I received a phone call from a trainer I know named Michael from Germany on the 16th of September. His voice was steady but I could sense some urgency in his voice. After the brief hello and how are you he asked if I could fly to Germany and then to Denmark in the next 2 weeks and that’s where the fun began.
Michael was working with a large global chemicals manufacturer. They were on the verge of potentially losing a customer worth 50 million dollars. He was heading a negotiation with the customer who was positioned to change suppliers and his clients would take a significant loss. This was a big deal.
Michael and I had been connected previously on work I did on customer relationships but more importantly on key account relationships and creatively finding the triggers for trust and establishing greater client collaboration.
I flew to Germany to meet with him. 15 minutes into our meeting Michael hands me the phone to speak with the CEO who I had never met to convince him I was the right person to work with. I walked him through the three critical steps before making any decisions around a danger account and he was sold on the process.
I had two weeks to prepare for this negotiation - 240 page document to read and 34 different people involved on the customer and organisation side to get to know and get them to want to speak with me.
The 3rd of October arrives I'm walking into the board room of the single biggest negotiation and key account work so far of my career. Although I can’t share everything at this point. I'm going to let you into the room of this conversation so you can see the key account hack process in action and see the nine biggest lessons I learnt in the process.
Imagine a large mahogany table built for an executive meeting of 20 people in the middle of a room surrounded by windows with light piercing down at all angles. There is no room to hide and everything is arranged in a way that you are able to see each person in front of you easily. Almost like a poker table. Michael, Sales VP, Sales Rep, CFO, Supply Chain Director and I arrive first in the room and everyone is considering where they should sit. The notes and laptops come out and the six hours of conversations we had on strategy seem to go out the window as anxiety began to rise. Michael and I grab some water and coffee for everyone so set a more helpful conversational experience.
We both know if we focus on trying to save the deal we’ll miss the bigger picture which is rebuilding the relationship, understanding the emotion of the customer and amplifying trust.
The shocking introduction
The client arrives and seven people show up. The CFO, Procurement Director, Supply Chain Director, Sales VP, Operations Director and two unknown consultants. We do the cordial handshakes but I sense something has changed. We all sit down and there is a casual pause which initiates the start of the conversation. The first words said wasn’t a question but a statement and it didn’t come from the client but from the consultant and Michael and I realise these consultants are here to negotiate with the customer just as we have.
The statement was this “Our client has made a decision to move on and they’d like a helpful way to move on from your organisation”
Wow. Kick in the teeth and you can see our clients face turn colour as they potentially see millions of dollars slowly falling off the table.
How do you respond to a statement like that?
Deal with the emotion
Our client was ready to respond but not from a place of their client’s interests but their own. Michael saw this and spoke first.
“We want the same thing for your customer and wanted to discuss some ways to do this and ensure you don’t miss out on the results you want and cause major disruptions to your business and employees”
Michael was setting up the pre cursor to drawing out the emotion from the customer but also elevating another emotion we wanted to raise which was uncertainty. They didn’t know what we knew about the cost to them moving not because of an agreement but because of other factors that costed even more. The cost to their customers, the disruption to their employees and the reputation of their business. They had made supply commitments that could lose millions on an emotional decision.
It was our job not to criticise their decision but understand why and help them find a solution that helps them achieve the result they’re actually looking for.
Starting where we did helped us to ask a different set of questions that they were now more ready to answer.
- Where can we be most helpful?
- What is the one thing you would want to improve in the current relationship?
- What is the most valuable part in doing business together?
- What was the single biggest result you’re looking for in your decision?
Three hours into the negotiation we were in flow and uncovered the emotional and relational frustrations our client hadn’t realised was there for their customer. They shared information on the value they wanted that wasn’t demonstrated, the service they weren't satisfied with but importantly the innovation they needed that was ignored.
Once we had this information we could move to the next phase.
Focus on the relationship and deeper listening
We needed to have the other party completely present and feeling understood before we could get to ask anything from them. Many people miss this in negotiation but I’ve had the opportunity to study under people like Stuart Diamond and Chris Voss both people I highly respect in negotiation. The now hundreds of micro and macro negotiations I’ve been in and observed. It's shown that focusing on the relationship is the most powerful strategic approach to take that yields greater outcomes.
With permission from our client we started working on re-defining the conditions of how we could work together based on what their client wanted.
