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Steve Ballmer’s Epic Negotiation Tactics

August 20, 2014 • Uncategorized
Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t been easy loving the Los Angeles Clippers, and when the team’s new owner, Steve Ballmer, introduced himself last week, he had many hearts and minds to win over.

Until recently, the team was a losing franchise, and then their previous owner got banned from the league for racial remarks. Ballmer wasn’t just introducing himself; he was in effect negotiating with the fans to get behind his team in a big way.

The stakes are big, because both have a lot invested in the Clippers. And the way Ballmer (the former CEO of Microsoft who bid $2 billion for the Clippers) jumped into this role answered the key questions that drive successful negotiation tactics.

Do I like you?

“I love basketball,” Ballmer proclaimed from the get-go of his speech at a rally of Clippers fans. He whipped a bright blue Clippers towel, shouted, sweated and paced like a tiger. He put his passion out there. Passion is the driver for fans of any team, so in those three opening words Ballmer connected to what they love, too.

He drove this point home later in his speech by reading a letter from a longtime fan who said his success in law school was inspired by the Clippers’ work ethic and desire to come from nothing to become something. Underdogs are likeable, and Ballmer used a wise negotiation tactic to align himself with the fans’ David v. Goliath attitude.

This is what I call determining the inner baseline. Understanding the motivations of the other side, as well as your own, will open more choices, which create more engagement and willingness in negotiation.

For the vast majority of the people he’s trying to reach, Ballmer is awful hard not to like. He opens his heart and most people fear doing that. He’s also funny, and most of us love to laugh.

Can you help me?

Yes, and in a big way. Ballmer read out his email address and told fans to call him Steve. That’s an invitation to an uncommon level of access and intimacy to a guy with that much power.

Beyond those specifics, Ballmer also outlined a clear new direction and values for the team. His leadership of the Clippers would be based on openness, respect, boldness, risk taking, optimism (“a force multiplier,” he said, quoting Colin Powell) and tenacity (“We are going to keep coming and coming and coming… nothing gets in our way! The hardcore Clippers, that’s us!”)

Ballmer gave fans his reason and method for helping the team and fans start over after the recent scandal.

Do I trust you?

You could see that question in the faces of the Clipper players who were lined up on the stage with Ballmer: Is he for real?

Ballmer knew he had to answer that, and other more specific issues the fans had. He quickly answered a question that was in many minds about possibly taking the team to his hometown: “I’m not moving the Clippers to Seattle,” he announced early in his talk.

It wasn’t just what he said, but how. On a scale of 10, Ballmer’s enthusiasm, decibel level and authentic smile were at 11 the whole time he was on stage. A smile encourages the audience to smile back. An authentic smile conveys humanity and humility. Ballmer’s authentic smile commanded authority and invited trust.

“I love this team!” he yelled. And when the crowd response didn’t match his, he pushed them for more.

Some people watch this clip to laugh at Ballmer, but I think the reason that his speech went viral is because they like him. He’s not the buttoned-down businessman, but a big guy with a lot of guts to put himself out there and not worry about what other people think of his style. Ballmer is authentic and vulnerable, two building blocks for trust.

Your Game Changer Takeaway

Trust between a billionaire and a beleaguered NBA fan isn’t going to happen instantly. It was noticeable, though, that in the course of his speech his players’ faces changed from quizzical and embarrassed to confidence and even pride. As they listened and watched an invitation that was clear, concise and passionate, they were getting on Ballmer’s side. The crowd of fans reaction grew as well.

Time will tell if Clippers fans like him, if he helps them and if he is worthy of their trust—three issues that are key to setting the stage for negotiation. His actions, far more than his words, will continue to determine those answers.

Watching his negotiation tactics, I’m expecting Ballmer’s success.

The Molly Fletcher Company inspires leaders, teams and organizations to kick-start growth. A keynote speaker and author, Molly draws on her decades of experiences working as a sports agent. Her company’s Game Changer Negotiation Training workshops teach businesspeople the framework for successful negotiating, so that you can close more deals while building stronger relationships. Sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter and subscribe to the Game Changers with Molly Fletcher podcast on iTunes.