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Sharpening your negotiation skills

16 June 2023

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Being at the heart of a GP practice requires practice managers to be able to agree deals and handle various staff requests. Former practice business manager Gary Hughes provides advice on how to hone your negotiation skills and take the stress out of the process

Negotiating can’t easily be avoided and the need to negotiate can arise out of the blue, sometimes in emotive situations or with significant outcomes resting on the result.

As a practice manager, you’re likely to find yourself in a variety of situations where good negotiating skills can make a big difference, financial or otherwise. Being able to negotiate confidently and effectively is an essential skill and can have a significant impact on the practice, for example when trying to strike a deal with suppliers.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be something to be fearful of, or a painful experience.

The negotiation process

Whatever you find yourself having to negotiate, your goal should be the same – to find a mutually agreeable solution to a problem or issue. It’s often said that you should aim for a ‘win-win’ result. In other words, the negotiation should recognise the needs and interests of both parties. Like many management tasks by following a simple but effective process, you can reduce the stress involved while improving the results. These are my suggestions:

1.Set your objectives

Start by deciding three possible outcomes. First, what is the ideal objective you want to achieve? As this may not be attainable, also decide on a realistic ‘middle ground’ outcome, and, finally, what your ‘red lines’ are or what would be the minimum deal or compromise you could accept.

2. Make a negotiation plan

Preparation is as important for negotiating as for any other business process. Your plan should include:

  • Who the best person is to lead the negotiation. Is it you? Ideally, you want your side of the negotiation to have greater authority, power and influence than the other side of the table.
  • When the best time is to negotiate. In some situations, you might be able to plan ahead and pick the best week, or day. Other situations can arise quickly and unexpectedly, and may require swift action, in which case the time of day might be more important, but you should always have in mind the needs and interests of all parties.
  • What you would be willing to concede. Remember, in giving something up you should get something back in return. So, what would that be?
  • Where it is best to negotiate. Meeting on home ground, which can mean your office, can add some perceived power, but it might also be intimidating, so neutral ground could be a better option.

3. Try to negotiate in person if possible

If that’s not an option, using Teams or Zoom is the next best  alternative since at least you can see the other person/people. Managing a negotiation this way, rather than by telephone or email, allows you to read body language and can avoid messages being confused.

4. Park your feelings and emotions

To do this it can help to ask yourself, what’s the worst that can happen, how would that feel and what you can do to prevent that happening.

5. Make everything clear

Be clear at the start what you do and don’t like, or can and can’t do. Make sure you take time to listen and when needed summarise to confirm what has been said.

6. Be ready to walk away

Sometimes, negotiations don’t work out, and it’s important to be willing to walk away if you can’t find a position both sides are happy with, but only after you have explored all the options.

7. Confirm, follow up and deliver

At this point hopefully you can smile, shake hands and relax. Make sure whatever has been agreed is confirmed in writing, and then it’s up to you to deliver your side of the bargain while making sure the other side does the same.

Some common scenarios for negotiation

Negotiating will often involve suppliers and haggling for a price. But it’s certainly not always about that. You might have to negotiate with a member of staff or your employer, and rather than cost, quantity or delivery, the important factors might be pay, hours or support. Let’s look at some of the situations where good negotiation skills are important.

1.Negotiating with an employee

A valued receptionist says she can’t cope and will leave if she doesn’t get a pay rise.

Negotiating requests from staff members can be challenging, and emotions are more likely to come into play, but it’s important to listen to their needs and interests to find a solution that works for everyone. The example above, is one that most practice managers have had to deal with, and best advice would be to:

  • Do your research. Research the market rate for the role they’re doing, so you have a benchmark and can be sure that you’re offering a fair salary. Make sure you are familiar with your own pay bands too.
  • Explore the reasons. Is it all about pay, or is there another reason they can’t cope? Is training or some other form of support a possible solution? 
  • Listen to your employee. What are their needs, and what are they looking for in terms of salary and/or other benefits
  • Take a flexible approach. Negotiating pay is about finding a compromise that satisfies both parties. Consider what flexibility you have and any alternative solutions, for example changing hours, additional benefits or training opportunities.
  • Don’t over promise. Be clear and transparent about your budget, and the limitations you’re working within. Try to get them to understand your position and make sure you don’t give any false hope that you can’t deliver on.   

2.Negotiating with suppliers

Our cleaning contractors have just informed us they will be increasing the price by 10%, but we aren’t happy with the existing service.

Contracts should always be something for which you get more than one quote. Without that how do you know you’re not paying too much? Equally it might be easy to stay with someone you know, but continued loyalty from your side will often only equate to high prices as your business becomes expected. In the example above, a good approach would be to:

  • Research the market. Ask around and find out what other suppliers are offering, and what other practices are paying. This will help you negotiate from a position of knowledge.
  • Identify your objectives. What is your ideal outcome, an improvement in quality or a lower increase? Decide which is the most important and your fall-back positions.
  • Be clear about your needs. Inform the cleaning company that while you need to discuss the cost you also need to talk about the quality of service. Be clear that you need to see an immediate improvement and set out your expectations. If the supplier insists on a cost increase, ask it to be deferred until the service has improved. It would also be advisable to agree how the improvement will be delivered and monitored, and what the next steps are if improvements aren’t made.

    3.Negotiating your own pay increase

    My pay has only gone up 2% in the last 6 years, yet my responsibilities have increased considerably, and I am regularly working in excess of my contracted hours.

    If you find yourself in the unfortunate position that you’re negotiating for your own benefits, follow a similar process to that outlined above to have the best chance of the outcome you’re looking for. So:

    • Choose the right time, place and person to negotiate with. The best time is just before pay reviews are conducted, but if that’s not possible then consider when, where and with who to have a carefully planned one-to-one meeting.
    • Know your value. Find out what other practice managers are being paid, and what the average regional rate is at a comparable practice.
    • Build a strong case. Set out, ideally in writing, the reasons why you deserve a pay rise with the supporting evidence. Make very clear the value you bring to the practice, and how important your skills are. Demonstrate, with evidence, where you have made significant contributions, for example additional income generated, money saved, improvements achieved, and/or additional responsibilities you have taken on.
    • Don’t only negotiate on money. When you’re deciding your ideal outcome and fullback positions, don’t forget it doesn’t have to be confined to pay. Sometimes other benefits can be easier to gain so also consider other areas such as reduced or flexible hours, additional leave, or personal development support.


    Negotiating isn’t always easy but stick with some basic rules and you can avoid the stress and a bad deal.

    Gary Hughes is the founder / director of Leadership in Practice providing leadership and management development to primary care. He has been a Practice Business Manager and Federation Director and has an MBA and a Post Graduate Certificate in Medical Education.