Negotiating The Right Way: Chris Voss' Never Split The Difference

Sales is all about empathy. People tend to forget that. 

Too often, we associate sales with the greasy guy in a bad suit turning back the mileage meter on a car in order to make a few extra bucks off of some unsuspecting customer. I used to think of it that way, for sure. When I left my former career as a middle-school teacher and got a job fundraising for non-profits, my friends tried to tell me that I “worked in sales” now. 

Me? Working in sales? No way! What I was doing was helping people. Salesmen don’t help people. They rip people off. Plus, I like to think I have pretty decent taste when it comes to suits.

What I wound up learning during my time as a fundraiser was that my friends were right. I was doing sales. I was negotiating with people, trying to get money out of them. But, I was helping people, too, and those things aren’t mutually exclusive. 

When it’s done right, sales is entirely about adding value to someone’s life. If you have a good product and you get it in the hands of the right person, you can make their day a whole lot easier. In order to do so, you need to understand where they’re coming from, what their job is like and what their goals are. You need to understand what someone wants and why that want it so that you can make sure you give it to them. The best salespeople I know are the ones who can put themselves in the shoes of their potential customer by deeply examining what’s important to that person and working from there.

Never Split the Difference

There’s a great book by Chris Voss called Never Split the Difference.  It’s particularly helpful for those startup founders who are skeptical of doing their own sales as well as those who are working on an enterprise sales process. 

In the book, Voss discusses his experience working on the FBI’s hostage negotiation team. As you can imagine, his job there revolved around empathy. A successful hostage negotiation, after all, requires the FBI to get through to the hostage taker. They’re constantly trying to figure out what the taker wants, why they want it and how they can get the hostage back without anyone being harmed.



Voss tells the story of one hostage taker who really valued what his mother thought about him. He didn’t want her to see him on the news and to think of him as a violent person. Throughout the negotiation process, Voss was able to leverage that information in his interactions, reminding the captor, “Hey, don’t do anything that’s going to result in your mom seeing you this way”.

While most sales negotiations aren’t life or death situations, there’s a lot that founders and salespeople can learn from this Voss’ book. The story about the hostage taker who didn’t want to let his mother down, for example, is relevant to sales in the sense that our customers also have people that they want to impress. If you’re selling software to a Director of Marketing, you can remind them that their team wants to be using game-changing technology. When your software has the potential to change the way a company thinks about attribution (and any other xy or z factor), you can use that as a leverage-point from the beginning of the conversation. Not only will this make it easier to solidify the deal, but it can also be a tool to help you secure longer enterprise contracts.

Asking Better Questions

You can’t empathize with your customer if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. To identify what their goals are and what they’re hoping to get out of the investment, you’ll need to ask the right questions. You should start asking questions and trying to get information out of them as soon as you hop on that first discovery call.

The questions you ask will depend on the industry you work in. No matter which industry that is, though, all of the best questions are the ones that come from your heart. Start by inquiring about the things you truly want to know. For example, what prompted them to even get on the phone with you? What problems are they having and what are they hoping to get out of the call?

In his book, Voss stresses the importance of asking “what?” instead of “why?”. When you ask someone why they’re thinking about buying someone else’s product over yours, they might get defensive. That question can put them in the position of having to justify their decision, instantly turning you into someone they’re in conflict with. If you rephrase the question as, “What are you hoping to get out of your attribution software?”, they’re more likely to be open to working with you.

Once you figure out the best questions to ask, the ones that really lead to getting the information you need, you’ll find that they work well with most of your customers. You can start to develop a list of “pocket questions”, the ones you pull out whenever you’re on a discovery call. Although every customer is different and will teach you something new about the people in your industry, a good list of questions will help you lay the groundwork for a sustainable sales process. 

No Such Thing as Too Much Prep

I was lucky enough to see Voss speak at the Unleash conference last year. One of the things he emphasized in his amazing talk was the importance of showing your customers that you understand them. He spent most of his talk discussing the difference between getting someone to say, “Yes” and getting them to say, “That’s right”. 

The difference lies in the fact that you can get anyone to say, “Yes” simply by asking them a question you know they agree with. You can ask, “Are you looking to increase productivity?” and the answer is obvious. If you can ask a question that addresses their specific needs and shows that you’ve spent time thinking about their specific situation, you’re going to have an easier time selling to them. When you come to them and say, “Look, I know this is your problem,” they’re not only going to agree with you but will see you as an expert who is capable of actually helping them. 

In order to get to that point, you need to spend time thinking about each specific customer before you find yourself on the phone with them. Before you sit down to make a call, take a half-hour to think about where that person’s mind it. Ask yourself what is driving your customer. Try to figure out why they are taking time out of their day to talk with you. 

Your prep time should be at least as long as the call itself. The more important the call, the more time you should spend prepping. Taking the time to think about the sale from your buyer’s perspective is going to put you in a much better position to negotiate. 

A Foundation in Negotiation

Never Split the Difference, and Voss’ work in general, is something that all founders should familiarize themselves with. He’s an especially good resource for anyone seeking VC money or seed-funds and those looking to sell at the enterprise level. From the point that you make your introduction through your time you spend navigating your customer’s company, strong negotiation skills are going to be vital. If you want to get good at negotiating, you need to learn to have empathy for your customer. Once you can think about the deal from the customer’s point of view, you’ll find that every connection and interaction leads to maximized opportunities for your company. 


For more negotiation tips from Voss and his team, check out their blog on the Black Swan Group website

Ryan Williams