“Rajeev, we have been given a mandate by our management. Due to the Covid-19 crisis leading to a steep fall in customer demand, you are expected to reduce the price of your cutting tools by 50%,” said Mr. Padmanabhan, (the purchase manager of Shockproof, a shock absorber manufacturing company from Delhi) adding a veiled threat, “else we have no choice but to switch over to the competition.” Rajeev is a technocrat running ‘Techno Enterprises,’ a MSME manufacturing cutting tools enterprise with a turnover of around Rs. 10 crores. When asked about the customer details, he shared that ‘Shockproof’ is a major supplier of shock absorbers with a turnover of ₹ 1000 crores catering mainly for the two wheeler industry.
One of the questions often asked in our training and consulting assignments is ‘how does one deal with such arm-twisting tactics, especially when the customer is too big compared to the supplier?’
One important concept in Negotiation theory is BATNA, which stands for the Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement, a term coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Program on Negotiation. BATNA is an important tool while preparing for negotiation. Both parties have their BATNA independent of each other. The party having a stronger BATNA has a stronger negotiating leverage. In case the parties are not able to conclude the negotiation, the best option each one has can be called as their BATNA. In the above example, if the negotiations fail, the BATNA for the customer and vendor can be improved as follows:
Customer: Look for other vendors who can give a similar product at the desired price.
Vendor: Develop alternate customers who can provide the requisite amount of volumes at the desired price.
It is not as simple as it looks above. Does the customer have a vendor who can provide deliveries just in time to meet his production targets? Alternatively, does the vendor have alternate customers where his current inventory can be offloaded? Now you will appreciate that BATNA is not only decided by the number of options but also the feasibility and attractiveness of those options.
Whose BATNA is stronger? The conventional answer favours that of the buyer who is much bigger in size. Some points to ponder:
- Identify your BATNA: The tool required for cutting/drilling is made with precision which requires tungsten carbide or diamond as the raw material. It also requires a great deal of R&D to develop a tool for a specific application. The vendor has been supplying the tools for the last 15 years. With considerable technical expertise, the production department found the tool useful. The rejection rate was less than 1% and the cost-per-component was low.
- Identify the weakness in the other party’s BATNA: The seller knows that the buyer has the option of other vendor but also has the critical information that the rejection rate of the competition’s tool is close to 50%. Also, the shop floor people do not appreciate the tools supplied by the competition.
- Spot the customer’s bluff: Even though the Indian two-wheeler volumes fell by 15% in FY 20, the impact on Shockproof was much lesser at around 8.4%. The customer was able to absorb the shock (pun not intended) as it focussed more on improving the content per vehicle. As per a newspaper report, Shockproof had notched up a top-line of ₹ 5000 crores and its EBIDTA rose by 4% to Rs. 800 crores. (Remember the excuse of the Covid -19 crisis the purchase manager articulated earlier?)
- Do Proper Homework: Rajeev shared that the customer’s turnover was ₹ 1000 crores, whereas in reality it was 5 times. This can be perceived two ways: conventionally it may produce a feeling of helplessness. Alternatively the helplessness could be transformed into strength as in the end result of a David vs. Goliath fight. The vendor could feel that a supply of ₹ 1 Crore of material is insignificant from the customer’s perspective and there need not be any need for the customer to be so aggressive in reducing the price. Can David stand his ground?
- Improve your BATNA: Let us take a different example where both the customer and the vendor are equally strong. For its Power PC, Apple had developed its microprocessor in collaboration with Motorola and IBM. In 2005, Steve Jobs took a call to switch over to Intel, which apart from being a market leader in microprocessors was offering a cutting edge technology in computing. Developing microprocessors needs a huge investment and also technical expertise. Intel had both and was the only vendor for such a high-technology product. With a single vendor, the vulnerability was high for Apple.
Three years later, Apple bought over a 150-employee start-up in chip design called PA semi. Most of the team members had worked earlier at Intel, including Johny Srouji who now reports directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook. In 2020 Apple announced that it will use its in-house microprocessors for the new range of Macs.*
- Risk Mitigation: Apple was giving a business worth $3.4 Billion of microprocessors for Macs to Intel every year according to C.J. Muse an Evercore analyst. For Intel it was like losing a major account which was powering around 20 million Macs shipped by Apple annually. The impact of such a Key Account leaving Intel can be minimized when the figure is perceived not in absolute numbers but by the percentile share. Apple was contributing to 5% of Intel’s annual business and the total no of PCs sold annually are 260 million.
While understanding one’s BATNA, apart from the actual value an account produces, the share of the total business also needs to be considered. It is better not to keep too many eggs in too few baskets. An important tool in risk mitigation is the sales funnel which can help in improving your BATNA.
- Guard against Pitfalls while analyzing one’s BATNA: There are two mistakes people make while going in for negotiations. Either they are too optimistic or too pessimistic.
Being too Optimistic: There is a tendency to aggregate all the options and assume it to be The BATNA. Consider for example, Rajesh, an unemployed engineer in Bangalore who has applied for a job in IT and feels that he deserves a salary of Rs. 10 lakhs as he has the following options:
- Has applied for similar jobs in Mumbai and Delhi.
- Has plans of a start-up in 3-D printing.
- Is exploring further studies in the US by answering GRE and TOEFL.
- Is pursuing MBA by giving CAT.
- Joining the family’s 2-decade old fabrication business which is running well.
It is risky to assume the sum total of all these options as the best alternative because at any moment Rajesh can select only the best one. Contrast this with Gautam who already has a job with a ₹8 lakhs CTC. You will appreciate that Gautam has a better BATNA than Rajesh as a bird in hand is worth two in the bush!
Being excessively Pessimistic: The other mistake in negotiation is being too pessimistic when one is too committed to reaching an agreement without any preparation. There is an assumption that agreeing to all of the customers’ demands will make him happy, giving rise to a long-term business and relationship.
In the cutting tool example, the vendor though small in size vis-à-vis the customer, had a better product quality, a low rejection rate, a lower component cost and a shorter delivery period vis-à-vis the competition, which meant him having a better BATNA than the customer. Does it mean that he should rest on his laurels? Competition will be always trying to catch up with him, which necessitates him having to improve his BATNA all the time so as to keep the competition at bay.
Thus, negotiating strength, rather than being decided by the absolute size of a party or the size of the deal (as in Apple vs. Intel) or the number of back-up options, is decided by your BATNA.
Whether you are a buyer or a seller, starting a new venture or looking out for a new job opportunity, please spend time in identifying and developing your BATNA.
Remember, in life, you do not get what you deserve, but what you negotiate and that is decided by your BATNA, the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement!
(* International Herald Tribune, Don Clark and Jack Nicas – After 15 years Apple prepares to break up with Intel DH – June 23, 2020)
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