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If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get

I was straining to hear the other parties to the conference call as the two sides debated a sensitive issue with significant ramifications. The matter at hand was a large corporate sale spanning several states, two separate buyers under family control, and one seriously ticked off lender.

The professionals on the phone – meaning the lawyers, accountants, and one person with the vague title of “consultant” – knew that the deal was about to blow up. And that’s when my client chimed in with something just this side of insane. There was a long pause during which all we could hear was breathing and a muffled cough. And then the buyer began to talk.

My first thought as I listened to the buyer stammer through a response was “dear God, they’re actually considering this.” Thirty days later, the completely unreasonable point raised by my client during that conference call became part of the deal with only minor variations.

I’ve reflected a great deal on that conference call. The experience was not singular in my career as I’ve had other moments like it. But this one really resonated, perhaps due to the stakes involved. We had spent months and significant dollars negotiating this deal and everyone seemed at the end of their proverbial rope. One more jostle, it seemed, and the deal would unravel. Well, my client not only jostled the arrangement, he put his entire weight on it and jumped. In the end, he got precisely what he wanted.

In sports, we often hear that the winner is the one who “wants it more.” I have always found it hard to believe that there was a locker room in which the desire to win was markedly lower than was present in room across the hall. But here’s what I’ve learned in business: the winner is frequently the one who wants it less. My client had the other side convinced that he could walk away at any time – that he was slightly more than ambivalent about the deal and that he could take it or leave it. The other side wanted it…and my client dared them to prove it. By closing on my client’s terms, that’s just what they did.

In my experience, too many business owners, even (especially?) those who pride themselves on their negotiation skills, sustain the other side’s objections. They take a look at possible terms and remove them before the other side’s review because there might be an objection. Now, I’m not suggesting that every document be drawn up to reflect the hardest possible line, but I am proposing that you “pay yourself first.” Take a good hard look at the things you want to get out of the agreement and beyond. Then ask for them.

Sure, you may have to back off a few key demands, but time and time again I have seen my grandmother’s wisdom pay off: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” And if you do ask…well…sometimes you’d be surprised.