Negotiating? Try This Handy B.S. Detector

Our "Beltway friends" have dished out plenty of doublespeak in recent weeks. But it can't compare to the art of the word in business negotiation.

I recently spied a sign adorning a Manhattan church that read, "Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed often, and for the same reason."

As a marketer who studies the English language and is positively addicted to Beltway verbosity, I've been paying special attention to the words, phrases and non-verbal gestures of President Obama, Speaker Tom Boehner, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and the other assorted politicians who, until Wednesday night, had managed to bring our government to a screeching halt.

I heard elected officials use such expressions as: "My good friends in the loyal opposition" or "We all respect the sanctity of the office of the president" and "No one wants to see anyone get hurt." As we now know, politicians can say one thing and mean something entirely else. So, too, can business executives.

So, in the interests of helping my fellow entrepreneurs interpret what the words, phrases and non-verbal gestures you hear and see really mean, I've compiled the following list which I've entitled, "The Art of the Word."

1. "What's your risk tolerance?" That's double speak for: "We have very little operating capital, and need results yesterday." Unless you're truly desperate, respond by saying, "We're edgy, and willing to take risks about everything (except getting paid).”

2. "We believe in dating before getting married. Would you, and your team, be willing to make another trip to Oshkosh to meet with us?" That's code for telling you the customer isn't sure who to hire and wants you to continue to spend your dime and even more time wooing him. Unless this is your dream account, pass on the second pass to Oshkosh.

3. "I'm drowning. Can you toss me a life preserver?" That's corporate speak for chaos. The decision-maker is buried and wants to hand you a spade and help you shovel the sh*t. The D-word tells me the prospective customer's business is in complete chaos. Break off negotiations.

4. "We're a for-profit business too." That's my response to a new client who, after signing the LOA, suddenly begins piling on new assignments above, and beyond, the agreed-upon scope. I'll agree to do the extra work. But I want more money to cover my staff costs.

5. "We don't know exactly what we want, but we'll know it when we see it." That reminds me of Justice Potter Steward, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice who was asked to define pornography. It actually means the prospective client is on a fishing expedition and wants free ideas. So, keep them coming (at your own risk). By the way, my response to that statement: "Well, give us a call when you do know what direction you'll take. We'll be happy to meet then."

6. "This is a very big decision for us. We need to know we'll be your most important client." That's code for telling me the prospective customer wants 24x7 service, my private cell phone, Social Security number and first-born male heir. I typically respond by saying, "We're like Animal Farm. All animals are equal. Some are just more equal than others. Our largest client pays us $2.5 million a year. Will your budget be larger?" That sends a very direct and very honest response.

7. "Tell us why you'd be the ideal choice." I love responding to this classic negotiating ploy. I say, "Absolutely. But, since this will be a real partnership, first tell us why you'd be the ideal client." That elicits one of two responses: a superb explanation or a stone-faced sneer. Either way, you've been provided with an invaluable glimpse into a future relationship.

8. "We don't like surprises. How do you bill, report and measure success?" I repeat the prospect's first sentence right back to him. Then, I add, "So, after I tell you about billing, reporting and measurement, please let us know your payment terms. We expect to be paid 30 days after our invoice is mailed." (P&G, InBev and other large consumer brands are now stringing out agency payments to six months!)

9. "We have several charities that we'll expect you to support financially." Danger, Will Robinson! Unless you respond by saying, "Understood, but we support three major charities as well and would expect a reciprocal arrangement," you're in for lots of "requests" to buy $10,000 tables at black-tie charity events. And, there's nothing charitable about seeing your year-end profits being invested in someone else's personal passion.

10. "Our lawyer has a few more changes, but let's get going now." Let's not. Do not pass go. Do not collect $100 and do not begin any assignment without a signed contract. We've been burned by many start-ups 90 days down the road, when their lawyers will tell them not to pay us for any work before the papers were executed. Talk about a shut down.

11. "You can't represent any direct competitors for a period of two years after we part ways." Many companies try to insert this incredibly restrictive covenant in contracts. I do one of two things: refuse or ask for additional fees to make up for the money we'd lose by not being able to represent their competitors.

12. "You're the experts. You tell us what the budget should be." This client comment is typically expressed with a healthy dose of disdain. It's also a red flag that the prospect either has very little money, no money whatsoever or will get around to requesting a budget after they select a firm. We now refuse to participate in any RFP unless we know the budget in advance.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Sometimes what isn't said in a negotiation is just as critical as the actual words and phrases. For example:

Multitasking. This distracted prospect is constantly responding to e-mail or answering calls during your presentation and is being boorish. I use humor to stop mid-negotiation prospect multitasking by saying, "Gee, I know what I just said was smart and even funny. Are you really Tweeting it?" That always works. And, if it doesn't, run, don't walk, as far away and as fast as you can.

Negative, non-verbals. Folded arms are a dead giveaway that you're simply not connecting during a negotiation. I do one of two things. I either mirror the prospect's body language until she realizes what I'm doing and uncrosses her arms or I'll once again use humor by saying, "Boy, that posture tells me you're really open to what we're suggesting today."

Silence. It is indeed golden. At the end of a successful meeting, some prospects will ask, "Can you do all of this for $120,000?" If that number is ridiculously low, say nothing at all. Let the silence become deafening. I've seen many a client smile after a period of time, sigh and say: "OK. What WILL it take?"

The language of successful negotiation can't be learned overnight by purchasing a Rosetta Stone CD. It takes years of listening. But, as my learned friend from the great Commonwealth of Virginia often says, "Rome wasn't built in a day."

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