Negotiating is like Jazz…Plan & Improvise

I’m a big music fan…I particularly like Classic Rock, Americana, Jam bands, and Jazz. I believe that jazz best typifies how successful sales negotiations should be conducted. It’s important to be both flexible and have a final goal in mind when the seller is negotiating with the buyer. Let me explain how jazz relates to negotiating a deal in 4 ways:

Negotiating = Jazz

  • Plan and be flexible
  • Listening to the other players
  • Improvise
  • Make it a Win-Win

Plan and be flexible

“Playing with freedom can only come after a certain amount of foundational study”

Geri Allen

Before any type of negotiations, it is important to fully understand what your definition is for a successful result.  Is it a particular revenue number? Or, is it a combination of revenue and growth in the business relationship? I would suggest putting in writing for yourself and your team what you ultimately want and, of course, what you would ultimately take. As best you can, put down in writing what you believe to be the goals of the person(s) you are negotiating with, too. Talk internally about what strategy you want to use in the negotiations.

Remember these points:

  • Define your metrics for success in the negotiation
  • Plan your strategy before the start
  • Plan multiple options for success
  • Stay focused on your ultimate goal.

Listening to the other players

“In jazz, you listen to what the bass player is doing and what the drummer is doing, what the pianist and the guitarist is doing, and then you play something that compliments that, so you are thinking simultaneously and thinking ahead.” David Amram

I’ve mentioned before how critical it is to know your customer and know your customer’s challenges and goals. This is particularly important during any kinds of negotiations. In a perfect scenario, you’ve worked with this customer, and individual, in the past and you have a good sense of how they like to negotiate.

Some customers want to really grind during negotiations…they want to feel that they have controlled the process. In a negotiation primarily based on pricing (which I don’t advocate) if the seller knows that the buyer always wants to grind on price, the smart sellers just prices slightly higher at the beginning of the negotiation…the seller maintains their price requirements and the buyer feels they have done their job.

If you are working with a new customer, or a new buyer, you will need to have done all your pre-work about the customer and then listen during the actual negotiations for clues as to what is most important to the buyer. Like jazz, you will play off their signals and comments and give in on some points while standing firm on others.


“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” George Gershwin

Before starting the negotiation process, you should understand as much as you can about the customer’s challenges and goals. You should have your best estimate as to what they want in pricing and any other value or ‘added value’. You should also know what your minimum is regarding pricing, value, and ‘added value’. Also, you should have determined at what point you’re going to ‘walk-away’ from the deal. This can be a touchy subject among salespeople and sales management.

My experience has shown me that even if you, as a salesperson or organization, rarely would decline a deal, you should determine your ‘walk-away’ number. If you’re not willing to risk turning down a deal, then you really don’t have any control over the process.

After all the planning and strategizing, you’re now ready for the negotiations. But there is one more thing to remember: You may throw out all your plans if the deal negotiations go in a different, and potentially more profitable, direction. This is the point when you improvise…you really need to be flexible to the needs of the customer which could change the entire nature of the deal. Smart sales organizations empower their sales people and sales managers to make decisions during the course of the negotiations that can move deals forward to completion. The last thing you want in a deal is to keep telling the customer that “you need to get back to them” after getting approval from someone else in the organization. The customer sees that the salesperson is basically the ‘go between’ which detracts from the credibility of that salesperson.

Make it a Win-Win for the Customer and You

“Jazz stands for freedom. Get out there and improvise, and take chances, and don’t be a perfectionist – leave that to the classical musicians.” Dave Brubeck

While there are rarely perfect deals, it is very doable to negotiate a deal that is a win-win for both parties. Smart sales organizations recognize this and are willing to compromise on some points for the greater good of the customer relationship and the longer-term outlook of the deal. If this is an ongoing relationship with an existing customer, I believe you look at the big picture…not just this year but the next 3 years. Look at your long-term growth strategy for this customer, not just the next quarter. I realize that is tough to do, particularly with a public company, but it will definitely pay off in the long run.

As a salesperson, you are not just representing your company, but yourself. Customers like working with salespeople that are professional, ethical, and have empathy and understanding of the customer needs. They will do more business with this type of salesperson.

Good salespeople can always make a one-time sale…great salespeople create and develop long-term relationships, and sales, with their customers.


Author: Tim Hand

My name is Tim Hand, and I am a digital media, sales & marketing team leader, and I have a real passion for partnering with companies, publishers and agencies to help drive client growth and bottom-line revenues.

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