This is my fourth contribution to the series “what is B2B sales excellence in the customer age?”, and today I’m going to focus on what B2B sales organisations need to do to understand and facilitate the decision making process in complex sales environments.
It’s commonly accepted that the typical B2B buying process has become more complicated, with more stakeholders involved in the decision process. The days when a single highly placed customer executive could make a decision without much regard for the people who would have to implement it are, thankfully, gone.
Research by the CEB quoted in their excellent recent book “The Challenger Customer” highlights the fact that, on average, 5.4 people are formally involved in a typical buying decision. Not just 5.4 people – 5.4 different perspectives, different priorities and (often) different agendas.
In some particularly complex environments, the number of formal decision makers can run into double figures. And that’s without taking into account all the informal influencers that might have a less well-defined contribution.
Even in a well-functioning buying decision process, these facts can make it hard to achieve consensus. But in a dysfunctional decision making environment, it can become nigh on impossible.
Two probable outcomes
This leads to one of two outcomes: either the decision team concludes that change is simply too hard, and they might as well stick with the status quo – or they choose the lowest cost or safest option – the latter typically, if often inaccurately, seen as the one offered by the best-established brand.
Attempting to accurately identify, let alone engage, all the key stakeholders is often an impossible or impractical strategy. And vendors have to ensure that there is a compelling case for change before they can hope to successfully promote their solution.
Three parallel strategies
Faced with this, B2B sales organisations need to execute three parallel strategies: first, they need to identify and engage an influential sponsor within the prospect organisation who is capable of forming a “coalition of the willing” across all the interested parties.
Second, they need to work through and with this sponsor to demonstrate that the pain and risk of sticking with the status quo is significantly greater than the cost and risk of change. And third, they need to clearly differentiate their offering in a way that is seen to be meaningful to the customer’s desired outcome. Fail in any one of these strategies, and the chances of doing business with the prospect decline precipitously.
Where’s the mobiliser?
The CEB refer to these influential sponsors as “mobilisers”. They identify a number of primary behavioural modes in these mobilisers, but they all share two critical characteristics: they are capable of driving change across their organisation and of building consensus among their fellow stakeholders.
Now, I’m not suggesting that it is realistic to believe that you can develop your current contact – if they lack the above abilities – into something they aren’t. But if you recognise that they are unlikely to build a consensus for change, you have three options: you can carry on regardless, in which case you need to accept the risk that the decision making process may not be favourable to you (or any other vendor).
Or you can attempt to work with and through your current contact to reach someone else who appears to be a more likely mobiliser, or you can qualify the opportunity out as a poor use of your time. But ignoring the issue won’t make it go away.
Establishing the case for change
Building a traditional ROI model won’t by itself prove the case for change, as any of your prospects that have tried to build their own will probably already have learned. If there is no case for change, the ROI calculation is irrelevant. So you first need to help your prospects establish the costs and consequences of inaction.
What would happen if they stuck with the current situation? What bad things would happen? Who else would be affected? What are the financial consequences? If these answers aren’t both clear and compelling, the case for change is likely to be weak – and hard to get the stakeholder group to accept.
Creating genuine differentiation
The third leg of the strategy is to create compelling differentiation. This is particularly important if you are neither the cheapest option nor the best-established brand. You need to demonstrate that your approach offers the prospect the best chance of achieving their desired outcome at the least possible risk.
Having the longest list of technical capabilities won’t help you here – in fact you’ll probably end up bewildering or confusing the decision making group. The key to differentiation isn’t the longest feature, advantage or benefit list: it’s the strongest and most resonant theme.
Your differentiation theme needs to be so simple that every member of the decision making team can understand, relate to and buy in to it – because they need to be capable of relaying that message to others who are concerned with the outcome of the decision process.
More complicated than simply selling to the C-Level
This is a lot more complicated than simply “selling to the C-Level”, isn’t it? But I believe that it reflects the way that most B2B buying decisions are made, and explains the difficulties many sales organisations are facing.
So, surely, mastering this challenge has got to be one of the essential elements of B2B sales excellence in the customer age.