Negotiation expert, Fotini Iconomopoulos, uncovers what negotiation really is and provides best practices to get the outcome you want

We sit down with negotiation trainer & advisor, Professor, and keynote speaker, Fotini Iconomopoulos, where she provides insight on what negotiation really is. Also included are best practices for communicating with different types of negotiators and how to optimize your strategy to get the outcome you want.

Introduction of our guest, Fotini Iconomopoulos.

Stefan: Welcome to the Great Sales Leaders Know podcast. Our guest today is Fotini Iconomopoulos. She is an MBA Sessional Instructor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, and founder of Forward Focusing, a negotiation, communication, and leadership consulting firm. Nicknamed “The Negotiator” as a child, she has always channeled her energy into a passion for the power of forward thinking. After a decade of owning and managing small businesses in the retail sector, she refined her negotiation skills in the CPG industry before becoming a management consultant. She also led a successful negotiation advisory practice for another global firm before branching off on her own. Over the last 10 years, she has helped clients all over the globe focus their energy on moving their commercial objectives forward. Fotini, how are you doing today?

Fotini: I am great, thanks. I’m very pleased to be chatting with you.

Stefan: I have to ask you right away. Where did the nickname “The Negotiator” come from as a child?

Fotini: My dad. I had to negotiate my way for everything in a big fat Greek family. He would often say something, and I would be put forward because I was the youngest, they’d say, “You ask. You’re the cute one. You ask for something.” 

Stefan: Sales Talent Agency is the largest sales recruitment firm in North America. With that, it would only make sense that we talk a bit about how you got introduced into sales. How did you get to where you are now?

Fotini: It was pretty natural. I grew up in – if you’ve ever seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding – that was my upbringing. I grew up in the back room of a restaurant and that restaurant became a doughnut shop, and then it was a fish and chips shop. I worked for the family business in the summer and then I wanted to start making money in the winter as well. So, I got a part time job at Danier which was a leather store here in Canada. I was working almost full time hours because I just enjoyed it so much. I loved being on the sales floor, and the techniques to keep asking for something until you get a no, really resonated with me. Then one day my dad said to me, “You need to quit your job.” I said, “How come?” He said, “Well, we’re opening up our own leather and fur boutique.” I said, “What do you know about leather and fur?” He said, “Nothing. I know I have a smart kid though, so we’ll figure it out.” So, we went into the leather business and then it was sink or swim. You had to be successful otherwise the family mortgage was on the line.

Stefan: Tell us about your sales career with L’Oreal.

Fotini: After I finished my MBA program, I was recruited by L’Oreal. Instead of working in a marketing role, I ended up in their sales stream. Although it was a hard decision initially, it seemed like a natural fit. It happened to be in Toronto instead of Montreal. So, I decided that seemed like a good idea. From there, I started working with Walmart, and it snowballed. So, I became the Walmart expert, and I got coached by another company and then that company had hired a consulting firm to train us to be better negotiators. Now, I work with sales teams on a regular basis, helping them improve their sales and negotiation skills.

Stefan: There’s an element of negotiation in any form of sales but I’m always interested to hear how the different industries operate. What were you negotiating when you were with L’Oreal?

Fotini: When I was working in the consumer goods industry, it wasn’t like you had to cold call Walmart and beg them to take your products. They were already selling products, but how do I get them to expand my line, buy more of my products and give me more promotional support? Or when I was with Smuckers, it was my jams instead of kraft peanut butter, for example. Then, working to leverage some of those relationships to maximize every opportunity that’s in front of me. Sales could be cold calling for some people. For me, it was business development. It was developing the business to a much bigger place.

Stefan: It sounds like you’re fighting for shelf space, right? I mean I’ve worked in the CPG industry as well, so I know how that story goes. A lot of people don’t realize how valuable it is.

Fotini: Yes. It’s only gotten worse since I was in the industry.

Stefan: Talk to me about what your perception of negotiation really is and why it is so important in the psychology of business.

Fotini: Most people assume the definition of negotiation is two people beating each other up. I don’t think it has to be combative. In fact, I know it doesn’t have to be combative. When you look at the dictionary definition of negotiation, it’s two people having a discussion until they reach an agreement. If you can think about it that way, it’s a joint problem solving opportunity, it’s an opportunity for debate, it’s an opportunity to conference and to discover more about the other person and have them discover something about you. Those are all things that get us to a much more amicable place. Even if I’m buying elephant pants on a beach in Thailand, I’m discovering what this person’s maximum or minimum is to let them go for a certain price. If I’m negotiating with Walmart on buying more of my product, I’m discovering what is holding them back, or how I can maximize opportunities and create some new complex and creative ideas to do that. 

Stefan: Is it important to understand what negotiation really is? Do you teach that to your clients before actual strategies?

