Mick Jagger’s lyrics from 1969 still ring true today: “You can’t always get what you want.” Product managers understand this concept more so than other professions. They are adept at understanding how to identify key negotiations moments.
While you can always say “no,” that seldom makes either party feel good. You feel bad for shooting them down, they’re frustrated their request was summarily rejected, and the relationship is strained. Multiply that by hundreds of requests from dozens of customers, stakeholders, and coworkers, and now you feel like the Grinch while they view you as a ruthless gatekeeper.
That doesn’t sound like much fun. But if we move onto the following line of that Rolling Stones classic, a solution emerges: “but if you try sometimes you find you get what you need.” For product managers this is where the yes/no binary dynamic fades, and one of a product manager’s most essential skills kicks into leveraging key negotiations.
Take some extra time to explore the issue and understand the actual problem they’re trying to solve. Investigate alternative paths or workarounds and assess the overall scope of the case. Moreover, have an understanding of the impact, as well as the extent of that impact.
Understanding the impact will give you a lot more information to work with and buys you some time. It also makes the requesting party feel heard and that you’re taking them seriously. And maybe, just maybe, you can give them what they need.
Four Key Negotiation Moments
There are many opportunities to forge a common path that satisfies all parties. Some will be more important than agreeing on the “sign-in” button’s color or where to order lunch for the team-building exercise. Here are four pivotal points where your key negotiation skills must rise to the occasion.
The optimistic salesperson
“If you add this, they’ll sign.” Every product manager eventually hears some version of this from their sales team. Your rep just came back from a sales call or hung up the phone with a hot prospect. They’ve pitched and won them over, but the customer won’t commit without this one extra thing.
It’s essential to put yourself in the salesperson’s shoes. Commission remains a priority, which means they paid to care about closing deals. When they’re talking to prospects, they’re sniffing out potential objections and looking to quash them as quickly as possible to lock in the sale. That’s their job.
To you, this prospect is not yet a customer, but you’d certainly be happy for them to come aboard. But not at the expense of disrupting your entire product roadmap. Your job is to look out for the holistic health of the product, achieve strategic goals, and keep customers happy, engaged, and satisfied.
Negotiating with an eager salesperson begins by making them do some of the work. You ask them several specific questions. They likely won’t have all the answers to these in hand, so they’ll need to do some research. That buys you some time, plus it also makes them work for it a bit, so if they follow through, it indicates the opportunity may be a little more legitimate.
Questions to ask
Begin with some pretty standard questions:
- How much is this deal worth?
- When would it close?
- Will they sign an agreement that has some teeth to it before we do the work?
- Will the customer help fund this development?
Beyond those, probe a little deeper:
- What specific pain point are they trying to solve with this request?
- What solution are they using now to mitigate or deal with this pain point?
These types of questions may unearth the true nature of the request and reveal possible workarounds within the existing product. Finally, you can ask them to quantify the opportunity:
- How many would other potential customers benefit from this functionality or change?
- If they don’t buy the product as is, what are they going to do?
These final questions give you additional context about whether this is truly a one-off custom request or a new direction for the product that could open up multiple new opportunities. Only after pursuing this line of inquiry will you have enough information to assess the opportunity.
Timing and trade-offs may become an issue, and your negotiations may no longer be with the salesperson. But if they failed to convince you with hard evidence and the prospect’s commitment, your negotiation is pretty straightforward.
If the prospect doesn’t commit, won’t pay for the work, and doesn’t improve the value proposition for additional users, then it’s not worth diverting resources at this time. Now it’s on the salesperson to build a stronger case by securing funding or other customers clamoring for the same thing.
The pessimistic developer
You’ve done your customer research and have reams of qualitative and quantitative data supporting your case. The project you’re pushing for will supercharge growth, boost revenue, cut churn, or achieve whatever other executive-approved objective is in your crosshairs. You know this is the right thing to do for the product.
But the team you need to build it isn’t so sure. The product planning process may seem like a lot of work. The product requires rewriting some old code used in multiple parts of the product. Testing will be a bear. There’s all that technical debt we should be tackling instead. And they’re not sure why this is all that important.
You can’t force the developers to do what you want as a product manager since they don’t work for you. Even if you slot this project in the roadmap, they have their methods of stalling and sandbagging or even sabotaging things with trumped-up claims about technical ramifications. So you do want them on your side and to at least be neutral on the subject, if not offering their full-throated support.
