In today's enterprise or larger mid-market sale, whether you're selling a piece of software, hardware, service, solution, gizmo, widget or mcguffin, you are selling to a group of stakeholders. It’s been that way for a while now.
Up to a few years ago, conventional sales wisdom said I needed to link myself and my solution to each stakeholder by:
- Convincing the people using the gizmo that theirs was broken
- Convincing the people using the gizmo that mine was the better/best gizmo
- Proving to the people buying the gizmo that mine was the best valued gizmo
However the reality today is that people and process no longer exist in a vacuum. The inter-dependency of modern business workflows have greatly expanded the number of stakeholders for our solutions and services. HR systems connect to AP. Warehouse solutions connect to AR. IT connects to everything.
Add to that the fact that modern middle manager influencers and decision makers are living in a much more "risk averse" environment where a single bad decision can sideline a career and you have the recipe for large groups of people being involved in the buying process.
So now in the 2010s, not only do I have to sell to the two people (or groups of people) above, but now I am also usually presenting and selling to:
- people who are either directly or indirectly affected by the product of what the old/new gizmo does or doesn't do
- people from other companies (customers, suppliers, partners) who will be affected by the purchase of a new gizmo
- people who manage or lead any of the people above
In this expanded stakeholder environment, we now often hear sales coaching like this:
You need to get in "early" in the process. You have to help identify the problem and find the solution. Then you need to identify each stakeholder's unique needs, assess them and come up with solutions for them within your presentation. You need to have their buying process mapped and know how to get them to each next step. Link yourself and your solution to each stakeholder and you’ll win deals.
Sounds like a well-reasoned, logical and conventional approach to group selling. If linking myself to a few stakeholders worked in the past, why wouldn’t linking myself to a few more work as well? And if you're a really, really, really good natural salesperson, who prospects like crazy, you may make your number like this.
But I would bet real money that even if you were busting your hump, selling like this, while you may outright win and outright lose some of these deals, more often than not the WINNER of many of your engagements is NO DECISION. Or even worse, STALLED DECISION.
After all your hard work, the customer decided not to buy anything. Not your thing, not the competitor's thing. Nothing.
Look at your own funnel - how many deals die or are stalled like this? At least if it was an outright loss you can move on. But a no decision or a stalled decision is a sale on life support - you can't just pull the plug because there is a glimmer of hope. So it stays in your pipeline and you waste time meeting with this prospect in hope you can jolt this sale out of its coma.
Let me know if this example resonates at all:
You sell accounting departmental gizmos. A prospect you've been working on for a while, McGuffin Inc., has small group of influencers and DMs (let's call them the GROUPIES) that you've had multiple meetings with. In your conversations with the Groupies you've uncovered needs, mapped process and have ultimately convinced them that they need a new gizmo. The Groupies want to buy your gizmo, however, as McGuffin Inc. is a risk averse environment, the Groupies want input from other stakeholders before a decision is made. The Groupies tell you they have to construct a process where three gizmo vendors will meet with stakeholders and present their gizmo. By stakeholder feedback, the top two gizmo sales teams will propose to the Groupies and the Groupies will choose a gizmo vendor.
So the Groupies check a whole bunch of people's schedules and calendars and try and set up a times that "work for everybody," They book a large conference room. They draft agendas and they send out an invite with a lunch menu.
The Groupies like you and your gizmo, and you have the inside track. After all, you "got in early" and helped them see they needed a new gizmo. You are told who is going to be there and the Groupies let you know what are the "must sees" if you are to see your gizmo go to the next phase. You come away with the unofficial understanding that if you can get a pass to the next phase with these stakeholders, the deal is in the bag.
You gleefully fill out your CRM with all data presented. You craft a bulletproof deck, a stellar value-prop and reserve your best sales engineer to demo the heck out of your gizmo.
Your meeting day comes. The Groupies are smiling and facilitating the meeting. The stakeholders eat their box lunches, they look at your gizmo, they ask a whole bunch of questions. You answer all of them, you nail all the "must sees", you overcome all objections and as the meeting ends, over handshakes, you believe all stakeholders are satisfied.
Before you hit the parking garage, one of the Groupies takes you aside and says "Yours was the very best presentation and you will definitely hear from them in a week."
You run back to the office, crank up the old probability score in the CRM to 80% and send emails to all YOUR internal stakeholders regarding this deal.
One week goes by. No call. Two weeks, you call. Voicemail, no call back. A week later (three weeks since you presented) the Groupies email you. It's bad news. You didn't get to the next phase....but neither did anyone else. The Groupies tell you that McGuffin Inc., has chosen to DO NOTHING. They are sticking with their old gizmo.
