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5 Must-Have Sales Lessons From a Former FBI Hostage Negotiator

Negotiations: you make them with your 4-year-old who won’t eat his carrots; with the produce vendor at the market; with the car maintenance guy. And, frontline sales negotiations are essential in business.

We talked with Chris Voss, CEO of The Black Swan Group, who shared essential tips to enhancing business communication. In his book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, he translates his impressive experience of high-stakes negotiations into business training.

Before joining the world of business consulting, Voss worked in the FBI as an international hostage negotiator. He’s worked in challenging situations, especially involving bank robberies and terrorists. Eventually, he became the lead international kidnapping negotiator. Everyday, he went to work in the mission to save lives and better communities.

His vast experience and incredible stories of negotiations with tough criminals has equipped him with negotiation tactics that translate to the business and sales field.

Two sales tactics to open up negotiation [15.27]

1. Ask, “How Am I Supposed to do That?”

Maintaining and growing relationships between two groups are key to sales negotiations.

“When sales meets procurement, the salesperson is there to help build a long-term, productive relationship,” he says. “What they do is that they tend to take themselves hostage over the word, ‘no’, and over the word ‘yes’. They’re desperate for ‘yes’ and horrified of ‘no’.”

As a frontline sales negotiation continues, it may be easy to become frustrated and upset about the responses being received. “A good negotiator on the other side is going to push you till you say no multiple times,” he says. They’re a blend of the characteristics of international kidnappers and teenagers.

You have to learn how to say no gently. “The more empathic I am…the more I can say no,” he says. “The first way to say no is, ‘how am I supposed to do that?’ as a calibrated question in a genuine tone of voice.”

Rather than raising your voice or saying something you might regret, approaching the situation with gentleness yields better results.

“It’s forced empathy: it makes the other side look at you. It’s so powerful,” he says.

The job as frontline sales negotiator is to get as much value as you can as well as maintain the relationship.

His tactics have worked. He’s heard of stories of people who have been changed by reading his book. For example, one man approached saying ‘no’ in this way and cut his landscaping expenses by half. Another, a mom who worked a situation out with her teenager after using techniques recommended by Voss

2) Give a “No” a Little at a Time [22.00]

Frontline sales negotiations are halted when someone gives a final, definitive and unappreciative “no.” Voss suggests a different route.

“When the answer is no, but the other side perceives it rather than being told it, they actually get it a lot faster,” he says. “And it sinks in because they grasp it. And it also maintains the relationship.”

In this tactic, you avoid misunderstandings, which is often the most expensive avenue of sales negotiations.

For example, say the procurement negotiator is going to throw out a really low price. Rather than counter-offering, ask the question of “how are we suppose to do that? How can we be there for you in the long term if we’re not profitable?” he says. This practice shifts focus toward maintaining the relationship and takes it out of the win or lose situation.

“It’s collaborative negotiation,” he says.

Rather than focusing on one side against the other, view it as two sides working together toward a common goal of profitability.

“If I’m going to invest in someone, you need to make sure they’re not going to get pushed around or bullied. It’s testing behavior,” he says.

“You’ve got to pass the test,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to let out ‘no’ a little at a time. You got to be both empathic and assertive at the time. You’ve got to use emotional intelligence to be a firm but solid and reliable negotiation partner. And then people look to have a long-term relationship with you.”

Remedying the three mistakes people make in sales negotiations [27.54]

1. Understand the ‘how’ of the deal

Are you one to skip over the fine print and the “Terms and Conditions” in contracts? Voss says this can really impede the sales negotiation.

“There’s nothing without the how, ” he says. “To think you’ve got a deal when you’ve got a signature on the dotted line is absurd.” Just because the signature and contract are there doesn’t mean the terms and condition won’t change perceptions.

“There’s no contract without the ‘how’,” he says. The “how” spells out exactly the steps taken in achieving the agreement.

2.Agreeing isn’t a deal [30.00]

Another mistake people make in sales negotiations is mistaking agreement with confirmation of a deal. “When someone says ‘you’re right,’ you think you’ve got the deal,” he says. A difference between “you’re right” and “that’s right” is monumental. “You’re right” infers the desire to get out of the conversation. “That’s right” continues the journey of a deal.

It’s all about reading in between the lines of the conversation. Voss adds that the misunderstanding can also come through body language, of leaning back or shaking their head, while saying, “You’re right.”

  1. Let the other side go first [34.30]

Gathering information and perceptions is essential in sales negotiations. But sometimes, that detail comes in unique ways.

“Great negotiators are voracious not just for information, but for information about the other side,” he says.

Allowing the other side to go first, they have the tendency to share more information and details than if they chose to follow-up in the conversation. “When the other side starts talking, they’re going to open up about more and more,” he says. “They want to make their points. They don’t want to give anything away. And their guard is up.”

The strategy is to move past that barrier and to open up to what they really need.

“You want to get them slowly past those three points, to get to the solid gold information, what we refer to as the black swans,” he says, as the name of his group, The Black Swan Group notes. “What are the pieces of information that actually refer to their business, not what we want to affect their decision-making, but what’s really going on behind the scenes.”   

The question then becomes: how to you trigger to get that “black swan” moment. “They’re struggling with something, that’s why they’re coming to you,” Voss says. They have a problem to solve and want a solution. Making observations and noticing the other side needs will help you discover these key pieces of information.

Noticing what the organization is struggling with help break barriers down. Listening is a crucial skill to have and is especially relevant in sales. “It’s listening intentionally…provocatively,” he says.

Learn more about Voss’ trainings and principles in effective negotiations: [41.30]

Newsletter – This weekly newsletter, the Edge, features great information to empower your company to excel in negotiations. “It’s complementary, which is a good price,” Voss says. “It’s short, digestible pieces of information. There’s one article per week about how to get better about negotiation.” In addition, it provides negotiation training information and events. This newsletter has surpassed 2000 subscribers. Join in today by texting “FBIempathy” to 22828. Or visit this sign-up link.

Website – Visit Voss’ site, to read more about his group and programs he offers.

Book – Find his book, Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended On It in bookstores or on Amazon.

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This interview was brought to you by Praiseworthy. Praiseworthy, is a platform that allows company leaders to use real-time customer feedback to improve training and increase sales. To learn more, visit

See Also:  3 Brilliant Ways to Motivate Your Employees


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