Breaking Containment

Breaking Containment

They may not call it that, but everyday negotiators need containment before they can start negotiating. If you’re buying a house or a car, you contain your negotiations to that specific house or car, and to a general range of features and prices. By the way, that doesn’t mean that you’ve given up your out. Your out is not part of the negotiation. It’s an alternative. I’m not sending the ninjas away; they’re the reason the folks in the bank want to negotiate in the first place.

So what do you do when someone breaks containment—for whatever reason they completely change the parameters of the deal?

The most important thing is to take a step back and examine where you are. Remember that the process has started over again. You haven’t wasted your time; you’ve invested in the overall deal. But you do have to reassess where you are.

An old sales strategy called “bait and switch” uses breaking containment as a tool. The strategy is pretty obvious: The new set of tires are advertised as being fifty bucks apiece; you get to the showroom, and low and behold, the last of those tires went out the door five minutes ago. But the salesman has another set for $250. . . .

That specific practice is outlawed in most places these days, and even where it’s not, few salesman actually interested in making a sale will try it, since the reaction of many customers will be instant anger. But there are much more subtle variations. For example, the advertised price may not include installation or, in the case of those tires, balancing, which will add ten or twenty bucks a pop to each tire. One of my favorites is the rebate ploy, where the cell phone is advertised as costing $100 after the rebate.

Assuming you fill the form out right. And good luck finding it.

Think about it this way: Breaking containment happens anytime you think you’re negotiating about x and it turns out that the other side wants to talk about x + y. Or just y.

The best strategy for dealing with obvious bait and switches is probably just to walk away. But hostage negotiators don’t have a choice about the sorts of situations they get called to. And many times in a business negotiation, y comes up more or less on its own.

As long as you realize the process has to start over—which means new intelligence, new command decision on goals, new negotiations—you’ll be all right.

Turning It Around

From a negotiator’s point of view, it often doesn’t pay to worry too much about the motives for another person’s tactics. What may seem almost evil may be a product of poor team dynamics or lousy decision making. That isn’t to say that someone with a gun isn’t out to kill you; it’s just that you should make judgments about someone’s moral fiber and its relevance to the negotiations very warily.

Look, if you do think someone’s out to screw you, go to the ninja’s right away—Plan B is always in order. It’s just that more often than not, the other guy really isn’t out to screw you at all.

Let’s turn the old bait and switch around for a second. A customer comes into a Chevy dealership and says he wants to buy a Malibu. Salesman starts working out the deal, gets a good price down, and then all of a sudden the customer says, “Gee, I’d like an Impala instead.”

Ploy? Change of heart?

Does it matter? The salesman has already learned a lot about the customer, certainly more than if the customer had just walked in. The customer is saying that he wants a deal—just not the one they’ve been talking about.

The salesman should take a step back and ask the customer to clarify what he wants, realizing that he’s not yet at the point where he can negotiate. Once the customer’s needs are established—once the intelligence is done—he can get back to the negotiating stage and have a real leg up, since he’s already built a rapport.