Dealin’ and wheelin’
You can't always get what you want, but you will get more of it if you learn to negotiate

By Bill Hudgins, contributing writer

“Everything is sales, and everything is negotiable,” says Michael Burns, a former police negotiator turned trucker who is now the managing partner and CFO of Dave Nemo Entertainment.

Just like backing a rig, though, learning the skills can make fear disappear and put some nice padding in your wallet. That’s why Nemo and Burns began offering classes on negotiating a few years ago.

“In today’s industry, if you’re an established driver but not making what you honestly believe you should be making – you just haven’t asked for it. It’s absolutely a sellers’ market.”

But negotiating is difficult, largely because most people lack the skills and dread hearing the “no” word.

“The inception was that I got several calls from furious drivers who felt brokers had insulted them by offering what they thought was a ridiculously low fee,” says Burns.

“When I asked what they did, they said, ‘I called him a dirty so-and-so and stormed out.’ That not only lost them that load, but any chance of doing business with that broker in the future.”

Burns realized many drivers didn’t know how or were reluctant to negotiate. So he and Nemo periodically offer classes and also have done an on-air series to help their listeners be more successful. While most of their tips are aimed at owner-operators and independents, company drivers can use the same techniques to get raises, home time, better routes and other perks.

Negotiating starts before you walk in the door or pick up the phone. Think of it as a pre-trip inspection – of yourself.

“At a face-to-face meeting, you make 90 percent of your first impression before you open your mouth,” Burns says. So don’t look like an unmade bunk.

Make sure you and your clothes (and rig) are clean and neat. Stand up straight, relaxed and confident. Look the broker in the eye and smile when you shake hands. Don’t cross your arms or hold them behind you; this sends both negative and defensive messages.

“They’ll be more willing to work with a well-dressed, well-spoken driver who has a sense of humor and a friendly, professional attitude than one who’s scruffy, grouchy and aggressive,” Burns says.

If you’re on the phone, remember to smile. “Most people don’t know you can hear a smile over a telephone,” Burns says. Be focused. Don’t eat your lunch or check your email while you talk.

Once the introductions are over, negotiations start in earnest with the broker’s initial offer.

“The first and most important thing to do is actually listen to what the other person is saying,” Burns says. Most people don’t listen well because we’re taught from childhood to be thinking about what we’re going to say.

“Listen” with your eyes as well, to pick up what the other person’s body language says. If they cross their arms or lean away, they may be reacting negatively or feel you’re being overly aggressive.

Next, let the other person know you’ve understood what they said.

“The simplest way is to pleasantly repeat it, like, ‘Now, you’re offering me $2,200 to take that load from A to B and deliver at X time, is that right?’” Burns says.

Unless the offer is more than you dreamed of, at this point you make a counter-offer. Remember that the other person is usually looking for a reason to work with you. Tell the broker, “I would like to take your load, but unfortunately with my rig and my cost per mile, I can’t do it profitably for that much. I could do it for, say, $2,500.”

“After that, the single most important thing for you to do is shut up and wait for their response,” Burns says. That puts the ball back in their court. It also gives them time to digest what they’ve learned about you in two sentences – that you are a professional who knows your equipment and your business costs.

“A lot of people, including salespeople, fear rejection,” Burns says. “But the worst they can do to you is just say no. Usually, though, they’ll make another counteroffer.”

At this point, start building a relationship that will give them more reasons to work with you at a higher fee. Emphasize your experience and excellent safety and on-time delivery track record. Tell them you don’t see this load as a one-shot deal, and make another counter-offer. If the load isn’t smokin’ hot, you could offer different prices for different delivery times, such as 24 hours for $2,500 or 36 hours for $2,400.

“Negotiating isn’t just about price. Dependability, longevity and safety are also key parts of it. They’re what are called value-adds, and people will pay more if they feel they’re getting additional value. There’s nothing worse for someone who just entrusted a load to a driver they’ve never met before than to wonder what’s going to happen to that load,” Burns says.

You may go through several rounds before getting to yes or no. “Never accept the first no; take it as a starting point,” Burns advises. If you’ve pointed out your record and your willingness, then politely ask the broker, “Why not? What makes you reluctant to hire me?” You need to try to find out what they really want, and what the problem is, Burns says.

If you can’t agree, leave the door open for possible future work. Ask if you can call again and do something to help them remember you.

“Leave a business card, or your phone number,” Burns says. “It doesn’t seem like much, but when you do that, you’ve made a little sale. And if they welcome it, you’ve gotten an evaluation on how the encounter went.” LL