Negotiation - Beware the Nibble

Ian Motley , 28 October 2016

One of the least ethical negotiation tactics clients can use is the nibble. Design fee consultant Ian Motley explains what it is and how to strategise to achieve a good outcome for all.

Over the last 12 months we’ve been looking at a range of questionable negotiation tactics adopted by our clients. There is, however, one very popular tactic that we’ve yet to address – the nibble.

I consider the nibble to be one of the least ethical negotiation tactics. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most common. So what is it?

The nibble is when a client keeps on negotiating the deal even after both parties have already reached an agreement.

Unfortunately, like many of the less honourable negotiation tactics, it’s most effective after the design professional has invested a considerable amount of time in the negotiation. It is also most effective with small concessions. However, be very careful because a trickle of small concessions will very quickly become a flood of larger concessions if this behaviour is not properly addressed at the first opportunity.

A typical scenario

To explain exactly how the nibble works, let’s take a look at the following scenario:

You’ve just spent all morning with a new client reviewing your proposal. The meeting has been long and arduous … but successful. You’ve conceded some issues and won others and all signs point towards your firm being awarded the project. You’re satisfied with the outcome and keen to move forward so you quickly pack up your material, exchange pleasantries and head towards the exit. Just as you’re approaching the door, the client turns around and says, ‘Hey – one last thing. I just wanted to say what a terrific job your firm has done with the presentation model. It’s very impressive … in fact, I’ve just thought of the perfect location for it – the reception area in our main office … What do you think?’

Having just finished the review of your firm’s proposal, you’re very aware that no allowance has been made within the proposal to cover the cost of providing an extra presentation model for the client.

You’re also aware that models aren’t cheap … plus, you already had a place in mind at your office where you’d like to display the model to impress future clients and hopefully sell more design services.

It’s a very sticky situation and if you’re not careful you may destroy the relationship you’re trying to build and jeopardise the project.

So, in an effort to appease the client you say; ‘Yes, no problem! Why don’t you take the model with you … no, honestly, we insist!’ You then leave the meeting resenting the situation and the discomfort starts to build. ‘Why must they always do that?’ you ask yourself.

Alternatively, you may respond in a less accommodating manner. You may reply by saying ‘Unfortunately, these models are quite expensive so we can’t just give it away for free. However, we’re happy to sell you one if you’re prepared to pay for it.’

In this scenario, your response inadvertently challenges their position and embarrasses the client. Even if your stance is fair and reasonable (from your perspective), the client can’t leave this encounter feeling good about the outcome: they’ve lost face.

So what should you do? How can we handle this situation in a more professional manner?

The best strategy

As with all negotiation tactics, the strategy should always be the same. We shouldn’t simply react to the client’s request. Instead, we should go back to first principles, opening up the dialogue and looking for opportunities to satisfy both parties’ interests. Negotiation experts Roger Fischer and William Ury, authors of the famous negotiation book Getting To Yes, call this approach ‘Creating Opportunities for Mutual Gain’.

When seeking to create opportunities for mutual gain, you’re aiming to provide an option that is beneficial to both parties, and you may want to respond like this:

‘Yes, the model would look great in your firm’s lobby area. If we were able to have another model built for you and shipped over to your office, free of charge, do you think you may be able to process our commencement payment within the next 24 to 48 hours?’

By responding in this manner you achieve three goals:

  1. You’ve said ‘yes’ to the client, so they’ve saved face.
  2. You’ve exchanged concessions – not given them away.
  3. You’ve put the power of choice in the client’s court.

It’s our responsibility as design professionals to manage the client relationship. If we start the relationship by giving concessions away for free, we’re only devaluing the services that we provide. Instead, we should always be looking for ways to exchange concessions, and the best way to achieve this goal is by first opening up the dialogue with our clients and then looking for opportunities to satisfy both parties’ interests. By taking this approach we’ll be able to build better relationships with our clients in both the short and long term.


Ian Motley is a design fee consultant with Blue Turtle Consulting. This article is an edited version of content included in Blue Turtle’s Architects’ Guide to Negotiating Design Fees.

Blue Turtle Consulting is conducting Fee Proposal Workshops during November 2016 for architects and design professional who want to learn about the art and science of writing more successful fee proposals. ACA members recieve a 10% discount on these workshops.