B2B enterprises depend on collaborating with other businesses for survival and growth. This often requires face-to-face (F2F) meetings with other professionals. What do you do when the ability to travel is constrained and F2F sales or negotiation meetings are canceled?
You have only two choices: Stop business, or conduct activities using current communication technologies. Since most of us will not cease doing business, we opt for the latter, whether we do so through online meetings, video and teleconferences, or collaboration platforms. Some may even use email and texting.
Negotiations by means other than F2F can be less costly and time-consuming. You can avoid travel and negotiate from your home or office with access to data and your staff’s expertise to address items on the agenda. And, selecting negotiation locations isn’t an issue.
Working from your own location allows you to utilize web resources that you may be reluctant to access in F2F meetings. For example, if a customer mentions your competition, you can access information on your competitor while you are engaged in negotiation. However, this multitasking can be distracting and can impair productivity.
So, when negotiating remotely, we must deal with the disadvantages of alternate platforms.
What are these disadvantages? Here are four I’ve dealt with frequently:
1. Preparation and productivity.
2. Team management: You need to consider communication, concentration and attention spans.
3. Agenda management: What are the rules of engagement?
4. Connecting with participants.
If you’re replacing F2F sessions, it’s even more important to ensure that the participants are prepared. In F2F meetings, preparation is often better because participants don’t want to be embarrassed. With remote meetings, this personal pressure is minimized. Reminding attendees to review materials and come prepared is a critical part of agenda management.
In important meetings, you should identify who will lead discussions, how other participants will be asked to participate and the extent of their responsibilities. That’s part of the “rules of engagement.” In F2F meetings it’s difficult but possible to stop someone from misspeaking by using nonverbal cues. In remote meetings, it becomes almost impossible, so rules and roles should be clear. Your text or message will inevitably be too late if they have already misspoken.
Additionally, inadequately prepared participants are more likely to speak out of turn. A good example is a situation where we were on a call and told a prospect we were going to mute them to discuss some things internally. They continued talking about what they’d be willing to pay, so we turned off mute to let them know we could still hear them. They said “OK.” So, we put them back on mute — and heard them say they’d be willing to pay us up to $1 million. This development made our negotiation much easier.
One advantage of F2F is the undivided attention of the participants. On remote conferences, that advantage is sometimes lost. Participants often multitask. It’s important to set rules for your team to ensure they’re fully engaged and ask them to reschedule activities that could interrupt the meeting. Phones and texts should not be answered (which is also a good F2F management technique). Distracted participants cost productivity for all, as they miss critical points which in turn necessitate repetition or cause the “nonlistener” to omit actions or take the wrong actions — both of which can require remedial steps.
This places a premium on summarizing each call, including what everyone agreed to and what still needs to be done, as well as the follow-up actions and responsibilities of participants. Again, agenda management is key.
Remote negotiations can have additional drawbacks, even if you are able to see the other participants on video. It can be more difficult to make a personal connection remotely. If you are negotiating with people you’ve never met, I’ve found that it’s harder to interpret anything beyond the literal meaning of their words. While inflection of voices may come through, body language is harder to read, especially that of participants who are not speaking. (On many video platforms, only the speaker’s image is clearly visible.)
Of course, you can’t read any body language on a phone line. That makes it difficult to grasp the full meaning of a person’s conversation, as you can lose the subtext of their speech.
Certain F2F negotiations are complex and require hours or days. Obtaining that level of concentration in a remote environment is even more challenging. You should ensure that these negotiations are broken into logical segments and that the agendas are managed well for each segment. Again, participant commitment is key.
So, what should we do to maintain productivity, concentration and communication in any environment where we cannot meet our customers, vendors or partners?
1. Prepare an agenda. Gain the other side’s agreement, and ensure they have the right participants to make each session productive.
2. Obtain your team’s understanding of the rules of engagement:
• Who will lead and how?
• What is expected of them regarding preparation and participation?
• Who should be taking notes for the summary and follow up?
3. At the beginning of the session, take time for introductions. (It’s not a substitute for personal F2F connections, but it gives everyone some “face” time.)
4. Also take time to ask the other side good questions and listen to their answers. Active listening allows for better connections.
5. Summarize the session, including follow-up responsibilities of the participants.
The world we live in is imperfect, but those who remain productive during challenging times can continue to be successful, and managing remote negotiations is one key to that productivity.
Note: this article originally appeared March 2020 on Forbes.com. You can view the original post here.