The Flawed Assumption
If you are in B2B Sales, be it as a Sales Leader or a Sales Professional, you have more than likely been in a situation where you thought ‘the deal’ was over the line and you were just awaiting that final signature, when you received the response that you were not ‘the chosen one’. You obviously dreaded this outcome. Worse still, you did not see it coming. You just assumed that you had won the deal.
This assumption that ‘we have definitely won’ or ‘we are certain to win’ is inherently flawed and yet, only too common in professional selling. Often, the reason is we believe the decision will be made by that, one, elite, decision maker and plausibly her/his key influencer. Armed with this flawed assumption, we set off on a crusade to sell to the select few, who we deem to be the decision-making duo/trio. We forget that there is a legion of other influencers (some obvious and others imperceptible) who influence the decision and have a significant bearing on which way the decision tilts.
The flawed assumption sets us on an incorrect tangent right from the beginning of the sales cycle.
When does the reality set in?
When you rewind time just a tad, there came a juncture in the sales cycle where you arrived for a meeting thinking you would be meeting the key decision maker and plausibly, the one other – a key influencer.
You were surprised to find the boardroom full of people you had never met. Some you had seen walking down the hallways in your previous visits to the key decision maker. Some you had heard of. Others you knew through their LinkedIn profiles or when they visited yours. Regardless, you showed up for that, very important meeting, to find the boardroom had quite a few more pairs of eyes that you expected. Although surprised, you are a career sales professional and six other titles have never petrified you before – You were not about to start getting rattled now. You forged onwards. You employed your finest presentation skills to convey that you deeply understand their problems and that your organisation fits the bill as far as ‘The Solution’ is concerned. You have been formally trained to present to a room filled with executives. You also understand that the landscape has evolved and that there are newcomers in the equation. So, you rightfully present to the whole room. You enlighten the newcomers about your value proposition, the solution you have designed, the ROI claims etc. Yes – you are not phased. You are moving the sale along.
You conclude the presentation on time and leave a healthy 30 minutes of Q&A time. You are asked several questions by the key decision maker and by the key influencers. Members of the new cohort too throw in a few questions. You handle them to perfection and they seem quite satisfied. Q&A time ends and there are plenty of smiles to go around. This is looking good. You leave, confident that you have done a respectable job and this deal will come over the line and make your quota. You gracefully depart the boardroom.
Behind the Scenes
But more happened after you left. The real conversation started once you exited the boardroom. Your presentation as good it was, was not the end of the sales cycle – it stirred the beehive. It became very clear (and unclear) to the stakeholders that they have a problem. Some did not think that there was a problem at all. Some thought there was a problem but not worth solving. Others thought it must be solved but they didn’t agree on the mechanics of the solution or the measures of success.
You get my gist. No consensus on most of the pertinent matters was achieved.
You did well in most aspects of the sales cycle. You enlisted the support of the top key decision maker and influencer. You demonstrated a robust understanding of the business problem and crafted a solution to measure. Where you failed? You failed to build consensus.
And the fact is when various stakeholders are involved in a business decision – and there frequently are various – they often do not reach consensus on whether there is a problem, or what precisely the problem is or what the best approach to address the problem is. And if there is no consensus on the problem, chances are, regardless of how apt of brilliant your solution, it will not be seen as a solution.
It is likely. If you are in B2B sales, especially selling a complex offering (product/service) or a multi-year offering, you have encountered the above scenario before. I have. Many that I have trained, have.
The particularly disconcerting part is that in the above scenario, when sales professionals lose the deal, they do not know of the precise reasons as to why they lost. They end up attributing the failure to their sales style or the lack of understanding of the problem etc. Rarely do they conclude that they failed to build consensus.
B2B sales has never been an easy profession. The average number of B2B decision makers that form the committee has increased to about 6-7 executives. The buying committee is now more diverse and more complex. As the monetary value of investment grows and the number of people the solution touches grows, the more people get involved in decision making.
The Delusion of “I know the Decision Maker”
When I am in a coaching situation, be it coaching a Sales Leader, Sales Professional or involved in ‘Deal-Coaching’, a few of the common phrases I hear: “I know the decision maker well” OR “I am working with the decision maker”. It is still widely believed that the holy grail or promised land is that ONE decision maker with a few influencers peppered in to make the recipe of success sound even better.
Yes, reaching the ‘signature’ is important. Yes, working with the HiPPiO (Highest Paid Person in Office) is also extremely crucial. However, no longer, is engaging with the key decision maker or the key influencer(s), enough. If you are selling to SMB, maybe the owner or the MD or the GM will make autocratic decisions, however, it is a rarity to find organisations where decisions are by one person, from the tower. Gartner stated not long ago that at an average 5.4 decision makers are involved in a corporate buying committee. Now that number has jumped up to 6.8. Whether the number is 3, 5, 7, 9 or 11 is inconsequential. What is pertinent is that the sales professional must build consensus of all the official (and unofficial stakeholders).
