Negotiating an annual learning and development (L&D) budget with business managers can feel like a battle, especially if budgets are already stretched. And being a successful negotiator doesn’t come easy to many of us. The NEG-PRO approach can help you build confidence and get the budget you need.

Why Are Budget Negotiations So Challenging?

We’ve all had times when we’ve put off difficult budget conversations and suffered in the end from procrastinating. The biggest hurdle is often getting started. Why?

Many of us view negotiation as “win-lose” or “bargaining,” and it can be intimidating to approach commercial managers, who are often expert negotiators. Our lack of experience, time, resources or confidence can also be hurdles and put us off.

Take the example of Ananya, a global L&D lead in a large multinational bank. Last year she and her team implemented communications training to upskill customer service teams in three countries. They spent time and resources on conducting a needs analysis, content procurement and advertising the program. They kept the customer service country managers informed, but when it came to approving the budget, they consistently refused. Why? The L&D team hadn’t collaborated with them from the start due to feeling intimidated by these commercial leads.

Negotiations can be a positive, collaborative process when approached with an open mindset and an understanding of the budget-holders’ perspective. Read on to learn how.

So, How Can I Negotiate like a Pro?

The NEG-PRO Negotiation Approach

The British Council’s NEG-PRO framework is a systematic approach that can be used as the backbone to your planning and execution of negotiations with budget holders. It will enable you to prepare effectively, communicate with confidence and overcome challenges to reach successful outcomes that benefit all stakeholders. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1.

Crucially, NEG-PRO is a framework rather than a linear process. In the early days of using it, you may prefer to work through the six steps in sequence. Once you have more experience, you will be able to vary the order or exclude elements to create an approach that best suits your context.

Build Confidence and Get Started: Navigate, Establish and Grow Relationships

The first three elements of the NEG-PRO process can help you plan effectively, get started and approach discussions with increased confidence. During this phase, you need to:

  • Navigate the context by doing your groundwork.
  • Establish the basis of your pitch.
  • Grow the relationship.

To navigate the context successfully, it’s important that you scope out and understand the needs of the budget-holder. In these conversations, you will need to adopt the attitude of a collaborator rather than competitor — listening carefully, showing empathy and checking your understanding.

Use open-ended questions to probe their pain points, objectives and motivations. Equally important is asking follow-up questions — always ask “Why?” and “How does that impact the business?” You might reveal hidden challenges and fears based on their past experiences. These deeper insights will enable you to develop a detailed, targeted pitch that addresses specific concerns up front.

If you’re having difficulty getting information through questioning, try multiple-choice questions, such as exploring whether productivity or engagement is a greater barrier to performance currently. If this also fails, investigate what’s been done before and probe what they feel worked, what didn’t and the reasons why.

Once you’ve done the groundwork, you’re ready to establish the content of your pitch. While you may have already identified your preferred outcomes, it’s useful to be prepared with several options and to remain open-minded about the final decision.

During these phases, it’s essential to grow relationships with your stakeholders. Use preliminary fact-finding conversations to build rapport and trust. Consider the following:

  • Ask questions to find common ground.
  • Listen to the words and phrases they use and use them too.
  • Make small talk to get to know them personally.
  • Leverage your network by asking common contacts to help you with background.
  • Refer to your previous experiences and successes in this area.

Remember Ananya and her team? When planning this year’s initiatives for the customer services team, they needed a new approach.

They used the Navigate, Establish and Grow relationships approach to help them regain the customer service country managers’ trust and confidence. Firstly, they leveraged their good relationship with one of the country managers to gain valuable insight into the reluctance of another: He had been unhappy not to be closely involved in decision-making the previous year and had wanted to hand-pick the trainers rather than the global L&D team making arrangements.

Through well-planned questions, the team also discovered that the country managers were dissatisfied with the previous traditional classroom-based delivery. They needed more flexibility so the customer service teams could upskill at the same time as working — service standards had to be maintained and teams couldn’t afford to take time out for training. They also felt that the previous training was too generic and only met the needs of those with lower-level skills.

Ananya and her team were able to factor this into the planning and carried out a more in-depth skills assessment to compare individual levels with the levels needed to provide customer excellence. They prepared several options for the program, proposing a “menu” of microlearning combined with trainer-led, small group sessions, with freedom of choice for individuals to create a personalized learning pathway. They proposed that the group sessions be led by more experienced customer service executives, selected by the country managers.

Collaborate with Creativity: Pitch and Reframe

Now you’ve planned, grown relationships and started to build trust, you’re ready to make your main pitch.

Budget-holders are more likely to agree to your proposals if you can speak calmly, clearly and without hesitation. To build your confidence and demonstrate executive presence when negotiating, consider practising with a trusted colleague and asking for feedback.

Try to arrange an initial pitch meeting with your stakeholders. Face-to-face negotiations typically end in mutually beneficial agreements, with only 19% ending in impasse as opposed to 50% of email negotiations. If hybrid or cross-border working makes this impossible, a video call works better than audio or emails.

Remember, it’s not just what you say that’s important. You should also speak with varied pace and clear volume, pausing to engage your stakeholders. Investigate cultural expectations of eye contact, gesture and facial expressions to enliven your messages in an appropriate way for your context. Invite questions and feedback as you go to keep the discussion flowing. Treat this meeting as a collaboration and avoid pushing for an agreement if the budget-holders aren’t ready.

Review your initial pitch and decide if you need to reframe before the next meeting or emailing the stakeholders. This may involve you adapting your proposal, rewording your ideas, asking more questions or identifying areas of common ground.

Ananya and her team found the first pitch meeting tricky. Even though they had a range of options and felt confident after practicing together, the meeting was fraught and the country managers terse. They weren’t keen on the idea of their teams creating their own learning pathways — many of them lacked the skills to select microlearning activities. While they were critical of previous external trainers, they pushed back on the idea of using senior team members to deliver the training due to lack of resources. In fact, they were unconvinced of the need to use trainers at all.

In the meeting review, Ananya reminded her team to keep an open mind and not take the criticism personally. Once they took a more objective approach, they realized that the meeting had been a very useful information-gathering session.

When reframing, Ananya’s team adapted the proposal to include a system that would curate pathways based on individuals’ specific learning needs. They strongly believed that it was important to involve trainers, as feedback was a proven method to develop skills quickly. They reworded this and focused on the teams’ needs to upskill at pace, leading to immediate business impact.

Remain Focused Yet Flexible: Reach Beneficial Outcomes

When meeting stakeholders again, make sure you address any concerns or objections they raised previously. Summarize the key points and how the adapted proposal will benefit the business. It may take several meetings or email conversations, reframing after each, to reach a final decision. If deadlines are tight, consider small, tentative agreements throughout. At the end of the process, remind the budget-holders of the items they have agreed to and ask for written commitment.

Ananya and her team were able to agree quickly with the customer service country managers on the curated pathways. It was, however, challenging to reach a decision on trainer involvement in the program. It took time to research and provide analysis of return on investment (ROI) to convince the budget-holders that trainer involvement would be crucial to the success of the program. By gaining the buy-in from their key contact first, they were able to gain her support when presenting the benefits to the other two. This achieved the outcome of a training program that all teams bought into.

Next time you feel pressured, nervous or intimidated by training budget negotiations, remember the NEG-PRO approach. Remain open-minded, take a step back and collaborate rather than compete. By following the advice in each of the steps, you can build confidence, collaborate with creativity and remain flexible and focused. This will positively impact the outcomes of your budget negotiations, leading to training that achieves its outcomes and business impact — something all of us need.