Fotini: Absolutely. We start with mind set. If you show up and think, “Okay, I need to brace myself for war,” it might start to feel that way at some point. What you need is to start in the place where you think, “how can I be curious about this person? What do I know about this person? How can I gain more knowledge about this person?” It’s that mindset that we start with. In part of that knowledge and discovery is, “You know what? This person likes to fight.” Then I can build a strategy around that. It’s really being able to be curious first, and going in with the idea that you are going to start a discussion, not a fight. So, mindset and curiosity are really important things. Being able to think about the other party is also critical to success, because negotiation’s not about you. You have an objective you want to accomplish, but it’s really about what’s going on inside their head. How do I leverage that to get what I want, to achieve the objective?

Stefan: I’ve heard you refer to these four core words. “If you, then I.” Why is this so powerful during the negotiation process? What is it accomplishing?

Fotini: Negotiation is a trade, right? It’s a give and take. Sometimes, there’s going to be a lot more to take than there is to give. Sometimes the balance might be out of whack. But, even if it’s all take, those words work. So, whether I’m buying something that’s a one-off deal or if I’m on a beach buying a souvenir, “If you drop your price to $20, then I’ll buy this from you today.” Now all of a sudden, it seems like a gift, right? The “if” is what I’m going to get out of it. So, if you do the thing for me that serves my objective, then I’ll do this thing for you that serves your objective. It makes it seem a lot more balanced. It also allows us the opportunity to then get rid of some of the other words that come up into play. So I don’t want to be using soft language like “I think”, it’s about being really firm and being really concise without sounding like a jerk. So, if you do this thing that I want, then I can do this thing that you want. Reverse the order and all of a sudden it sounds like a punishment. Yes, I’ll do that thing that you want, but only if you do this thing for me; it sounds quite menacing. So, you can frame your negotiation as a true gift to somebody instead as making it feel as overly demanding as perhaps it would have been perceived.

Stefan: You’ve worked with some large clients that may or may not have previous negotiation training. What are some common mistakes made by inexperienced salespeople in a negotiation?

Fotini: The number one thing that I see that happens, not just from new people with no experience but it also happens from the most experienced ones and that is, a lot of salespeople don’t shut up. You can go through your sales pitch and talk until you’re blue in the face, but have you stopped to consider what they want? Have you stopped to think about things from their perspective? The only way to do that is to allow them to do some talking. In order for them to talk, you have to shut up. I like to frame it with my own question so I can steer their talk in the discussion that I wanted to go by asking a really clever question first.

I mean it comes back to the Simon Sinek Ted Talk, they start with why. You want to start with, why should they listen to you? What is in this for them? Too often people will even start down that path and they’ll keep talking and lose sight of what that person wants. That’s when that person disengages and loses interest. I have seen really experienced and clever salespeople roll over their counterparts. Had they just taken a pause to breathe a little bit, to ask a question, to allow that person to give some feedback or insight or even just digest it, they’re so much more credible and you’re so much more collaborative when you do that.

Stefan: Let’s talk about playbooks and how you should frame your playbook based on the person that you’re speaking with.

Stefan: Do you find that having one consistent playbook is the way to go or should you be tailoring, or mirroring that based on the type of person you’re speaking with? 

Fotini: I think mirroring is an interesting word. I prefer complimenting. By complimenting I don’t mean, kissing their butt. When I hear about someone who is a bull, if I were to mirror and also become bullish, it could actually end make us go into war with each other. It might not serve us very well. If I look at that person and see that they’re a bull, I think of how I can best compliment that behaviour to get what I want. Me being warm and fuzzy and kumbaya, may not be the best solution either because they might sense that it’s weakness and decide to walk all over me. But, I might be a little bit more reserved. I might be a little bit more poignant, or punchy in my questions. But, I can’t necessarily do the same things that they’re doing. So, there’s a bit of a misnomer with mirroring. Mirroring is really about reacting appropriately to the people in front of you. So, in some cases it could be body language. If they lean forward, you lean forward. It shows that you’re both interested and so on. If they’re really warm, you’re really warm.

It’s a bit of a danger to think that if they’re going to be cold, you are going to be cold. If I see them as cold, I’m going to now prompt that to think, “Okay. Who’s my audience now? Do I need to do something that could warm them up? Are they even capable of warming up? How do I best handle somebody who’s going to be in that cold space?” Because I know from gender norms, and from research around gender, that what works for you, may not work for me. So, I have to be very careful about mirroring because it’s not always received the same way. But I would say if I’m complimenting, it’s a word that resonates a little bit more with me, with all of my audiences as opposed to just my male audiences.

Stefan: When listening to you on Speaker’s Spotlight, you said that the playbook that works for most people, isn’t going to work for you. Tell us how you got to that idea and what you needed to do to change your own playbook in order to be heard.

Fotini: It’s an interesting one because I talk about it as if it’s the equivalent of taking the stairs and taking the on-ramp. When it comes to the stairs, the majority of the population can use the stairs. But, there’s going to be some people who are disadvantaged, who are not going to be able to do that. But, the on-ramp will serve them and it will serve everybody else who can take the stairs as well. Everybody can use the on-ramp, the majority can use the stairs. When it comes to negotiation principles, the majority of those principles did work for me, but I started to see these issues coming up. Because I was the only female in this consulting firm that I worked in, I was the only one doing that job, that wasn’t over 6 feet tall and with male genitalia. We were taught to use the same script and the same playbook if you will. When I used that script, I saw men responding to me differently than they did my male peers. Here I was shadowing all these really accomplished great guys who were doing the same work that I was supposed to be doing and yet, their script wasn’t working the same way for me. They never were told, I don’t want to do that. They never got the push back that I got. I thought that was really weird and wanted to figure out why this is happening. 

