Adding a sense of urgency to negotiations

Negotiations are ubiquitous when building new things. This is unfortunate for me: I loathe negotiations.

This ubiquity exists almost regardless of the context in which you’re building:

  • New companies have to convince external customers they’re worth talking to, close the sale, hire new employees, and raise funds from investors
  • A new internal team has to find new internal clients for their product, justify capital investment from executives, and request resources from other teams
  • Builders looking for a new role have to move interviews along at a reasonable pace and negotiate their compensation

What I’ve learned the hard way is that the default speed of most negotiations is somewhere between “glacier” and “tectonic plate”. If you’re trying to get things done, this is a problem. The situation is also jarring in contrast with the years of education in which most professionals are trained, where natural deadlines are built into everything by way of semesters, exams, projects, and quizzes.

A turtle in the DMV saying “Things sure do move slowly around here”

To prevent negotiations from yawning into infinity, you have to find real ways to introduce some urgency into the equation.

One technique that I’ve used to great effect in the past is something I like to call “FRESH urgency”. FRESH stands for Firm, Reasonable, External, Specific, and Hopeful.

Take the following email as an example:

Hi Joe,

Just wanted to follow up: I’m nearing the end of a few different interview slates and I’d hate to miss out on what might be a mutually great fit just because the timelines don’t work out.

Do you have any time tomorrow to talk about next steps?


I’d like to highlight a few things about this email:

  • It’s firm. It’s not overly apologetic: it’s just transparent and communicative.
  • It’s reasonable. The suggested timeline is reasonable given the lightweight request. The heavier the request, the more notice is required.
  • It cites an external factor as the reason for the urgency. By shifting responsibility to a pesky external factor as the reason for the urgency, it casts the sender in a much better light.
  • It’s specific. The other party knows exactly what the sender is requesting.
  • It’s hopeful and it focuses on the benefit to the other person. The message makes it clear that the sender is just trying to reach a mutually beneficial conclusion: they’re not just sending the email for themself.

There’s a very real question of “does the external factor have to be true?”. I try to stay mostly on the side of “yes”, but fully admit that the line is blurry.

There’s an adjacent question of “can the external factor exist for the sole reason of creating urgency”?” and here I say absolutely “yes”. Go ahead: schedule a caterer just to tell a customer that you need their response on attending by a specific date. Make up a business trip just so that you can say “I actually happen to be in San Francisco next week - want to meet up then?”. (Okay, that one’s a little bit of a white lie, but it passes muster for me.)

I had a conversation with a startup CTO this week who told me a (potentially apocryphal) story of the startup Zenefits. Supposedly when they were onboarding their first customers, they added an onboarding fee for their service for the express purpose of telling customers that they had an onboarding opening next week and could waive the fee if the sales lead was willing to take over that onboarding slot.

Often the person on the other end of the negotiation needs to be able to justify to others why your thing takes priority. By giving a reason to point at, you’re helping both sides get the deal over the finish line.

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