How to Negotiate With the Savvy Buyer

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Remodeler Allison Perry Iantosca learned a few things about negotiating the hard way. She shares her insight.

May 01, 2009

Allison Perry Iantosca
Contributing Editor

Just the word negotiation conjures up images of long conference room tables, heavy dark suits, furrowed brows, poker faces, a winner and a loser. The loser fails to play the game, is weaker and doesn't want the win badly enough. The winner uses words like weapons and can outwit a bulldog. I'm not usually the winner in these situations. I'm either the super duper compromiser (also known as the loser) or the out and out loser because I can't get the synapses between my brain and my mouth to work quickly enough when the firing squad comes at me with heavy artillery.

A few months back, I met the heavy artillery in person. He actually didn't wear a dark suit — rather a patterned button down shirt and snazzy pants as is the style these days. But his furrowed brow was polished by two years of business school, and his poker face perfected by five years in private equity. In comparison, I was a few threads less than au couture and about seven years behind in Harvard Business School case studies. Yet somehow, I found myself head to head with this savvy homeowner negotiating the contract for the $2 million-plus renovation he wanted to do on his property in Boston.

In the six weeks, four days and three hours it took for us to come to a signed document, I shaved at least a year off of any required MBA credits. The wounds are freshly healed, and the mistakes still quite obvious to me, but I learned more from this real life experience than any book I have ever read.

First I learned about the savvy buyer — the type who wants to keep you on edge. This buyer pre-negotiates and then negotiates again. He acts rushed. He always wants to sign his legal documents, not yours. He sets someone up between you and him — a lawyer or a professional (the architect in my case) — to act as the good cop or coach to get information from you, and, usually in dramatic fashion, he takes the deal away at least once.

By the book, my guy used every single one of these moves on me and, in the beginning, had me wishing I were walking on hot coals with bare feet because anything would have been better than sweating it out in a meeting with him. But over time, I started to recognize his patterns. When I planned on his one liners and twisted phrasing or I expected dramatic eye rolling or even some fist pounding, I stayed emotionally uninvolved. Only then could I respond logically to his counter offers and keep straight with my own bottom line.

Second, I learned that negotiations are actually rarely about time. Time was only used as a pressure point to get me to sign sooner than I was ready. My guy noted weekly how critical it was to get the deal done within the next 24 hours, yet when the contract draft was back in his hands, days and weekends would go by with little sense of urgency.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that a successful negotiation is not a compromise; it is a win for me and a win for him. Throughout the negotiation process with Mr. Business School, I often wondered if it was worth it. Perhaps you're reading this wondering why I didn't just walk away. Ultimately, I got caught up in the sport of it. I genuinely liked the guy and he maintained a willingness to haggle it out with me. And he wanted me to win, too. It certainly didn't feel like it at the time, but we developed an affinity for one another, and after a while our discussions were less centered around percentages and returns and more centered on items that either one felt were necessary for a good agreement in the end. This is entirely unrelated but I always like the example of two people in the room with an open window; one wants the window open one wants it closed — until you find out that the one who wants it closed is just cold and you are negotiating over the wrong thing. If I offer you a sweater can I keep the window open?

Signing the final document was invigorating. It was a masterpiece. We are in a terrific client relationship that has very clear guidelines. I'm not sure I'm ready to negotiate for world peace, but I do feel well prepared for the next time I bump into snazzy pants with an MBA.


Author Information
Allison Perry Iantosca is a partner at F.H. Perry Builder, a boutique, residential, general contracting firm serving greater Boston. Allison can be reached at aiantosca@fhperry.com.

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