I started to dig in a little bit deeper about gender in negotiation and women in business. What I realized was, if we’re both walking on a balance beam, your balance beam is about a meter wide, and mine is about half a foot wide. So I just have to be really mindful and really careful about the words that I choose, and the language that I use, and the way I carry myself, because the words coming out of my mouth aren’t going to be received exactly the same way. The same way that if I go to a different culture, and somebody local said something, and I say the same thing, they’re going to go, “Who are you?” To use that language with us, they’re just not used to that. So again, it’s about being mindful of who the person sitting across the table from me really is. What are their perceptions of me and how do I manage those perceptions appropriately? So again, it’s complimenting that perception to use it to my advantage instead of assuming that a square peg fits in a round hole.

Stefan: Speaking of women in business, Sales Talent Agency founded the Great Canadian Sales Competition, the largest student sales competition in Canada, and we are across 80 campuses in Canada. This year alone we had over 4,200 student applicants. In round one, they submit a sales pitch on any topic that they want in 30-90 seconds. I don’t know exactly what the percentage was but in terms of female participants, it’s growing significantly. In fact, this year we had a female champion. Her name is Martina and she’s from BCIT in Vancouver. It’s becoming more and more prevalent to see women in business. Especially younger individuals.

Stefan: In light of the fact that it’s grad season, what would be your final piece of advice for young business professionals entering the sales market for the first time?

Fotini: I get asked a lot for advice on job offers. Most of my MBA students use my office hours solely for asking me for job offer advice.

When it comes to negotiating for that stuff, what I find is, so many students go in assuming that they’re coming from a place of weakness. They’re thinking, “Why would they hire me when there’s 500 other people who are knocking down the door?” The first thing I tell them is, “Why are they talking to you? They have carved out time to speak to you. They’ve given you an interview, they’ve given you the next interview, they’re making you an offer right now. Why did they choose you over somebody else? Reflect on that for a second and recognize that you bring something to the table that nobody else does. It’s about putting yourself in the mindset of having the confidence to stand behind that. It’s not about being arrogant and puffing your chest out so much that you become a jerk. But it’s about going, yes. I do bring something to the table. So, if you can believe in that, and you can behave that way, you will carry yourself with the credibility and the confidence that you need in order to carry you through some really difficult conversations going forward.”

Stefan: I know that confidence is a huge component of negotiation itself. Any tips on how to improve confidence going into a salary negotiation or a B2B sales negotiation?

Fotini: I tell a lot of my audiences to keep what I call a feel good folder. If you get an accolade, a positive message from somebody, or an email saying great job, put it in the folder. Then when you need a confidence boost, you get to look at that folder and remind yourself that, “Oh, I have done a lot.” It is important to keep that list of running accomplishments active. It’s kind of like updating your resume in the moment instead of waiting until that interview to come along. That will help you with the confidence. It also gives you an objective list of information about yourself. So, when you go in there you’re speaking to facts instead of opinions. It’s not going, “I think I did a great job.” It’s, “Here are all the things that I did this year that others have recognized, that I’m really proud of and so on.” That will certainly go a long way because if you can speak to it the way a third party would speak to it, then it’s extremely credible in the other person’s eyes. If it says, “I think I did okay, or I think I did well.” But, I don’t have any tangible examples of that, then it’s going to be harder for you to even get your own confidence up. So how are they going to have confidence in you?

Stefan: Negotiation is a very important component of sales but we don’t speak about it too often. I think more companies need to focus on getting professional training for negotiation. Do you find that your clients are seeing significant results after they complete the training that you’re able to present to?

Fotini: Absolutely. So whether it’s individuals who tapped me on the shoulder when they see me at event and go, “I got a $20,000 raise because of something you said in one of your keynotes.” Or companies who have told me they’ve increased their profits after my training. Sales is what gets you in the door. The negotiation piece is what allows you to close the sale. If you’ve done a really great job in the sales process, but you’re not well versed in the negotiation piece, you could be bleeding all of your profit and all of your value in those closing pieces of the sales process. So, definitely an opportunity to upscale people there, that’s where I would invest first even before sales training. We’re natural sales people. We’d learn by trial and error what really works well for us in sales, how to get people to like us and so on. With negotiation, I find you really want to create a safe environment for people to make some mistakes and actually practice it. When you’re practicing negotiation, there’s a lot at stake when it comes to potentially losing profit or gaining profit.

Stefan: In light of that, I am going to attach your LinkedIn profile here so that our visitors can connect with you regarding negotiation training for themselves or their organization. Fotini, I want to thank you for being on the Great Sales Leaders Know podcast today and I wish you all the very best.