- We discovered they wanted greater communication frequency.
- We discovered the value and preferences they were looking for that were not based on savings or price.
- We discovered where our client had failed to listen and their client felt taken for granted.
This process wasn’t easy as there was a lot of ego that needed to be managed on both sides. Challenges from their consultants.
This question changed everything.
How would you like to feel leaving this meeting and what would that result look like?
This was an important question at this point in time because we needed to get focused on what mattered most. It wasn’t the money but the relationship where the money was.
Once we had the chance to listen at a deeper level we could then create a conversation where the client felt more understood and so could our client.
Get commitment to new thinking and client results
four and half hours into the negotiation and coming back from a well needed 45 min break. Michael and I knew we needed all parties to commit to seeing each other’s interests. We needed this commitment to be not a break up but a breakthrough in new thinking and reinterpreting the role our client could have in their business.
We had 45 min before the day would end and we had another day to come back and continue making progress. We knew what company their client they wanted to use. In many ways our client had superior products and services. But, they had not innovated or raised their ability to serve at a greater level.
This other company was high on service and innovation. The client perceived this to meet their future needs. The client still needed our clients product but wanted great service, plus innovation to help them achieve higher cost efficiency, service and profitability.
The biggest gap was not the product or the innovation as all of those we came to realise were practically attainable. The challenge was the service. That’s something that couldn’t be changed overnight but was definitely attainable.
The question we asked ourselves and our client
Now that we know what’s most important to you how open are you to finding a solution?
Make the solution collaborative
It was the last question from day one that led to the revelation and biggest achievement of my career to date. It turned out that the client was open to a solution but we needed to deal with
- The product
- The service
- The innovation
From the beginning of the conversation we went from hostile to hopeful
The question I asked that helped us shift everything was
Has anyone spoken with the competitor?
Gasp and horror as the faces of our client turned sour and the look of ‘are you crazy?' was clearly in their mind 'Why would we speak to them?' 'Aren’t they the enemy?'
There wasn’t any immediate promise we could give on the service side of the business. There was too much of a perceived gap to what their client wanted and what they experienced with the competitor. We’d have to demonstrate a huge amount of certainty to get the level of trust needed.
But, we could use the influence of the competitor collaboratively to bring us greater leverage and options to fulfil the promise and give time to align to their service expectations.
After a 90 min debate I made the call.
I got hold of the sales VP, CFO and the sales rep and within 3 hours we were on a group conference call. This deal was worth a lot to the competitor but part of a large deal collaboratively was better than potentially no deal.
Surprise your clients with creativity
3 pm hit and we were going back into negotiate and the customer is none the wiser of our earlier conversations with the competitor.
Michael set things up
"We listened to what you had shared with us yesterday and based on the trust you gave us we wanted to reciprocate by ensuring you get everything you want based on the results you’re expecting."
We brought the competitor on the phone and there was an immediate silence in the room. It was a risky venture but one we were willing to take for the right reasons.
With great respect to the competitor they were very customer focused and saw the opportunity to serve from the client’s perspective.
The CEO looked at Michael and I and said an unspoken 'thank you'. Their client was willing to look at another agreement and the competitor would get a sizeable deal but our client would retain the relationship and future collaborative opportunities.
10 days later the agreements were still ongoing but the result was positively received. I couldn’t go into every detail of this negotiation but will be able to share a video testimonial and training on these ideas soon. Here are the nine most important lessons I learnt from this pressurised and emotionally charged experience.
9 Lessons learnt from negotiating $50 million dollar relationship
1. Until you know the emotion you’ll never really understand the motive
2. Focus on the relationship before you move to the result
3. Get commitment to new thinking before you take new action
4. Never make the decision the enemy make it the place for discussion
5. Collaboration only begins when you have fully committed to the process not just the other person
6. It’s never the number but the perceived value of the other person that matters
7. No one ever really thinks win-win is fair unless there is an emotional payment
8. You can’t solve a customer’s problems based on your intellect, creativity and ability alone
9. You have to ask questions that make you uncomfortable. It’s usually the one that exposes you but gets you faster to the truth.
This experience has significantly raised my skill and ability to bring new insight and value to key account managers and account teams. If you want to know more about how to become a master of your career, clients and confidence to deliver consistent growth results in all areas of your key account relationships. Connect with my mailing list.
Jermaine – Your Customer Growth Guide