A job offer isn’t only about the money—it’s about the emotion. The anxiety, the rush, the potential for disappointment. And the road to “yes” is paved with a whole lot of it.

When you’re making an offer to a candidate you really want, you need to know how to read their emotions. It’s the only way you’ll build an offer that reflects what they care about.

If you’re a small business owner fighting for a kick-ass employee, knowing how to craft that perfect offer—and helping them negotiate throughout the process—is key.

As a marketing leader for many years and now the Head of Marketing at Gusto, I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. Here are my top rules for making an offer to a candidate you just gotta have.

Rule #1: In advance, pick a salary that will thrill your candidate—and chill their concerns.

Many business owners want to hire employees for as little as possible. But that’s not the best long-term approach. Hiring a talented team and having them feel good about what they’re earning is essential to keeping your culture strong and turnover low.

Before you start recruiting, it’s important to know the market rate for the role. This will increase your chances of getting close to your candidate’s dream salary.

Do some quantitative research:

At big companies, there are entire teams to help you figure out what a competitive salary looks like. But at a small business, that’s not always the case. So before you ever post the job description, do these two things:

  • Ask the business down the street. If there’s another business like you in the area, find out what their hourly wage is to make sure the number you’re thinking of is compelling. Talk to the owner or see if it’s listed in the job description.
  • Look at websites like Glassdoor, PayScale, Angel.co, LinkedIn Salary, and Salary.com. The data there isn’t perfect, but if you sample from multiple sources, you can get a good ballpark. Make sure you search using the job title you’re thinking of, years of experience, and location.

Do some qualitative research:

Instead of asking a candidate how they feel about commuting or if they have kids (which is illegal if you use the information to inform your hiring decision), give them an opportunity to tell their story. People tell their own stories the best.

During the initial phone interview, ask open-ended questions so they can volunteer what’s important to them as they explore the idea of a new role. I usually ask:

  • What’s important to you in any job you take?
  • Specifically, what are you looking for at this point in your life?

This is salary negotiation gold.

What they value will help you figure out the right blend of compensation. For example, if they say advancement is most important to them, you can include a bonus plan. Or if they’re a working parent or low-income employee, cash may be more important than employee equity.

If a person’s total compensation has a big chunk that won’t come for years, (or maybe never), but they have to pay for their kids’ tuition every month—well, that delayed comp is actually costly for their family. They need that money now. If you’re not sensitive to that fact, and you offer less cash and more delayed compensation, you may end up excluding super-talented candidates.

Next, you want to get a feel for their comp requirements. As in, the actual numbers. You can’t ask for their current or historical pay in some states and cities because of salary history bans, and the laws and guidelines here change frequently to ensure fairness in what companies pay. But assuming you stay on the right side of the law and the interests of your candidate, you can ask what their targets are.

I almost always run through the same monologue:

– Set a positive tone. → Hey, listen. Obviously you’re an incredibly talented candidate and have a ton of choices in your career.

– Acknowledge the time you’re both putting into this.I’m really respectful of your time and I’m interested in getting to know you better.

– Inject some personality. You want them to get to know you, too. → So to make sure we don’t go through a long process, fall in love, and have to break up…

– Get to the point. → Do you happen to have a specific compensation target or benchmark in mind?

If they share specific numbers, jot them down. If there’s no way you can be competitive for them, you’ll know right away.

Hiring takes time. It’s never a bad thing to learn earlier in the process if there are barriers that can’t be overcome.

Rule #2: In the offer presentation, lead with a good number. And let that number drop like a rock.

Before you pick up the phone, remember this: Your candidate will only hear one thing. That’s why your first offer should never be embarrassingly low.

Yes, this is a negotiation. But it doesn’t have to be an insult.

So lean on the research you did and start with what you are confident is a fair—and irresistible—offer.

As part of that, you also want the number to make sense compared to what you’re already paying your team. You don’t want to get in a situation where people with similar experiences have a lot of variability in what you’re paying them. At a tiny company, that can turn into a dangerous situation because—no matter how you might try to avoid it—your employees may share what they’re making.