In this situation, targeting key negotiations is all about education. It’s now on you to provide the technical team with context, evidence, and real-world examples about why this project matters and how it aligns with the product strategy and goals. Usually, that’s enough to get holdouts over the hump.
But you can also engage in a dialog. Ask them what their issues or concerns are, what they think is a higher priority, and if there are underlying technical reasons for their resistance. Sometimes they want to be heard, and occasionally what they have to say might change your mind.
If you’re unable to convince them, look for a compromise thoroughly. Consider breaking the project up into smaller chunks, with experiments and metrics after the initial phases to validate the work had the desired impact on critical metrics. Your plans will remain intact, and now you’ll have an opportunity to generate even more supporting evidence and data from now on.
The impassioned stakeholder
Sometimes it appears out of the blue, while other times, you see it coming like the inevitable arrival of a slow-moving train: the executive with an “amazing” idea.
Maybe they read about it online. Perhaps it came up on the sidelines of their middle schooler’s soccer game while making small talk with another parent. It could be a random comment from a board member, an anecdote from a customer, or something they picked up from a podcast or TED Talk. Regardless of the idea’s provenance, it’s here now, and they’re like a dog with a bone, unwilling to deposit their thoughts into the backlog and move on, fixated on this shiny object.
Negotiating with stakeholders is tricky, particularly when they’re higher up the food chain than you are. But no one gets a free pass to disrupt the roadmap just because they feel like it.
Begin by asking them to quantify the opportunity’s costs and value, even offering to help them in this arena. When you can link the work to the potential increase in usage, revenue, etc., then you can ask more specific questions, such as “is $10,000 more per month in revenue worth delaying Project X by 45 days?”
This tactic disrupts an excellent idea vs. lousy idea dynamic and puts egos on the sidelines, letting your product team keep their eyes on the prize. You can also ask which strategic goal or objective this new request serves, once again looking for specific, measurable improvements to KPIs along with the other work that will be sacrificed or delayed to pursue this new initiative. If the idea isn’t aligned or won’t be a true gamechanger, it’s much easier to convince them to save it for later while you tackle more pressing needs.
The reluctant boss
You’ve paid your dues, hit your targets, received stellar performance reviews, and are relatively well-respected by your coworkers. Months on the job have turned into years, and now you’re ready to step up, get some recognition, increase your responsibilities, and maybe put a little extra coin in the piggy bank.
But your boss doesn’t see it that way. You got hired to do a job, and you’re doing it well, so what’s the problem? Now the impetus lies with you to create the change you want to see, which in this scenario is a promotion.
You could begin by listing your accomplishments, building a case for why you deserve this. That may all be true, but what’s in it for your boss? You’re only talking about how this benefits you, which only tangentially does anything for your superior.
Instead, it would help if you positioned this as an opportunity to benefit them, their team, and the business. Would the additional responsibilities of your elevated status take things off their plate? Would it enable them to grow the overall group further, enhance their empire, or add some new talent with much-needed skills?
And don’t forget about putting some of your skin in the game. What are you willing to risk for this opportunity? How will you make this less disruptive and a net positive for your boss and the business?
For extra credit, you can reverse the roles. What would you do when you’re sitting on the other side of the desk, staring at an ambitious employee looking to advance their career?
Everybody wins, or at least nobody loses in key negotiations
Key negotiations shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, although we all too often fall into that trap. You’re all working in this business to help it succeed, so you should all have the same goals and measures of success.
Negotiating as a product manager begins with listening, asking some questions, and listening some more. Your ability to make the other party explain their stance has multiple benefits.
First, you buy yourself some time. Second, you get more information with every exchange, whether it’s actual data or merely better insight into why specific individuals hold those opinions, to begin with. Plus, you’re showing them respect and earning their trust by hearing what they have to say instead of just shutting things down from the jump.
You can’t and won’t say yes to everything. You’ll probably say no many more times than you say yes. If some version of yes remains a possibility, there’s an opportunity to listen and learn.
There are real, legitimate reasons your colleagues hold these strong opinions and want something different. Understanding their rationale gives you an additional view into their thinking and might change your mind now and then.