Transferable negotiation skills that give you a sporting chance

Written by David Freedman

Amid the biannual festival of panic, brinkmanship and sucker purchases in the football transfer window, what are the off-field skills required to make a good deal?

The current transfer window is really a very odd way of going about business. Even for those schooled in masterclass-level negotiation skills, it presents a bizarre and perhaps unique spectacle. Indeed, so uniquely weird is it that we’re not the only negotiation experts to have focused on this area recently…..see BBC Sport.

For a start, business negotiations are best carried on away from the public gaze. Ideally, you would be in a position to shield from the other party many salient facts about the real strengths and weaknesses of your negotiating position. But in football you have had a whole summer of fans’ expectations that next season everything will be new, and fresh and exciting. Then, at the first game of the season, 40,000 of your own supporters are screaming from the terraces: “Spend some xxxxxxx money!!” or wondering why on earth you bought that Slovenian midfielder with two left feet. Millions of people around the world know which positions are potentially weak, which players are unsettled, whose contracts have nearly expired, and which owners have deep pockets. And Facebook, Twitter (sorry ‘X’) and Insta have made everyone an opinion-former.

Then consider this. In any normal commercial negotiation, the product or service you are buying or selling isn’t a party to that negotiation. The IT system rarely asks you for a house in Alderley Edge before it agrees to being installed, or for the option to disconnect itself and go and crunch data for a rival company if yours doesn’t win a National Business Award. In football, the subjects of the deal are themselves (occasionally rather egocentric) parties to the deal, with wage demands and exit clauses to heap on top of the two clubs’ discussions of transfer fees.

In a major corporate deal, you can usually carry out due diligence as part of a long buy/sell process. Not in football. Yes, scouts can watch players play and you can watch hours of video online, but clubs can’t (officially) approach them or their agents to find out anything more about them until the deal is within days of completion. Are they drinkers and gamblers, or will they be model professionals? Do they have an undetected weakness in the knee ligaments? When players are recruited from remoter parts of the world, this has led to some comical tales of clubs actually buying the intended player’s namesake, and only discovering when they turned up to the first training session that they couldn’t hit the proverbial barn door.

And of course, the transfer window is the ultimate burning platform, where a buyer’s or seller’s desperation really is impossible to disguise, because everyone knows that the deadline is not – as it so often is in business – an illusory one.

There are, admittedly, some extreme business scenarios where negotiators face similar challenges.

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Buying an e-commerce platform that you simply must have now in order to sustain a retail site that has very publicly gone offline because of a catastrophic system failure, while your customers defect in droves to your competitor. Trying to close a sale at the asking price on 31st March when all the Wall Street analysts are circling to issue “sell” notices, and the journalists are blogging that your company is in trouble if you have a third successive quarter of revenue decline. But these are exceptional in most people’s business lives, not an August and January ritual, inked into the calendar.

So, what can the football club negotiator do in the abnormally trying circumstances they face? Is there cross-over with more everyday negotiation methodology?

Consider the balance of power in a wider context, by trying to clear the head and ignore the maelstrom: is there in fact an alternative to a negotiated agreement in this instance? Can we see how things go with the players we have, or with other offered players, and reconsider in the next window when we see where we are in the league? That might not be what we actually do in the end, but knowing that these options exist can re-balance the perception of power in the negotiation.

At Huthwaite, we train negotiators to think of metaphorically trying to bake a bigger cake, rather than cut it into ever smaller pieces. For the other club, or the player themselves, the key to opening an apparently dead-locked door might not be money or contract duration. It might be other, lesser players as makeweights; or guarantees about loan-backs or playing in a preferred position; or not taking the field against the former club. A little imaginative thinking can go a long way, but the burning platform is not conducive to it, unless you have prepared well and planned meticulously what will have value for the other party, before the flames are warming your ankles.

Seek information, don’t give it. Nearly everything might be in the fan-sites on the forums, but not absolutely everything. Finding out if the other club actually has other potential sources of income from, say, a planned sponsorship deal that is not public yet might make all the difference to the eventual price. Knowing that a star overseas striker is homesick and might not go the whole distance in a the coming season alters the power balance.

If you’ve played fantasy football, you’ll have imagined yourself in the role of manager many times. I’d be interested to know (@david_huthwaite on Twitter or on LinkedIn) how you and your fantasy club board would cope with these negotiation challenges. And then, think: if I’d use this skill around my football club, how might that apply to my real-life professional negotiations?

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