In your arsenal of business skills, deal-making might be the most fundamental of all. Whether haggling with a vendor or proving your worth to a customer, getting a "yes" when you really need it can catapult your company to the next level.
To bolster your knowledge of negotiation, I checked in with 11 entrepreneurs eager to share insights you can apply today. Pay close attention to their accounts of resolving conflict, overcoming hurdles, breaking barriers and getting buy-in for risky ideas, and prepare to discover your own success story.
1. Be Willing to Compromise So Both Sides Win
Kathy Sidell, owner, The Met Restaurant Group:
I always push boundaries with my restaurant concepts, and innovators are often misunderstood. Serving fish in tins at Saltie Girl, which opened last year, was perceived by my team as risky: "Bostonians eating tinned seafood—it's not going to happen," they said. But in scouring the planet to find the very best in the world, I expanded our guests' understanding of quality. A year later, we now sell more than 200 tins a week in just 30 seats.
No one, not even my dear chef friends, "got it" until they saw and touched and tasted the concept. And now...huge fans! When I want something—a location that I feel is right for us, or a cut of beef I need a better price on—I try to practice humility in getting to yes. It's essential to compromise so that both parties feel that they won. This is not necessarily about money. It's about how both parties feel about the end result.
2. Know When to Walk Away
Marilyn Weber, president and CEO, Deaf Interpreter Services:
With one of our very large national clients, it took a whole year to agree on a deal. But this time around, I was the one saying "no" despite its long-term, multimillion dollar potential. In order to meet their needs, we'd have to increase our overhead significantly. It was a big risk for us, which is why we were so firm with our parameters.
At a renegotiation meeting, they asked for financial details I was unwilling to share. "That's non-negotiable," I said. "You can do your due diligence, but we're a private entity." They claimed to need it, so I thanked everyone at the table and told them I appreciated our relationship. I shook their hands and wished them the best of luck. A few days later, they called ready to sign a contract with exactly the terms I wanted. Now everyone is happy.
I'm five-foot-two—not very big. I love people, but I will not be intimidated. I say, "Let's roll up our sleeves and get this done.”
3. Think About the Long-Term Relationship
Britt Whitfield, CEO, and Clint Paton, COO, The Revel Group:
Our number one goal with clients, vendors and our employees is to build relationships. Relationships are the key to our success. Once this bedrock has been laid, we find that we often don't encounter a "no." That's because we have already taken the time to understand their needs and create solutions that meet and exceed their requests. In the rare case we do receive a "no," we have a frank conversation about why and offer to come to a mutually agreeable solution. Willingness to do that only deepens our growing relationships.
We rarely, if ever, say "no" to a client. We are, after all, a boutique agency creating custom experiences, so we have to be ready for the most off-the-wall requests. If your product needs to be tweaked and altered to fit their needs without compromising your brand, do it. Through that kind of collaboration, you'll often find that you come to an even better result. It's not personal, so take your own feelings out of it.
4. Be Flexible
Dave Grossman, president, DG Interactive; founder and CEO, DG Medical Animations and MilesTalk.com:
As a small business, we have a lot of flexibility on payment terms. For me, the priority is winning a new account. Last year, we had a client who needed a project to start at a certain time but wouldn't have the budget for it until the following quarter. It would have been a "no" if we'd insisted on payment at the time of the project, but it became a "yes" because of our flexibility.
Flexibility also matters in terms of perspective. It always helps to present the benefits of your product or service from the buyer’s perspective. Too many business owners get wrapped up in what makes their company or product or service special, making the conversation all about them. Take time to listen to your customers' pain points and show how you'll help to make their lives easier or more profitable. Think about what they care about, not what you care about.
5. Own Your Personal Brand
Denise Barreto, founder, Relationships Matter Now:
When talking to clients about the importance of branding and owning their own narrative, I often ask point-blank what they would think of me if they didn't know me. The looks are priceless. I am a bold, distinctive-looking Black woman who wears bright colors and bright purple lipstick. I watch clients watching me, trying to recall what they think—or thought they knew—of Black women. The exercise drives home my instruction to be intentional and bold in owning their own brand. If you're yourself, even in a quiet way, that invites authenticity and cooperation from others. People buy from people they can relate to.