Here’s how to conduct the offer:

Do it over the phone.

It’s too risky to make a job offer in person. You need to have your computer and notes on hand so you don’t get a single detail wrong. The phone also allows both sides to make faces and mute if a tense reaction happens.

Skip to the chase.

Most people already have a number in their minds. I repeat: They won’t hear anything until you get to that number. So I try to say the number as quickly as possible while giving a little context beforehand. It usually goes something like this:

  • 0:05: Check in on how they’re doing.
  • 0:15: Say you want them to join the team.
  • 1:00: Say the number.

It’s either “yippee” or “dang”—so go with it.

No matter what the number is, the person on the other end will either be excited or disappointed. They’ll most likely have one of two responses in their heads:

  • Yippee!
  • Dang, I should be getting more.

So I embrace that fact.

I try to end the offer sentence with the number, and I pause. I let it drop like a rock. Then I wait. I see what happens.

If I hear nothing, I might jump back in. Generally, people take a moment and breathe. When people are disappointed with the number, the pause is usually longer.

Whatever they say next tells you exactly how good your offer was.

  • If someone is into it, they may say: OK, great. Tell me more.”
  • If they’re disappointed, they may say: “Is there anything else you can tell me about the offer? Is there a bonus? Are there stock options? Can I find out more about the total package?”

After the rock thuds to the ground, get your candidate talking. If they have concerns about the salary or wage, turn it back on them. Make it easy for them to share their opinion rather than stay silent. Say:

  • Talk me through what your expectations were and how this meets or doesn’t meet them.

If they ask what else is included, it’s your chance to explain any bonuses or merit-based increases your business offers. You can also mention other benefits like health insurance, 529s, 401(k)s, or flexible work arrangements. Remember to talk about the entire compensation package, not just the cash, especially if you can offer meaningful benefits that match up with the things they care about.

Don’t overexplain the number.

In the past, I’ve made the mistake of blurting out too much to try and justify the number. I’ve said things like, “Oh, we’re going to pay you $20 an hour, but trust me it’s competitive for this area and there’s also a lot of room for advancement. I hired great people at this rate with more experience than you and they were very happy.”

Well, your candidate isn’t going to hear any of that. They’re going to feel disappointed or excited and that’s it.

Rule #3: Make it OK for all your candidates to negotiate.

Earlier in my career, I worked at companies that wouldn’t negotiate. But now I see it as a critical part of the process, especially for small businesses competing for talent. You want to make sure your new hire feels good about where they land—and giving them a chance to negotiate is a way to get them there.

That’s why you always want to:

  • Include one round of negotiation. I always encourage candidates to come back to me with feedback and, potentially, an ask. Say something like: 
    • I’d love your feedback on this offer. Does it sound compelling to you?

To make the negotiation run smoothly, avoid the following:

  • Low balling. This isn’t an auction where you start with a low offer to put a stake in the ground. Hell no.
  • Accepting ridiculous counters: If your candidate comes back with a way higher offer, that’s a bad sign. It means they know they can get that but you can’t give it to them. Or they have a very different idea of the value of their role. If that’s the case, it’s probably not the right fit.
  • Letting it turn into a ping-pong game. If there’s a counter offer, I usually expect it to happen once. But if it turns into a lot of back-and-forth, walk away. Otherwise, it’s disrespectful to the time you put in. There are invisible rules here, and they all come down to respecting the person on the other side.

Salary negotiation is an emotional whirlwind—on both sides. But if you don’t know how to do it right, you’ll lose out on the best employees. And if you don’t offer employees the best packages for their situations, it can leave them with a nagging feeling that will be hard to shake once they start.

You don’t want either scenario.

So do your research. Then be kind. Be yourself. Be an advocate for the amazing person in front of you. And if all goes well, you’ll feel pretty damn good when that rock lands oh-so-confidently to the ground.

Tolithia Kornweibel Tolithia Kornweibel is the Chief Revenue Officer at Gusto. She is passionately results-oriented and grateful to lead radically talented teams on a mission to connect Gusto with small businesses and their employees. She lives in Oakland with her husband, Chuck, and their rascally pets.
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