the assumption that they are not; this way you can make sure you do not overlook any important information.
In fact, the very nature of a typical client instruction does not help with best practice negotiation. Typically, an instruction is of the format: I want x, you can accept y (but try to get as close to x as possible), and totally reject anything less than z; anything between y and z come back to me.
The problem with this format is that it is very positional, setting the negotiation up for the old-school haggle which rarely produces the best outcome. As everyone who has ever read ‘Getting to Yes’ knows, the interest-based approach is much more successful than the positional approach so, again, the lawyer has to dig deeper and find out the bigger picture behind the client’s stated position.
The lawyer needs to be more than a simple instruction-taker but use their experience and expertise to be a trusted adviser too – helping the client even in terms of identifying their best outcomes.
Are your interests aligned?
A second distinction between negotiating on behalf of a client as opposed to yourself is that there may be a tension between the client’s interests and yours.
For example, the client may be pushing for an outcome that could be considered unethical and the lawyer would feel uncomfortable with this – for reasons of personal values or because it may reflect badly on their reputation.
Similarly, the client may insist on a strategy that the lawyer thinks is highly unlikely to succeed so, again, they may worry that such an approach, with its likely outcome, will damage their reputation.
Conversely, the lawyer is, of course, subject to commercial pressures and the number of hours they need to bill for the practice to be profitable. Although few would consciously miscounsel the client for such reasons, it can subconsciously colour the legal advice.
So, for many reasons, differences may exist between the lawyer’s interests and the client’s and managing these tensions so the interests align is an important part of the process.
Negotiating both ways
The third difference we will discuss here is that typically you will only have limited authority to come to an agreement and sometimes you may see a possible solution that lies outside your client’s instruction. If you really believe that this solution is in your client’s best interests, you will find yourself negotiating in both directions.
Shouldn’t the client know their best interests themselves? Of course and in most instances they do but sometimes they might have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve. Similarly, they can sometimes be diverted from their best interests by emotions or by forgetting the bigger picture, focussing on winning the battle rather than the war.
In these circumstances, you will need to take the potential agreement back to your client and negotiate on the details with them, finding yourself in the middle of a two-way negotiation.
In fact, it can be more complicated still because your counterparty might be in a similar position with their client. If the potential solution goes beyond the current acceptable positions of their client, you need to help your counterparty build a compelling argument to persuade the client.
And, indeed, taking it one step further, your client may be answerable to someone else, such as their boss or their Finance Director. So, again, if the potential solution is outside their likely agreement, help your client sell the solution inwards.
Some situations can be highly complex with many parties involved, each of whom can make or break the deal and many of whom you simply don’t have access to. You will find yourself negotiating in many directions at once and the ability to understand the map of the deal to navigate a course through it is essential for reaching a successful outcome.
From issue to opportunity
So, here are three ways in which negotiating on behalf of someone else is different to simply representing yourself and there are many more.
Fortunately, there are frameworks for resolving each issue, best practice approaches to achieve the best outcome for your client and yourself despite the difficulties. And, like any skill, you can get better and better at working these techniques until they no longer present an issue but can actually be an opportunity.
Best of luck in all your negotiations.