Gaining Consensus, “Yes?” “Meh..” “No?”

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We know that complex B2B decisions are driven by consensus. The days of “the decisionmaker,” influencers, and financial buyers, technical buyers, and so forth are gone — even though achieving consensus requires many of those players.

Likewise, we know the number of people involved in the buying process continues to increase. In the 10+ years since Challenger was originally published, the number of people involved in the buying process have more than doubled.

When we think of consensus, sometimes we think in egalitarian terms, “We want everyone impacted to be part of the decision-making process…..”

While that may be true, I suspect other factors dominate, though we don’t talk about them in polite business conversation. I suspect the drive for consensus is having other people in the boat with you, so the “blame” for a bad decision is shared across all of them. So consensus may be a result of personal risk aversion.

As a point of contrast, in transactional buying processes, where buyers have deep understanding of the issues, potential solutions, and critical success factors; personal and business risk is virtually zero, we find fewer people involved in the decision making process, and they typically take much less time (even though they may be for high $ values.)

Also, less cynically, complex B2B decisions are….. well, complex! No one person can have enough knowledge or experience to understand all aspects of the change that is being driven, the impacts across the organization, the risks, and so forth. Take, for example, a new type of technology supporting sellers in doing their jobs. There are IT implications, impacts on marketing, sales, customer experience, impacts of sharing information across other functions in the organization, and so forth. No one person (or small group) can understand all the issues and make a good decision. More people have to be involved in the decision making process.

Also, depending on the perspective of the “problems to be solved,” varying levels in the organization will be involved. For example, a buying decision supporting a strategic change in the organization requires senior management involvement, and because it may have an operational impact, the people implementing the change and using it may need to be involved.

So for both the cynical and non-cynical reasons, we can understand how the buying group is increasing.

And as we look at this, we start to consider the issue of “consensus.” What does it mean, how does our customer achieve consensus, how do seller work with customers to achieve a consensus decision which includes the purchase of our products and services?

As sellers we tend to get consensus wrong. As I’ve written in, On Consensus Buying, we have traditionally focused helping our customers achieve consensus on what to buy. Instead, we need to focus on helping the customer achieve consensus on what problem they are solving and why they need to solve it now.

There’s another aspect where we, and our customers, tend to think of consensus incorrectly. We tend to think of everyone voting with a resounding “Yes!” Making a decision usually isn’t an egalitarian process requiring everyone to provide a thumbs up.

In reality, it’s unrealistic that we need seek “consensus.” We need some” Yes’s,” but from the right people. For, perhaps many of the people involved in the decision, a strong “Meh…” is sufficient and most likely. But what is devastating to the consensus decision is the single, strong “No,” even from a person with little vested interest in the decision.

So, perhaps we need to rethink how we help customers manage to consensus. Rather than managing to agreement, we are more focused on avoiding the single No. We need some Yes’s, but a single No stops everything.

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