Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
Imagine you get a letter informing you that your favorite cousin is being held captive for $3 million. As an average person, you don't even know where to start when it comes to getting that kind of money, which means it's all down to how well you can reason with the captors and come up with a deal.
Needless to say, your negotiating skills better be top notch.
The situation is (thankfully) hypothetical for most, but the lessons we can take from hostage negotiations are very real and applicable to the daily grind of doing sales. Just ask Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator whose work includes everything from the Blind Sheikh case (code-named
When planning my annual reading list for 2017, multiple CEOs at fast-growing technology companies recommended I read Chris' book, Never Split the Difference. I began reading the book on my flight back to San Francisco from Kuala Lumpur, and I was hooked from the first few pages. It's rare that a book is so gripping and entertaining while still being actionable and applicable, especially with business books.
Every few pages I read, I found myself writing down negotiation tips and ideas I wanted to test with our sales team and clients. So when I landed in San Francisco, I decided I had to cold email Chris Voss in order to learn even more about his negotiation strategies to become even better at sales.
The following negotiation tips are the result of the conversation we had as a result of that cold email:
1. Just Say "No" to "Yes."
Today, we're constantly encouraged, if not outright pressured, to say "yes" to some service or bargain. In Voss's own words, we're "yes battered"--that is, we've heard those yes-centric questions so many times we resist them. How many times has a telemarketer or your college alumni board called during dinner and asked, "Can I talk to you for a few minutes?" Most of us are inclined to hang up immediately.
So whether you're trying to get your favorite cousin back, calling prospects or composing a cold email, instead try to tailor your opening questions towards a different response--"no."
It sounds counterintuitive, but Voss, who's used the same tactic in hostage situations, explains that "no-focused" questions go far in putting the other person at ease. Saying "no" makes a person feel protected and therefore more willing to participate in a conversation. Try out, for example, "Is now a bad time to talk?" instead of "Can you talk for a few minutes?" If you're writing emails, apply the same logic to those
2. Don't ask why.
While we're on the subject of words to avoid, "why" is another one that doesn't lead anywhere. Asking a hostage taker, "Why do you want that much money?" is like asking a teenager, "Why did you drive my car without permission?" You won't get a straight answer from either situation.
Why makes us defensive because it's typically interpreted as an accusation, whether or not that was your intention. In a high-stakes negotiation, you can't afford to have the captors shut down because they feel like they're being attacked. Same goes for sales negotiations.
One easy fix is to replace "Why" with "What" or "How." "What made you choose that software?" sounds a lot less accusatory, and, if the person is in question-answer mode, the chances of you getting a productive answer are high.
But what happens if your prospective client hates questions?
That's when you turn to The Label, one of the most universal and powerful tools available to hostage negotiators and MBAs alike when dealing with question-wary people. At it's heart, it means turning questions into simple observations. "It seems like you had a good reason to choose that software" merely states a fact, one that triggers the recipient's brain to try and verify the statement. Did we have a good reason to get that software? What was it? Did anyone in the company object? Suddenly, your prospect feels in control of the conversation and more inclined to share the information you need.
3. Go from universal to individual.
Hostage negotiations are all about creating a feedback loop between the agent and the captors.
There are some techniques that apply everywhere, whether you're in Europe to South Africa, just as there are certain sales tactics that will work for both VPs and mid-level managers, at small businesses and Fortune 500 companies. That includes listening carefully to the other person's argument and removing emotion from the situation (try to predict a person's behavior rather than trust it, for example). And never, ever lie.
Only after you've gotten through these, and gathered some basics on the individual--their age, gender, hometown--can you start to tailor a conversation specifically to them. If you sell cloud software and your prospect is a 50-something with a long history of legacy software, you'll have to use a different set of selling points than those you'd give a 20-something startup founder. The trick is knowing how to refine your approach in real time based on the information you get during the conversation.
4. Simplify your email style.
When I spoke to Voss, he explained that the problem with email is that people tend to lay out every point and move in the negotiation in a single email. Trying to take someone through multiple steps in an email will only make the recipient see the distance from Point A to Point Z and become overwhelmed.
Given my experience managing email campaigns for more than 450 different sales teams, I can't agree more. One of the best ways to create a persuasive sales email, whether it's the first cold email you're sending a new customer or an email to follow up with a prospective buyer who's trying to negotiate price with you, is to keep things short and simple. Not only does this increase your chances of getting a response and moving the conversation along, but it avoids giving them an opportunity to steer the conversation in a completely different direction than you want it to take.
Instead, start treating emails the way you do texts.
We rarely put more than one idea into a single text message, or even an entire text thread. That simplicity can go a long way in keeping your sales negotiations focused. Stick to one or two topics per email, tops.
These aren't the only hostage negotiation tactics out there that translate to sales, but they're a great place to start if you're looking to freshen up your pitch. Try one or two out next time you're in a meeting or when you sit down to draft a cold email. Feel free to share some examples and thoughts in the comments below.
You can watch the full interview with Chris Voss where he shares some of his best sales negotiation advice here.