5 Times You Shouldn’t Compromise While Negotiating

There are times when you have more leverage than you think. Here’s how to spot them–and successfully stand your ground.

By Ted Leonhardt

Negotiations are stressful. Whether you’re a contractor discussing fee arrangements with your clients or a candidate advocating for higher pay, the pressure to “close the deal” can make you agree to unnecessary concessions. To avoid low-balling yourself, you need to identify the situations where you may have the upper hand. Here are the five of them, and exactly what to do in each one.

1. WHEN YOU’RE CLEARLY THE PREFERRED (OR ONLY) CANDIDATE

Companies will rarely tell you when you’re their No. 1 pick, but they might drop certain hints that indicate you’re their preferred, or perhaps even their only, candidate.

I once arrived at a meeting to discuss a contract project I’d pitched, where three managers immediately began talking about how we were going to tackle the assignment together. Clearly the assignment was mine. When I stated my fee, it didn’t take long for them to accept.

Sometimes you’ll inadvertently hear information from others in the company that can clue you in to hidden leverage you might not know you have. Jessica, a former client of mine, was competing for a major position, and she knew that there were several other well-qualified candidates. While touring the organization’s facilities, one of the in-house developers told her she was the only candidate being given the tour. This was a clear sign that Jessica was the company’s preferred candidate. So when she was asked what she needed in compensation, Jessica named a figure–and got it.

2. WHEN THEY NEED TO FILL THE POSITION FAST

A client of mine was interviewing with a poker-faced executive for a senior role, and my client had a perfect background for it. The role had gone unfilled for months. Press reports and industry chatter indicated that the company was under tremendous pressure to move ahead in my client’s area of expertise. During the interviews, my client learned that two other candidates had failed the extended vetting process the position required.

Since he knew he’d pass with flying colors, he was straightforward about his compensation requirements: “Given that my experience fits your position so perfectly that I can hit the ground running, I need $XXX to make this move.” It worked.

3. WHEN YOU HAVE OTHER GREAT OPTIONS

My client had three strong job offers–all of which were equally appealing but in different ways. After much soul searching, she decided she wanted to take the position that offered the lowest salary, but wanted to see if the company would be willing to increase its offer. So she said, “Josh, I’d like to take your position. But I have a problem I hope you can help me with. I’ve been offered significantly more by another company.” She paused for a moment before going on with, “Would you be willing to match their offer?” She got the match and took the job.

4. WHEN YOU BYPASS THE FORMAL INTERVIEW PROCESS

An HR officer typically initiates the interview process but rarely makes the final decision. That authority usually rests with the supervisor of that role. One of my clients once received an offer on the spot from a VP of the company.

She replied, “I want to thank you for your kind offer.” After a pause, she said, “I do want to take your position. I believe the work you are doing is truly groundbreaking. And I believe that with my expertise I can contribute significantly toward advancing your cause.” After a second pause, she went on to say, “I need 20% more than you’re offering. Can you do that for me?”

It’s not always a great idea to accept an offer on the spot, but my client had already made up her mind by that stage. And since the VP had jumped the gun on the formal HR phone call extending a job offer, which usually comes after the final interview, my client knew the time was ripe–and she got the 20% bump she asked for.

5. WHEN YOU RECEIVE AN OFFER BUT HAVEN’T FINALIZED THE NUMBERS

Believe it or not, this happens all the time. Here’s a classic story: Another one of my clients had been awarded the gig, and work had begun on the project. The proposal had been accepted by the project manager, but after a couple weeks the purchasing department got involved and asked my client to lower his fee.

In the meeting with purchasing, my client simply said, “I’m sorry, we’re midway through the project. We’d gotten the go-ahead, and to meet the deadlines we need to continue at full speed. If we need to stop and renegotiate, we’ll never finish on time.”

Sometimes you don’t need to budge on your ask in a negotiation. The trick is knowing when you can be firm and still get every penny you ask for. When you know what signs to look for, you may spot more of those opportunities than you’d think.

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