So, how can Sales Leaders train, coach and mentor their teams to build consensus? And how can BDMs and Account executives go about executing on the mammoth task of building consensus? Here are some points to consider…
Appreciate the ‘complexity’ in your buyer’s environment
Most of your competitors will sell with no regard to the complexity in the buyer’s environment. Be different. Start with a deep appreciation for this complexity. The problem for buying committees is not a lack of suppliers or solutions – it is gaining consensus around a problem and the solution.
When surveyed for CEB’s Challenger Customer research, almost half (46%) of all respondents rated “solution identification” as their top challenge when building consensus, followed by defining a problem (37%) and selecting a supplier (28%).
The fact of the matter is that today, buying committees are overwhelmed with information on social and digital channels, and increasingly, a diverse set of competing goals, needs and priorities. Most salespeople do not deeply appreciate the functional divides, competing goals and priorities.
To add to all this, buying committees have more information available at their fingertips. Often, they are 57% through their research process before a supplier first contacts them.
The key here is for the sales organisation to focus not just on what they sell but how they sell. Appreciate deeply the complexity in the buyer environment, the different functions, the power structures (apparent and covert). Gain deep insight into each department’s functioning and each functional leader’s goals and priorities.
Eliminate the myth of the ‘Executive Decision Maker’
As I stated at the beginning of this article, too many salespeople still believe that the way to a win is to get into the calendar of THAT decision maker. While reaching that decision maker is important, it is not enough. It is rare even in small organisations for decisions to be monocratic. There is the decision maker you must win over, but then there is the wallet, and the executive who owns the problem, the official influencers and the unofficial ones.
The sales organisation must uncover the decision making and influencing structure of the buying organisation and ensure that the sales strategy and tactics meet the needs of each faction in the buying committee.
Gain consensus on ‘The Problem’ or ‘The Opportunity’
Organisations do not invest in products/services/solutions unless they have a business problem or a specific business goal (stemming out of a larger strategic or visionary play) – let’s call this the opportunity.
So, as a sales professional, you must begin by gaining consensus on ‘The Problem’ or ‘The Opportunity’. One of the first challenges you will face here is getting various people to agree on whether they have a problem or whether they are faced with an opportunity and if so, what are the next steps forward.
Some members of the buying committee will have a clear understanding of the problem/opportunity and will believe that the company must embark on the journey of solving the problem, or capitalising on the opportunity. Some will be receptive to learn more. Some will agree that there is a problem or there exists an opportunity but not significant quite enough to take action. Some will be mildly opposed and others vehemently so. Some will be indifferent.
Regardless of where an executive or a group of executives sits on the spectrum, you will need to bring them to the same understanding of ‘the problem’ or ‘the opportunity’, for you to gain momentum. You will not gain consensus till you have managed to gain common-ground on the problem or the opportunity.
If you have not yet gained consensus on the problem or the opportunity, do not move forward – a mistake commonly made by sales professionals.
Gain consensus on ‘The Solution’
The first hurdle is getting people on the same page when it comes to ‘the problem’ or ‘the opportunity’. The next hurdle is ensuring that everyone agrees to the next step forward – ‘the solution’.
In B2B settings, there are multiple decision makers and consequently, people have different ideas about what the right solution should be and how it should be approached.
Some members of the buying committee will unanimously agree with one solution. Others will side with a different solution. The financial stakeholder might side with the best ROI. The operational stakeholder will prefer the solution that meets the end user’s needs best. The technical stakeholder will more than likely prefer the solution that is easiest to implement.
If you are to progress this opportunity and gain consensus you must achieve agreement on the solution.
Gain consensus on the ‘What’, ‘Who’ and ‘When’
You have now arrived at consensus on ‘the problem’ / ‘the opportunity’ and you also have managed to achieve consensus on ‘the solution’. It is at this stage that many salespeople feel the deal will get over the line – a common flawed assumption. Please note that a large majority of sales opportunities are lost to apathy – the customer’s decision to do nothing.
My experience of enterprise sales has taught me that a sales professional must focus on three variables to build consensus –What, Who and When.
A sales professional must establish clear visibility precisely what steps will be taken, by who and when. This takes a conceptual deal and put it into an action plan.
There is a clear segregation between the process of gaining democratic buy-in and the single signature. To enlist consensus the salesperson must build consensus to get the deal on the map. However, even though the decision-making process is democratic, the decision itself is not.
The sales organization must gain a deeper understanding of the buying process, the internal algorithm of purchasing, the procurement philosophy etc. Some salespeople are often hesitant to ask questions around sign-off, time, budgets, etc. They must ask who has the authority to approve and decide. Often, it is through the salesperson’s efforts that organisations realise what their buying process is and this is an extremely important phase of consensus building.
B2B sales cycles are complex, and involve an increasingly large number of decision makers and influencers. The greater the investment, the greater the complexity. If you are to navigate this environment you must understand and appreciate the entire landscape of people involved in making and influencing the decision. And if you are to win at complex sales, you must build consensus – in every sale, at every stage of the sales cycle.