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Business negotiation in 2021: the rise of Zoom

Before 2020, business negotiation was typically a face-to-face affair – something that took place in a meeting room, with those involved interacting through conversation and physically, with gestures and body language.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered almost all aspects of life as we knew it – with one of the biggest changes being an almost wholesale shift from the physical to the virtual. And so, the art of business negotiation has too had to change.

Pre-pandemic, negotiating via video conference applications such as Zoom was rare. Indeed, when I spoke to Chicago Booth alumni, it was clear almost no one carried out business negotiations online prior to COVID-19 (although some negotiated via phone). But with many aspects of doing business set to remain virtual for the foreseeable future, the ability to successfully negotiate online will be key.

Quantifying negotiating on Zoom

To better understand the pros and cons of different negotiation settings, I identified 25 key areas of business negotiation – from sticking to your strategy, to playing hardball, to maintaining composure – and asked my students to rate each of these areas for ease on Zoom and face-to-face. Unsurprisingly, most areas were rated as easier to accomplish face-to-face, with the ability to build up trust and understand emotions two of the top areas selected.

However, nine of the 25 areas were actually reported as being easier to achieve via Zoom – including controlling your emotions, remaining rational, and sticking with the original business plan.

So, in order to successfully negotiate over Zoom, it is important to be able to leverage the benefits this channel offers, as well as understanding its potential pitfalls.
So, what are some of the ways to ensure your Zoom negotiations are effective, maybe even more effective than face-to-face?

Presentation is key

The first tip is simple, but arguably the most important: get the technical aspects right. A line from one of my student’s final essays this year has stuck with me: ‘remember that your webcam is your business attire’.

How you present yourself on Zoom – everything from the lighting, angle and your background – contribute to your overall image. Simply turning on the webcam in your living room and hoping for the best isn’t going to cut it. One of the most important things to do is to check that your camera is positioned so that you are level with the other participants on the call, and able to make direct eye contact.

A key advantage that Zoom offers is the ability to record meetings (with permission of all participants) and watch yourself back. These recordings can provide invaluable feedback for ensuring that you are presenting yourself in the best possible way.

Get your desktop in order

Negotiating online provides the advantage of being able to have prompts on your screen, something you aren’t typically afforded in face-to-face settings, so it pays to make sure your desktop is in order.

Have supporting documents – such as spreadsheets or statistics – up and ready on your screen, so you can seamlessly refer to them during the meeting.

It also is worth scripting language for parts of the negotiation you know will be difficult, using your desktop as a sort of negotiation ‘crutch’. Having what you intend to say written out on your screen can be an effective way to ensure that you don’t falter or lose track during these tense moments – something that regularly occurs in face-to-face negotiation settings. But it’s worth taking the time to practice, so that it’s not obvious that you are reading from the screen.

Work doubly hard on building rapport

As identified by my students, one area of business negotiation that is undeniably harder online is building trust between yourself and the person, or team, you are negotiating with. So, it’s important to counteract this in an online setting by working extra hard on building rapport.

This can be achieved in a number of ways. Firstly, don’t economise on small talk at the start of the meeting, and don’t rush off at the end – informal dialogue at the end of a meeting is a great way of connecting when everyone is relaxed.

Additionally, remember that all physical markers online are softened, so you may need to compensate by exaggerating. Ensure that your gestures are visible and make clear that you are actively listening when your counterpart is speaking – for example, by directly looking at them. Equally, check that your facial expression, posture, and physical actions all make clear that you are engaged and absorbing what the other person is saying.

And, good active listening calls for paraphrasing what your counterpart has just said. This is a best practice for all negotiation, but especially important for online negotiations in which it is more difficult to connect with another.

The new way of negotiating

Despite the positive news of the COVID-19 vaccine, negotiating via video applications such as Zoom looks set to stay, as businesses and individuals alike appreciate the time and money saved by such technologies. So, it’s important to master this mode, and leverage the advantages and technological differences that this medium provides.

By thinking of it not as an inherently negative situation, but simply a different one, negotiations online may become as successful – if not more – than those taking place face-to-face.


George Wu, Professor of Behavioural Science at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business

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