But, but. but.....this was forecasted for the 4th quarter! You are toast. Your year-end number is shot. So now you have to cobble together a quarter. Your head is spinning – just as you try to make sense of this lost opportunity a Groupie calls and says "Hey, we think we can do this, we just need more time with the stakeholders, maybe you can talk to some of them. Let's see if we can revisit in Q1 or Q2." You think you hear the faint "beep....beep...beep" of a heart monitor as you move the opportunity from 80% to 45% and from Q4 to Q2 next year. I'm still in it, you say to yourself, it will just take more time. I need to talk to the right people. You make a note in your CRM to reach out past the Groupies to find other stakeholders. Now, with no deal to be had, you comb your account list looking for opportunities get in early and uncover needs of unique stakeholders...
Here's what my experience tells me: the reason we're losing these supposedly validated deals to NO DECISION or STALLED DECISION is at once simple and at the same time incredibly perplexing for a sales organization to fathom: no matter how early we get in and hard we as salespeople meet each identified stakeholder's need and how well we overcome each stakeholder's objection, we are failing to realize that it's quite possible that while we are selling to the group, our customers don't know how to buy as a group.
There's research to back this up - and not sales research paid for by some company trying to sell you their "guaranteed process to more sales" book, app or widget.
Scientific research. Guys in white coats with pocket protectors-type research.
Sam Kaner, Ph.D. is regarded as one of the nation's leading experts on consensus decision-making - he wrote a book 20 years ago called the "Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making"
I'd give you the rest of his bona-fides butyou can Google him if you want.
In his book, Dr. Kaner states :
The early rounds of a discussion cover safe, familiar territory. People take positions that reflect conventional wisdom, they rehash well-worn disagreements and they make proposals for obvious solutions…when a problem has an obvious solution, it makes sense to close the discussion quickly. [The problem is that] most groups try to bring EVERY discussion to closure this quickly.
When a group of decision makers has to wrestle with a difficult problem they will not succeed in solving it until they break out of the narrow band of familiar opinions and explore a wider range of possibilities.
Here's my point: In our example we used that logical and conventional selling process of identifying the DMs and getting in early. We convinced the Groupies that a new gizmo was needed. However when they engaged their stakeholders, the narrow band of familiar options left to the newly engaged stakeholders was "which new gizmo is best to replace our old broken gizmo?" There were no "wider possibilities"entertained (i.e. Do we need a new gizmo? Is the gizmo really broken? Is there something other than a gizmo out there that could help us?, etc...)
You can just imagine how it went for the Groupies a few days after your meeting. The Groupies start asking the stakeholders"which of the three gizmos did you like?" the stakeholders then said "None." or "Do we really need a new gizmo?" or "can we upgrade our old gizmo?" or "We need another widget before we need a gizmo." And since the Groupies worked at a risk averse company, can't build consensus with all these opinions coming out of "left field" and can't get the stakeholders to agree on a new gizmo, no decision is made.
You might be saying "Well of course - in your example you weren't talking to the right people. You should have engaged all the stakeholders. At least now you can do that – reaching out past the Groupies." Again, some more conventional 20th Century sales advice that doesn’t hold up in the 2010s.
CEB recently reported that the average group sale has 5.4 decision makers involved. So if as a rep you’re doing your job and are already engaged with those 5 and a half people – the Groupies in our example – how realistic is it to think that you can and should meet every potential stakeholder the Groupies will come in contact with during their buying process? Is that the BEST use of your time? There may be five, ten, twenty more people you have to talk to. What do those meetings look like? What are their outcomes? And what about other customers, prospects and other deals? How many customers can you work with if every enterprise or large mid-market client engagement requires you to engage 20 different stakeholders?
No, we can’t simply just do the same old conventional sale – linking ourselves and our solution to each stakeholder. The math doesn’t work. That’s too many connections, too many points where the process could breakdown.
Think about this – every time you hear someone say “you lost the deal because we weren’t talking to the right people” I contend that you, in fact, were probably talking to the right people.
It’s just YOUR right people weren’t talking to or engaging with THEIR right people.
And I believe that's something we can do something about.
In my next article I’m going to address how I believe we have to think of this unconventionally.
Conventionally, we’ve always been told as salespeople we need to build a relationship with our customers.
I’m going to argue that in the 21st century, the first rule of business in group sales is still to build and facilitate relationships – but not the way you might think.
We need to build and facilitate relationships between our customer’s internal stakeholders.
We have to connect these people to each other before we connect them to ourselves.