How to Negotiate When the Decision Maker Isn't Present


Everyone wants to get to the decision maker (the DM). They’re the person we need to persuade to get what we want, after all.

But the decision maker isn’t always at the table when we are. Here are three tips that will make you much more effective when you find yourself in that scenario.

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1. Leave a Trail of ‘Friends’ Starting with the Blocker

One of the key principles of the The Black Swan Method™ is this: Never be mean to someone who could hurt you by doing nothing. Which, when you think about it, is pretty much everyone you talk to. 

If that’s true—and it is—then everyone you talk to could help you if they felt like it—probably even in ways you don’t know.

So, you need to do everything you can to make them feel like helping!

Most people view the “blocker”—the person who stands between you and the DM, like the gatekeeper, the assistant, or the secretary—as an obstruction. In reality, that person knows a heck of a lot about what’s going on inside their organization. 

How many different ways can they help you if they just feel like it? At one end of the spectrum, they can write down your request and put it at the bottom of the stack. At the other, they could carry it down the hall for you and hand-deliver it to the decision maker, bypassing the stack entirely.

To increase the chances that you get the preferred treatment, make a couple of cold read observations of their tone of voice. And throw in at least one point from our boilerplate Accusation Audit™, which follows below. 

It sounds pretty hectic over there. You have to be the least appreciated person in your organization—and the most over-assigned. Talking to me is probably the last thing you want to do.

Boilerplate Opening Accusation Audit™

  • You’re probably wondering why you agreed to take this call/meeting in the first place.
  • You may be incredibly busy right now.
  • This is the last thing you want to do.
  • You might think this is a complete waste of your time.
  • This may even seem unfair.

(Take a breath that is long enough for them to answer ... )

© 2020 The Black Swan Group

Many people spend time dehumanizing the blocker and consequently making them an impediment or even an enemy. 

It doesn’t have to be that way. With the right approach, they can become your scout and set up your future success.

Stop making compromises.  Download our guide to negotiating contracts and learn  how to never settle »

2. There Is Always a Team on the Other Side: The Deal Killer

One of The Black Swan Group’s Laws of Negotiation Gravity™ is this: There is always a team on the other side.  

Among that team is someone as important as the DM: the deal killer. Why?

For example: Several years ago, The Black Swan Group came across some information indicating that fully 50 percent of a major telecommunications carrier’s signed deals were never implemented. Fifty percent!

If you’re comfortable extrapolating from that stat (and we are), it follows that the deal killer is in the same realm of importance as the decision maker.

When you encounter the deal killer, you’ll confront one of these two types. 

Type 1: The sidelined negotiator  

This is someone who feels they should have been handling the negotiations in the first place. In many instances, internal counsel (i.e., lawyers) already on their payroll fit this description. That is often why the terms and conditions phase can be so prolonged and difficult to get through—and such a great destroyer of profitability.  

Type 2: The users and implementers 

These are the people who will either be using the services and products secured by the negotiation or will be responsible for implementing the deal.  

If either of these types aren’t at least brought into consideration during the negotiating phase, they will either kill the deal entirely or make the implementation so difficult that it will never be repeated.

What to do here? Use Calibrated Questions™—questions that start with what and how—that are focused on implementation: 

  • How do the people who are going to be implementing this feel about it?
  • What kinds of problems have you run into in the past?
  • How has this failed in the past?
  • How will this be implemented?
  • What other people are going to be affected by this deal?

Ask these questions multiple times. Be polite. The real issue here isn’t the answers you get. It’s the subsequent thinking you stimulate. 

By asking these questions (politely) multiple times, you plant the seed with your counterpart to inquire with these stakeholders (i.e., the deal killers) and loop them in to minimize or even eliminate the derailment of your efforts.

Does this seem like too much to do to ensure the success of your negotiations? 

If so, well: How does it seem compared to spinning your wheels and then coming up dry?

3. Think Implementation and Sweep the DM Up in the Momentum

This is really There is always a team on the other side Part Two.  

Your decision maker is likely putting out many fires and has much to deal with. Even if you can get to them, they’ll have to engage their team anyway to get it done.

Focus on their team—and implementation—from the beginning. By doing so, you will create a momentum that will sustain itself and carry your negotiation through trouble spots with the best chance of success.

Here are some Calibrated Questions as food for thought to help you with this:

  • What are the next steps?
  • What are our timeline expectations?
  • What’s the best way to get on track and stay on track?
  • How will we know if we’re on track?
  • What are the hidden timelines?
  • How will we get back to each other to deal with being off track?
  • How can we preempt getting off track?

Make it easy for the DM to sign off by anticipating their team’s needs and you will do just fine—or even better than that!

Make it rain!


Chris Voss

About The Author

Christopher Voss is the CEO of The Black Swan Group, a firm that solves business negotiation problems with hostage negotiation strategies. Chris founded the Black Swan Group, in 2008 upon his retirement from the FBI where he was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator. Chris is also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business and Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business where he teaches business negotiation in both M.B.A. programs.