On Consensus Buying

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We know that most complex B2B buying is a consensus process. Everybody in the buying group has to align around a set of goals in order to make a buying decision. We, also, know the buying group tends to grow. It’s somewhere in the “mid-teens” for large complex buying decisions.

As sellers. we typically reach out to as many people in the buying organization as we can. We seek to determine their goals/objectives, understand their issues, what they are looking for, and how we can best help them.

We start with discovery calls to each of the buyers, trying to understand their issues. We diligently cycle through all of them. Sometimes, we loop through each several times. Then once we understand what they are looking for, we loop back through each of them, discussing how we help them achieve their goals, and we may cycle through again, dealing with questions, objections, helping each person make a decision.

It’s the way I was taught, it’s the way most of us are taught. We strive to reach out and engage each person involved in the buying process.

For example, the finance people may be concerned about cost reduction. They may also be concerned about whether the capitalize the investment or manage it as an operating expense. IT (if it’s a software/technology solution) may be worried about implementation. LOBs will be concerned with how it impacts their functions. For example, a VP of Sales may be concerned about improving sales productivity, sales ops may be concerned about the data they need for analytics, customer service may be concerned about easy user interfaces to maximize their productivity.

And, if we are doing our job, we work with each of these buyers identifying their goals, addressing their concerns, demonstrating how we can help them. And we keep doing that, through their buying process. If we execute that well, we will have understood the goals of each individual and demonstrated how we address their goals.

We have done everything we should have done, we have created great value with each person on the buying team,

And the buying team meets to make a decision, to arrive at consensus. And they fail! They can’t reach a decision! Frustrated, they declare, No Decision Made!

And we are bewildered. We did the right job working with each buyer. We didn’t pitch our products, but we sought to understand each person’s goals and concerns. We tried to teach them, we diligently presented how our solutions would help them achieve their goals.

Yet they couldn’t make a decision.

The challenge is, in these complex buying decisions, they are making a consensus decision. To do this, they have to have consensus on their goals, what they are trying to achieve, what’s important to them as a group–not as individuals. And we have solved the problem for them, as individuals, not helped the group solve their problem.

A consensus decision requires consensus in what the group is trying to achieve. It is never the summation of individual goals and objectives.

Some years ago, we were doing the same thing in trying to close our deals. We’d call on everyone, focus on their needs, we’d see differences between individual buyers and try to reconcile them. We worked the buying group as we thought we should.

At one point, I don’t think it was through any brilliant insight, but rather through frustration with having to conduct all these individual meetings, we came up with the idea, “rather than calling on each individual, we would be much more productive if we got the group of buyers together.

We started doing our discovery with the group, not the individuals. We’d get everyone together in the conference room. We’d go around the table, asking everyone what they were trying to achieve, what their goal was. People would express their goals–finance would say cost reduction, IT would say implementation, and so forth. But then we would ask, “What are you trying to achieve as a group? What is the goal the group must align around to achieve consensus?”

And that’s when the fights and disagreements broke out. Each person focused on their own goals. We facilitated discussions on the different points of view, we started forcing them to stack rank their priorities. At the end of the process, we would get them aligned around a common goal and objectives for the group. They had reached consensus on the goal they were trying to achieve. And that provided a clear framework by which they might make a decision.

Naturally, each person in the group had individual issues and concerns, but they were all about achieving the common goal and what it meant to each of them. We had moved them away from focusing on their individual goals.

We started noticing, we were accomplishing much more with our customers than we had by the cycles of meeting with each individual. We started managing them through the buying journey through facilitating collaborative group meetings, rather than lots of individual meetings. Through that process, we could keep them aligned. That process also enabled each person in the buying group to understand their colleagues needs and concerns better. It provided a platform to help them understand and reconcile differences, align around a common set if issues, and more easily reach a decision that helped each of them–and the group.

Another piece of magic that happened, we and the customers were getting more done in fewer meetings. In some cases the customer reached a decision much more quickly. In others, it took roughly the same number of days, but far fewer meetings. As a result both they and we were more productive (Regular readers may recall how we reduced our average calls to close from 22 to 9. Leveraging this consensus building approach was key to doing this.)

It is virtually impossible for our customers to reach a consensus decision, unless they are first aligned around a common goal. A common view of what they are trying to achieve, when, and what that means to them as a group. It is this consensus goal that is the unifying point, through their buying process. It is in the context of this goal that each individual can establish their own needs, requirements, and expectations in achieving that shared goal.

As we’ve worked this process, over the years, it’s produced tremendous results for us. First, we create huge value working with the customer in the most difficult parts of their process–keeping alignment in what they are trying to achieve. Second, we’ve dramatically improved our productivity and that of the customers–we get more done in fewer meetings, because we focus on the group and what the group is trying to achieve, rather than what each individual is trying to achieve. (Make sure you interpret this correctly, you may want to go back and re-read some of this.)

Afterword: We’ve actually developed some fun tools to facilitate these consensus building conversations. Reach out to me, I’m glad to share them with you.

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