“If we only had a little more time, I’m sure we could have reached a deal. We were so close.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a variation of this “we were so close” statement. Every time, the speaker sounds sincere. Almost every time, they’re wrong.
Why? Because we tend to behave in certain predictable ways when faced with deadlines.
How do we behave, and what should we do when dealing with deadlines? Follow my Four Steps to Using Deadlines to your Advantage.
1. Identify what, if any, deadlines already exist.
Deadlines almost always have a significant impact on negotiations. The first step, therefore, is finding out what deadlines exist for you and your counterpart.
If you are in sales, do you have a month-end, quarter-end or year-end deadline? What about your counterparts? If you are a trial lawyer, has your trial date been set? If you want to sell your company, what advantages exist if you close the deal by Dec. 31?
And don’t just look on the surface for the obvious deadlines. Sometimes, a party’s personal deadline, like an upcoming vacation, can have a huge impact on the negotiation.
2. Evaluate the deadlines’ impact.
Several years ago, a friend in Chicago bought what he calls the Daddy Warbucks house once owned by the creator of Annie. When he first offered to buy the house, it had only been available a short time. Since he felt the house was priced below market, he worried that someone else might come in shortly after his offer and start a bidding war.
So what did he do? He told the seller his offer would only remain valid that day. If not accepted within that time, he said, he would withdraw it and offer less for the house.
If you’re the seller here, your first step after identifying the deadline should be to evaluate its potential impact on your negotiation.
To do so, analyze the various types of impacts that deadlines almost always create, at least to some degree. Each occurred in my friend’s house negotiation.
• Urgency impact: Deadlines often create an increasing sense of urgency for all the parties, and especially for the parties with relatively weaker leverage. Here, the seller had relatively weak leverage, with no good alternative offer at the time and an interest in selling fairly quickly.
My friend, by contrast, had a decent alternative and no real need to buy. So why did my friend impose a deadline? In part, he wanted to focus the seller’s attention and create a sense of urgency.
• Timing impact: The passage of time – short-circuited by deadlines – usually helps or hurts you. In other words, short deadlines generally help if the passage of time hurts you. And short deadlines generally hurt if the passage of time helps you.
So avoid short deadlines if the passage of time helps you. Vice versa, too. In my friend’s house negotiation, he felt that time would help the seller by presenting alternative potential buyers. So he imposed a short deadline to minimize this possibility and to emphasize the transitory nature of his offer. It worked. He received a signed contract back before his deadline expired.
• Organizational impact: Deadlines also often increase the likelihood that the negotiations will move along at a more organized and controlled pace. Creating a set time frame within which the negotiation is to conclude, or within which certain activities are to take place, often causes parties to behave in a way consistent with the deadline.
3. Decide what type of deadlines you want.
Different types of deadlines impact negotiations in vastly different ways.
Short deadlines increase pressure, tension, competition and are often used by those hurt by the passage of time and with little interest in a future relationship with their counterparts.
My Chicago friend wanted all of this, so setting a short deadline made sense for him. By contrast, longer deadlines – or even no deadlines at all – tend to decrease pressure, tension, competition, and are often used by those helped by the passage of time and who want a future relationship with their counter-parts. Longer deadlines also help those creatively working together to resolve mutual problems.
Other types of deadlines include flexible deadlines, legally required deadlines, interim deadlines and many others.
The key here is to determine what types of deadlines provide you with a strategic advantage. Only then can you decide how to most effectively use them.
4. Manage and control the deadlines.
So, what should you do once you have identified the deadlines, evaluated their impact, and determined which, if any, you want to implement? Manage and control them. How? Negotiate them.
Find out what your counterpart wants in terms of deadlines. Do they care? If so, why and to what extent? What options exist regarding various deadlines? What standards or procedures apply to deadlines in this context? Is there a common amount of time that this type of negotiation tends to take? What about precedents deadline-wise? What do the experts say about how long this type of negotiation takes?
All these considerations help you effectively manage and control your deadlines. So don’t just leave your deadlines up to chance or the other party. Remember, those who control the deadlines often achieve the best results. Hopefully, then, you won’t soon say, “If we only had more time.”
Published March 7, 2003 in The Business Journal