“German entrepreneurs are well prepared for their negotiations. You should be too.”

Travel limitations due to the pandemic are forcing business partners to turn to digital solutions for talks. Even negotiations are becoming increasingly virtual. Thomas Starke, who has been coaching for many years in the Manager Training Programme, explains what it takes to be successful and offers tips on making a positive impression.

What special challenges do negotiations present when they are held online?
Holding negotiations over long distances is not fundamentally new. Video telephony has been around for a while and we have had video conferencing for several years. What is new now is that the digitalisation of talks has intensified as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We are confronted with new issues. The different time zones may push appointments into the early morning or late evening, which can be critical for difficult negotiation points. There is also a special challenge in the different ways we communicate based on the technology we use.

How can we best manage negotiating remotely? What do we need to consider?
Generally, the same things apply here as do in any face-to-face meeting: I need to be prepared and know what my objectives and expectations are. I should do my market research in advance and analyse my potential business partner as good as possible. It is also important to have a plan B and go through various options. German entrepreneurs always prepare carefully for online talks and only hold them when they know in advance that they will benefit from them. So, having my own strategy is especially important, because if I don’t have one, I will be following my partner’s idea. It is also more difficult to build trust in the digital realm because it makes small talk harder. You don’t have to pick up a visitor, for instance, which gives you the opportunity to chat. And gestures and body language are also trickier. Because small talk is essential, I can alternatively offer tactical praise. How you conduct the discussion is also important. In the digital realm it is also advisable to vary your communication so that the conversation doesn’t become too monotonous, and to make use of the technologies such as screen sharing to demonstrate what you are discussing.

Technological challenges now play a major role…
Precisely. I should be familiar with the equipment and the tools I use. That gives me a feeling of security, and also for the products being negotiated that may be hard to show virtually. If I want to demonstrate a large machine, it makes sense to switch to a co-host in the production hall. If I am dealing with smaller products I can send my conversation partner a sample in advance to convince him of its quality.

What sort of faux pas do we need to be aware of?
During video conferences you need to pay attention to what kind of messages you are sending with your screen, even the unintentional ones: Do I have a background that is too distracting, or shows something that would leak information about business ties to other suppliers or clients? Before your talk it is also recommended that you close any files on your computer that you won’t be needing and to move controversial or confidential documents from any directories you might be opening. Because things can get hairy if I accidentally disclose offers from other companies when I share my screen. And don’t forget that when communicating online we have much shorter attention spans. Things start to drag after 90 minutes and your attention curve flattens out. I have to accept that. Do I need to plan the steps of the appointment differently in advance – also due to the fact that I have fewer means to improvise when I am online. Whatever I don’t have with me physically at my mobile office, I can’t simply reach out to grab.

What are the advantages of online negotiating, especially in our current pandemic era?
Digital meetings are currently the only promising option for global deals. They not only save time and money, they are also flexible and can be organized independent of location. We are currently in a situation that is new and challenging for everyone, and at the same time we are preparing for a sort of new normalcy. That means that there will still be plenty of digital meetings even once travel and in-person encounters become fully feasible. All of the experience that we are currently learning, realising and gaining in experience will thus by no means become lost knowledge.

You are also conducting digital seminars on the topic of online negotiations as part of the MP. What sort of feedback are you getting from the participants?
The participants are mostly missing out on the effect of an actual stay in Germany. The four-week in-person programme always included a portion of free time as well, and the foreign executives could move their knowledge of Germany to the next level, for example through weekend activities. Upon returning to their home countries they were then actual Germany experts. That’s lacking now, of course. But the positive thing about the current situation is that appointments can be made with German companies more spontaneously – that is, the German firms are more flexible in terms of their time. MP participants are often surprised that there is still an agenda that is sent in advance of the meeting even in the era of digital communication. The talks are usually held in a focused way from the German perspective, so it isn’t just an easy-going chat. I also frequently hear from the programme participants that they receive the information that their German partners promise them very swiftly. It is even faster than it was before the pandemic, so the workflow is accelerated.

Negotiating online now usually means working from your home. Is that a good idea or should I go into the office?
The pandemic-related conditions have forced a lot of business people worldwide into working more from home. So, it is important to also have quality technology and a stable internet condition at home. The place where I will be negotiating from would be free of external sounds. The environment is important in a video conference. That means that I should carefully consider what I reveal of my private life and that I should also dress as if I were attending a non-virtual meeting at the office. The camera settings and lighting should be selected to my advantage and so I am well lit. I shouldn’t shy away from buying an LED video lamp or an extra shade for my window. The setting should always be tested before important appointments. A meeting from home can also lead to more informal communication, acting as a sort of water cooler around which information can be exchanged quickly and efficiently. A home office can lead in this direction when I employ it skilfully. If I am prepared to divulge something personal about myself and meet my counterpart virtually on the balcony, it can highlight my personality.

And what are the limits of digital negotiations?
When we are working at a high level with simultaneous interpreters, the technological demands are great. And familiarity with others doesn’t work as well in the digital realm as it does in a face-to-face meeting. When I am providing sensitive details about a product or a technical development, I need to be careful about unauthorized images or recordings. Also, it is difficult to check the conditions of production and it is hard to represent the supply chain digitally. When I visit a company in person I can get an idea of whether the social and environmental standards are being complied with – that is not possible or only to a very limited extent online.

How do you make the MP participants less afraid of digital negotiations?
I always try to get them to overcome their inhibitions. The programme participants need to realise that their German counterparts aren’t interested in their English skills, but rather in prospective business deals. If there is a language barrier, an interpreter or colleague with the appropriate language skills can help. Technicians who negotiate with each other have their own language and knowledge of a foreign language is less important than a common understanding of the professional field. In the analogue world it had always been critical that the highest success rate was achieved in personal negotiations, and talks on the telephone came second, and negotiations via email third. Now we have various video conferencing tools that are about combing the personal and the technical features. We have an excellent toy to play with. When I feel confident in the digital world, I can achieve my business goals effectively. The same is true all around the world: contact creates empathy. The more often someone sees us, the better we can connect. So I advise everyone to also use social networks to address German business partners. Then you can enter a dialogue and create common ground. As back-up I always have a landline ready so that I can react quickly to any network interruptions.

How can I ensure that I make a lasting impression on my counterpart?
What is true in the analogue world also applied to digital communication: The talk needs to be “strange“ for my counterpart. That means that I need to cast a limbic anchor and stand out. Someone who has a lot of talks every week remembers the especially good talk or the one that was particularly funny. Humour is also one way to create the personal level that is necessary for that. Germans often dismiss humour initially and are rather formal. So start with some mild humour. Plus, I can consciously plan to have some time for a personal exchange in an appointment. It might work to host a mutual digital breakfast before the actual appointment for the negotiation – that creates emotion, intimacy and trust. If a talk is scheduled in the early hours in Germany, you can assume that your business partner is more awake and well-rested than in the late afternoon. I also tell everyone to be generous with how you schedule the appointments. So, plan the meeting for two hours rather than 60 minutes. If you’re done early, you’ve just bought your partner an hour’s worth of time – excellent! Of course, I can really make a lasting impression if my product or service really has some unique features – just like in the analogue world.

Thank you very much for speaking with us.

About the interview partner
Thomas Starke started working independently as a business consultant with Concept and Sales in 2008, based on his global experience in the fields of sales, marketing, trade fairs and export. He supports SMEs in their expansion strategies both in Germany and internationally. In addition to his global teaching duties, he has been active as a coach and tutor for numerous MP training centres since 2011.

Photos: © Concept and Sales