The soft skills you need in the era of virtual negotiations

9 September 2020

Adapt to the new norm of virtual negotiations by rethinking how you use soft skills to persuade, influence and communicate. 

Tim Jenkins and Ian Castle, co-directors of procurement training consultancy A Head Space, spoke to CIPS in the podcast Preparing and Adapting for the New Extraordinary about how commercial behaviours need to change to the new culture of virtual negotiations, with a focus on soft skills.

Jenkins said procurement professionals needed to rethink their practices and processes, and how they engage and communicate through video.

Castle said: “As there were a set of cultural rules that existed in the office environment, there’s a new set of cultural rules that have started to develop through people working from home as well.”

Jenkins and Castle, who both come from procurement backgrounds, have been exploring how the new working environment has increased the need for soft skills and affected professionals' ability to persuade, influence and negotiate.

1. Speak directly  

The biggest challenge procurement professionals face is engaging with stakeholders and ensuring a cooperative relationship rather than procurement being seen as the arm of accountability policing the business, according to Castle, and this has been made more difficult during the pandemic when you can’t have face-to-face meetings.

Tone of voice is a large factor that influences engagement with stakeholders, and tone is hard to show in emails – the main form of communication during life working from home.

Castle said: “The problem that procurement and commercial departments have had for a long time is that the tone they take to engage with their stakeholders is often very parental, which doesn’t create a way of working which is conducive to working together to get the best outcome for the organisation.” 

In order to avoid overly formal tones in emails and the risk of being ignored or tone misinterpreted, Jenkins recommended professionals talk directly with stakeholders through calls or face-to-face online meetings. 

He said: “We know where stakeholders are now, they’re at home, so we can engage with them [more easily]. If the conversation is important or you want a response, you’ve got to pick up the phone or, better still, do your research and schedule some time to get face-to-face [online] with them because that will make a huge difference in starting to shape the agenda. Take control and be part of the conversation.”

2. Appearances go a long way...

One of the new cultural norms is having your video turned on so that people can see you during virtual meetings, said Castle. 

“When you turn up to a video call without your video turned on it automatically makes people think, ‘Well, why aren’t they?’ What happens is you end up ignored and at the bottom of the [video] page because people actively forget you’re on the call, you can’t persuade or influence that way.”

Procurement professionals taking A Head Space virtual courses must turn on their cameras during meetings in order to ensure they can “engage them face-to-face”.

Castle recommended that if you don’t have a camera you should ask for one from your organisation because subconsciously “people are already starting to be suspicious”, creating a barrier before negotiations even begin. 

3. Prepare and be personal

Jenkins warned professionals not to fall into the trap of going meeting to meeting with the new norm of back-to-back online calls. Take control of your diary, don’t be pressured by video invites and leave time for meeting preparations. 

He said: “You need to start to take a bit more of a lead. How important is the meeting? Your diary is so important for protecting time, and you’ve got to have time to prepare, and do your research on the person you’re meeting to know how to break the status quo and develop rapport. These are absolutely critical.

“Be the person to make the invite because then you control when the meeting starts, what conversations people are having before you join the call and the agenda. Preparation has never been more important. ”

Castle recommended professionals avoid virtual backgrounds and use their home video environment as a tool for building rapport and being more personal in their approach with clients. You can still connect virtually through similar interests by doing things such as letting your dog in if they like animals or using photographs you have of shared hobbies.

He said: “Negotiation is one individual negotiating with another, and we build rapport through commonality – by doing your research on the person and using subtleties around your environment. It’s exactly the same as what we used to do but changing up the rules a bit.”

4. Beware of microexpressions

Jenkins said: “If you wouldn’t do it in a meeting don’t do it virtually.” 

When visibility is key don’t show too-obvious expressions, as this can give away more than you realise when face-to-face in a video call. Similarly, looking at your phone or working on your computer while talking can take attention away from the conversation and be perceived as unprofessional.

He said: “If you’re in an important call as a procurement professional you still need to maintain your [facial] features so that you don’t give away tell-tale signs. 

“That’s also part of preparations, and talking to each other beforehand about whose role is what in the interview. But you’ve got to assume you’re visible and treat it as if you are in the main shot.”

Jenkins also recommended that professionals take the time to listen and think about what clients are saying and don’t feel rushed by the virtual environment, as then you’re showing them “that their problem is important to them, therefore it’s important to you”. 

“Think about the subtleties of pace, pitch, speed, and allowing time to listen. Don’t feel like you’re on the clock so you need to get out your three points. Be subtle in your behaviour and think about them as you would if you were face-to-face,” he added.

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