As for my own boldness, I definitely have a higher close ratio with one particular shade of purple lipstick. Very few folks can say no to me when I wear it. Of course, they're confident I can solve their problems, too, but I get their full attention with the lipstick. My message is well thought out and customized, and the lipstick punctuates it. Whether I'm meeting with someone male, female, old, young, outgoing or introverted, I almost always insist on interacting face-to-face or by video conference at "closing time."
6. Communicate the Value of Loyalty
Ryan Alovis CEO, LensDirect.com (a division of The Stella Group):
LensDirect.com recently tried to convince our contact lens distributor to provide same-day delivery to help increase customer loyalty and satisfaction. To convince them that it would be worth their while, we created a report that showed the relationship between customer satisfaction and order volume. Basically, the happier the customer, the longer they will stick around, and the more product we’ll have to buy from the distributor. In reviewing that, they realized the potential for our increased spend with them over time. It was a win for everybody: LensDirect.com, the distributor, and ultimately, the customer.
7. Convey Your Passion
Lindsey Peers, president, The Craft Studio:
When I bought into my business at the age of 21, no one wanted to loan me money. I had student loans and no savings, but I believed in myself and in my vision. I was the product, and my business was my vehicle. With that conviction, I went to the bank where I had my checking account. I showed the successful trajectory of the business [under the former owner] over the previous ten years and proved that I had no bad debt. I also shared demographic data about the neighborhood's growth. I introduced ideas for three new lines of revenue, all of which have ended up striking it big. When selling your product or service, it's important to convey your personal feelings about it, and how your passion will propel you and your vision to success. Get on the phone, or schedule a face-to-face meeting instead of emailing. Succeed in conveying that passion, and banks will be calling you.
8. Bring Them Into Your Vision
Jay Peterson, CEO-founder, Matador Content:
Day in and day out, we ask talent to sign on to do projects that are just ideas—hopes and dreams, even. As producers, we can never guarantee that the final product will be good, but we have to begin by believing it will be great. Then we need to look the talent in the eye and have them believe that, too, at every turn. We achieve that by letting them know that we believe in the role, the format, our partners and the project—and that we will be there every step of the way. In this process of turning vapor into something real, we do everything in our power to protect the talent and ensure that we will all be proud of the end product. The talent has to take the risk with me. I impart to them that if the vision we both shared isn't being realized, I will bring the stakeholders to the table to remedy the issue. Every relationship with talent is based on taking a risk together and trusting that we'll both do whatever it takes to succeed.
9. Be Kind
Dr. Jeanine Downie, physician and founder, Image Dermatology, P.C.:
At first our dry-ice supplier for clinical trials was very rigid about drop-off scheduling. So we worked with them. We smiled. We offered them cold water. We were kind. Now they are much more flexible when dropping off dry ice in case our patients are running late. They give us more flexibility, and we appreciate that.
Dr. Jeanine Downie
10. Be Persistent
Cozy Friedman, co-founder, SoCozy; founder, Cozy's Cuts For Kids:
When you show persistence, even in the face of "no," people either get annoyed or like and respect it. I always look for someone who likes it and understands the importance of never giving up. When I decided to open my first salon, I quit my job and went to barber school. I had no background in hair, but I saw a huge void in the market for kids and had a great vision for the opportunity. It took me two years to find a landlord who would rent a store location to me. Most saw the concept as risky.
After many meetings and rejections, I finally made sure I was well prepared. I brought images of the custom car-shaped styling chairs I had planned for kids' haircuts, along with other visuals. It's really true that a picture tells a thousand words. The landlord was a very old-fashioned man who said, "Well, young lady, how do you expect to pay the rent with $21 haircuts?" I told him that we'd also sell toys, and I anticipated those sales to be very good. That convinced him. Then I worked around the clock for years and opened more salons. I became the nationally recognized expert in kids' hair with regular appearances on The Today Show and across the media. I believe there's no such thing as "no"—it's "not yet." People pick up on that when you truly believe in what you are doing.
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