Got an Offer? There's Negotiating to Do

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View every application process as an extended negotiation - one that neither begins nor ends when an offer is made.

That's true even if you get an offer that's better than what you expected, says career coach Win Sheffield. Whether you're angling to improve an inadequate offer, or want to make an appealing one even better, here are five useful tactics.

Avoid the Numbers

Avoid answering "salary questions" for as long as you possibly can.

Along with most career management experts, Sheffield views this as a central tenet of effective negotiating strategy. A candidate who states a specific number or salary range too early surrenders much of the negotiating leverage he'd otherwise gain when an offer comes. "You don't know the job at that point, so you really don't want to go there," Sheffield says. If asked your salary requirement, answer with, "Let's talk about the job first."

If an application form contains a "salary" or compensation box, Sheffield suggests leaving the space blank. If you're questioned about the omission, state as broad a range as you can get away with - though remain truthful - and let your questioner fill in the form. Give only a total compensation range, even if the form asks for a breakout of salary and bonus. If that fails to satisfy the employer, give ranges for each.

Sheffield offers a sly response if an employer discloses early the compensation range for a position you're seeking: "I'm sure salary won't be a problem." That can mean either of two things: You're confident the employer will end up agreeing to meet your (as-yet-undisclosed) salary expectation, or you're flexible enough to accept an offer in the range the employer just stated. The person who hears your answer is likely to assume the latter interpretation. However, if push comes to shove, you can stick with the former.

Sheffield notes one exception to this rule. You should be candid about pay when speaking with external recruiters. "You have to have a trusting relationship with the recruiter," he notes.

Take Your Time

Be patient: don't be in a hurry to either obtain or accept an offer.

In an earlier story, we detailed why Sheffield believes it's smart for applicants to extend the interview process instead of trying to get an offer quickly. Each interview gives you more opportunities to demonstrate how you outclass the competition and practice "shadow negotiating" in order to improve whatever offer you may eventually get.

Now, we add: Never accept an offer on the spot, "even if it's two-and-a-half times what you expected," Sheffield says. Before responding, make sure you have all key details in writing - compensation, title, starting date and, if possible, benefits and timing of your initial review. Look over the details carefully and write down any questions that must be answered before you can accept. You may even ask to speak with prospective colleagues before making your decision.

Most employers "will be more than happy to give you a few days, even a week, to consider their offer," Sheffield says.

This is also the time to inform the employer if you're considering other offers. Having other options makes you more desirable and magnifies your negotiating leverage.

Don't Beg

When stating your compensation requirements, "Stay away from the words, 'I need,'" advises Sheffield, because the phrase weakens your position. Instead say, "This is what the market is paying." Of course, you should do your homework to be sure you're stating a realistic figure.

If you're currently out of work, don't assume the employer thinks you're desperate for a paycheck. Employers know that many finance professionals have accumulated sizable war chests during previous jobs. Other candidates may have a high-earning spouse.

Talk Face to Face

Negotiate face-to-face, and make requests via open-ended questions that don't allow the other party the easy out of answering, "No."

If you get a low-ball offer, Sheffield recommends saying you're interested in the job and asking to meet again a few days later. At the follow-up meeting, say, "I love this job but I'm a little concerned about compensation." He suggests softening the blow by raising a few less important items - vacation or benefits, perhaps - before even bringing up salary. Then say, "There is the salary. What can we do about that?"

Silence is Golden

If one of your requests is met with prolonged silence, resist the urge to break it. Staying silent after either of you has made a key point is "an extremely powerful negotiating tool," Sheffield says. "Every time you think you're going to say something, take another breath. You put the ball in their court. Leave it there."

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