The following article was prepared by Mike Taylor, C.P.M., for distribution to ISM affiliate newsletters

Leading Questions

Ask the right question when you negotiate. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But you would be surprised at how often the wrong question is asked. No, not necessarily the wrong question but asked the wrong way.

Take for example the question; "When did you stop accepting bribes?" Kind of a difficult question to answer, without getting into trouble, isn't it? There is no easy or safe answer.

Would the impact be the same if the question were asked this way; "Do you accept bribes?" Of course not! We may be talking about the same subject but, in the first question, we have made it much more difficult for the other person to give us an answer.

By the way we have worded the first question we have already made an implication about the person and required a lengthy explanation. The implication now has more validity and must be carefully defended when the question is answered.

In negotiating, don't let the other person have the easy way out. Be careful about the implications you put into your questions. They can work against you as well as for you. Make the other person give you the difficult answer and perhaps more information.  

Consider the following questions: "How much of a price increase will there be next year?" "When will the price increase go into effect?" In both cases, we have made several important implications that make it hard on ourselves and easier on the Seller. We have implied that we know there will be a price increase, that we expect it to affect our order and that we are prepared to incorporate it into our planning now.

How about if we re-worded the questions slightly? "Do you expect to ask for a price increase next year?" "How long can you maintain the current pricing?" "How long before we have to re-negotiate the contract?" "How long before you can start reducing the price?" "How long before I have to re-bid the contract?"

By changing the wording of the question, we have placed much more of a burden on the Seller and put ourselves into a better negotiating position. In the extreme case, we have implied that we will re-open the bidding should the Seller dare to ask for an increase. In any event, the Seller may now make an (erroneous?) assumption about our plans and be much more careful about what he says.

A lawyer friend (oxymoron?) once explained that lawyers are trained not to ask a question in court unless they already know the answer. That is, they make sure the question has a purpose other than to do the fact finding that should have been done long before getting to court. Perry Mason was my favorite example of this. He asked the question at the right time and in the right way to force a confession.

Can we ask purchasing questions, in the right way and at the right time? Even if we can't always know the answer up front, I think we can ask the right questions.

Consider the following bad examples. See if you can spot all of the assumptions and implications; then find a better way to word the question.

"How much of an expediting charge will it take to..." 

"How much will the delivery be delayed?" 

"How much time do you need to prepare your proposal?"

"How many defects per shipment should we expect?" 

"What is the restocking charge?"

All too often, we rush into the fact finding and discussion stages of negotiating. We know the information needed, but we have not given any thought about how to ask the question. By changing the way we word questions, we can have a powerful negotiating lever on our side and be more effective.

Note: One more tip: Plan better ways to ask common questions and prepare yourself a written cheat-sheet to keep at your desk. You'll be prepared for the last minute phone calls. This might be a fun and valuable exercise to do as a group.

Good Luck!


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