5 problems with your opening offer

Occasionally participants ask me about opening offers. Regardless of what the offer is about, we typically make a few mistakes in how we think about opening offers:

  1. Three of the problems are right there in the heading. Let’s start with the first one – opening offer. The language used signals that this is your first offer, but that you expect to give more. Of course you can’t admit this to the other party, because then they will hold out for your next, more favourable (from their perspective) offer.
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    So what do you do? You want to maximise your chances of them accepting this first offer so you keep the charade going for a bit. You look the counterparty straight in the eye, and tell him or her that this is the best you can do. In other words, you start the negotiation with a lie!
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    And if you lie once, then everything you say is questionable. Bye-bye trust.
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  2. Many people will give an offer that involves price or other numbers. Sure, at some point we may need to discuss numbers. But once numbers are on the table negotiations predictably degenerate into a bargaining game with little to no value creation potential. Yes, the game can be turned around. But that will require a more skilful negotiator, and that skilled negotiator is unlikely to have started with a number in the first place.
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    So what do we discuss if we don’t discuss numbers? We discuss how to arrive at those numbers. This conversation has greater scope for finding agreement, creating value, and for persuading parties.
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  3. One common reason for opening with a number is to take advantage of anchoring. When we don’t have a reference point as to what is a fair or correct number (e.g. the price for a new or unique product), we are disproportionally influenced by (anchored to) the first number we hear. So negotiators have an incentive to open with aggressive opening offers. While we don’t necessarily accept the anchor we hear as fair, it does work like a strong gravity field and influences our expectations of where the negotiation will end up.
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    But… While anchoring is very effective for claiming value from completely unskilled negotiators, it is such a common tactic that even average negotiators are familiar with it. And they will resent you for trying to manipulate them.
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  4. By the way, why are we calling it an opening offer? Why are we offering anything? Discussing offers signal a fundamental misunderstanding of negotiation. It’s not about give and take. We’re in the business of finding ways to get all parties what they want. Assuming that parties have to give, concede or offer things leads parties into a zero-sum bargaining process where little or no value is created.
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    Why not use “option”, “suggestion” or “idea” instead of “offer”. Indeed, why not!
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  5. And why open with an offer. How can you possibly expect to come up with the perfect offer straight out of the box? The offer (or option, suggestion, idea or solution) is supposed to satisfy parties needs, thus we first have to discover what those needs are! And to do so effectively typically relies on first having negotiated a process and pattern of communication that parties agree to follow. And the success of achieving that is in turn strongly influenced by relational aspects such as rapport and trust among parties.
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    In other words, there are many, many things negotiators do before putting an offer (or option, suggestion…) on the table.
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