The Negotiator Magazine

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“Negotiating by e-mail”

By Jonathan Sims

Those of you who are acquainted with the British and Commonwealth game of cricket (a vaguely baseball-like game sometimes over three days with one or two interesting moments) may have heard of the recent scandal involving an umpire, Darrell Hair. He had accused the Pakistan side of tampering with the ball, and cancelled the match when they protested by refusing to take the pitch after a break. The controversy was heightened a few days later when an e-mail from him to the cricket authorities was published: there, in black and white, was his offer of retiring if they paid him half a million US dollars. It was a perfect example of the disadvantages of negotiating by e-mail.

Questions about negotiating by e-mail crop up ever more frequently on our negotiating seminars. On further investigation, the questions can mean many different things:

How do we respond to e-auction invitations?
How do we respond to e-mailed calls for offers to (apparently) a number of companies?
How do we respond to an e-mailed inquiry from an unknown potential client?
How do we deal with e-mail negotiations with regular clients?
What are the peculiarities of written negotiations?

It is this last question which usually is the nub of their problem, and it usually arises because the art of written business communication atrophied as telephony took over from letter writing, but the rise of e-mail as a tool of business communication has highlighted neglected literacy skills.

To deal with the other variants first:

E-auctions. The negotiation skills required here are to get on the list of approved suppliers in the first place, and to attempt to get specifications changed if we cannot conform to the envisaged requirements. After that, we’re in an old-fashioned Dutch auction where the job goes too the lowest bidder.

Calls for offers. These have similarities to the invitations to e-auctions. They present the appearance of impersonality and indifference with the intention of impressing on the recipients that they are in a competitive race to win the business. This may be the case, but often isn’t: they do want to do business with you but are disguising their need by making it appear that you’re competing. In this case, subtle telephone or face-to-face contact may be necessary to determine the truth. This is also the case dealing with inquiries from unknown clients.

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October 2006