The following article was prepared by Mike Taylor, C.P.M.
January 2005

Serve the Ball

Note to new buyers: You don't want to own every problem.........

In tennis, we can practice our backhand, work on our grip, strategize about where to place the shot, and charge the net, but until the ball goes over the net, we haven't done squat. All of the preparation in the world can't help if we never get around to serving the ball to the other side. Once it's over the net, it's our opponent's problem to resolve, handle or drop, and not ours.

In a negotiation, it's easy to forget abut this principle and try to solve every problem. We can analyze, review, consider, evaluate and strategize about a problem forever, but until you serve it "over the net" you may be just spinning your wheels.

For each factor or issue in a negotiation:
1- Clearly define the problem
2- Clearly identify the owner of the problem
3- Assign the action item or decision
4- Split the issues and problems when it is to your advantage

Consider the following contracting situations. Aren't these really all the supplier's problems?  Problems the supplier needs to solve or risk loosing the contract.

  1. The supplier says he can't ship in the time you requested.
  2. The supplier takes exception to your contract terms
  3. The factory only makes them in packages of 35 (and we use them 10 at a time)
  4. The supplier doesn't sell that brand
  5. The shipment is lost

Just as in Tennis, sometimes how you serve the problem can make a big difference on the outcome. In the situations above, it's easy to accept the problem and spend a lot of wasted time when we may not have any way of resolving it. In those cases, instead of just accepting the problem, bounce it back to the rightful owner. Try these phrases on for size:

  1. " Wow, that is a problem, how are you going to solve it without breeching the contract?"
  2. " I thought you really wanted to compete on this contract"
  3. " What did you not understand about our agreement?"
  4. " Why did you send me this non responsive mess? Why should I spend time reading it?"
  5. " What did you really intend to say? It's not clear and I can't understand what you mean."

Sometimes, properly identifying the problem can also mean that you have to be the one to take ownership. Consider these situations:

The boss is working on the annual budget and you want a raise. The boss may be working on the budget problem, but without sufficient information he/she can't justify giving a raise. Is it your boss's problem to make sure there is enough information about your contributions and skills? Or is this a problem that you can help with and really would rather assist in resolving?

The car salesman says, "If I can get the financing package, will you buy the car?" Careful, the salesman just split the problem into two parts. He took ownership of the problem, but dropped the ball into your court. If you say yes, and he can find the financing, you just bought it. Although another way to think about it might be from the buyer's perspective, "If you can get the financing down to $400/month, I'll buy it." Now you've dropped the problem and the issue squarely on the salesman. The deal is his uo turn down or solve.

Experienced buyers know that loosing track of the problem "owner" can really hurt. You hear the phrase; "but I didn't know you were waiting for me", or "I thought you were doing that". It's obvious that someone needed to do a better job of identifying who had the ball. But we can also get burned (hopefully only once) when the boss says "How come you delayed this procurement by 3 weeks?" and we can't prove that we were waiting for the engineer to rewrite his specification.

This problem leads to a whole different discussion about why, when and how to CYA. But that is another story for another time.


Read more articles about negotiation and creative contract solutions in the Purchasing Toolbox at and in the BuyTrain news article archive at

MLTWEB is assembled and maintained by Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M. 
Materials and articles prepared by Mike may be shared for purchasing education provided that this source is cited and no fee is charged. The rights for any other use are withheld.
Copyright;  Michael L. Taylor, C.P.M.
Last Updated: 05/23/2006