Sellers: Are You A Control Freak, or A Puppet On A String?


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Why So Controlling?

There is a member of the team at buyer insights that gets ‘hot under the collar’ at the notion that sellers can or should control buyers and their buying decisions. That is a view that for many sellers is heresy.

Do you seek to take control over the sale?

We often joke that our anti-control colleague is spending too much time with buyers and has become overly sensitive to their needs (as opposed to the sellers). Strangely, that is something that he does not deny could be true. We also suggest that he may be taking the term ‘control’ too seriously.

The result is a vigorous debate – the type we like here at buyer insights. One that attempts to reconcile what can often be two quite divergent views – those of the buyer and of the seller.

In this insight our ‘anti-control’ colleague argues for the need to temper the sellers need for control with the realities of modern buying. Here is how he made his case:

The Arguments Against Control

I want to start by making it clear that I am not suggesting that the seller adopt a sheepish, or detached role in respect of the buying decision – far from it! Clearly that is one way of reacting to the rise of competitive tendering and the new power of procurement which can have disastrous results.

However, what I am saying is that seeking to take control is not the right way either. It is also a skewed response to the changed realities of buying. A very different type of influence and control is now required in the context of the more sophisticated and structured modern buyer.

There are 4 pillars to my argument. I have posed them as questions below:

1. Why Not Lead Rather Than Control?

Taking control is an out-dated notion. There is a more modern and progressive take on control – it is called leadership!

2. Isn’t Seller Control An Illusion?

Taking control is not always possible – we will look at 7 trends in buying that circumscribe seller control.

3. Is taking control always desirable?

There are 5 reasons why taking control may hinder rather than help the sale.

4. Are we really talking about taking control?

When you ask sellers what they actually mean by ‘tacking control’ you will find that they are in reality modest in their control aspirations.

Let’s get started by addressing in turn each of the questions listed above.

Why Not Lead Rather Than Control?

Few other areas of business cling to the word or notion of ‘control’ in the way that sales does. The exception is perhaps engineering or operations – where you are dealing with schedules, equipment and other factors.

The reality is that while you can control things, you must lead people. That is at the core of management philosophy for many decades.

Just go to any business book shelf and scan the titles. You will find hundreds of books with leadership in the title, but few with control. But if leadership rather than control is the word used in other areas of business – why hasn’t it found its way into sales?

A More Sophisticated Form Of Control Is Required

Success in business, sport, or other areas requires a more sophisticated form of control – it is called leadership. That, rather than control is what sales needs too!

Rather than seeking to control, the seller should seek to lead the buyer. The additional ingredients that leadership has, but control doesn’t, include; vision, motivation, inspiration, teamwork, collaboration, empowerment, trust, integrity and so on. These are powerful in the context of winning the sale.

Its Time To Lead, Rather Than Control

You don’t control people, your only hope is to lead them. Control is a word we associate with dictators, autocrats, bureaucrats and demagogues. In seeking to control the sale, sellers have set the bar too low.

To paraphrase Sun Tsu ‘When the job is done the people say we did it’ – that is the essence of leadership and it as important in selling as any other area. It means to influence without seeming to take control.

Is Seller Control Just An Illusion?

Most buyers won’t be rushed or manipulated into making a decision by a salesperson. In many cases attempts by the seller to do so will be counter-productive, even destructive.

Corporate buying has changed – buyers have become more sophisticated, while buying decisions have become more structured. These changes have transformed the balance of power and control in the buyer’s favor.

Has the balance of power shifted in your industry?

An implication of these new realities of buying is that:

‘The seller can only take control where the buyer is not doing his, or her job properly. Buyers are admonished to take control into their own hands…

…Indeed, for professionally trained buyers the notion of the seller taking control is an ananethma. It is nothing short of a dereliction of duty!’

The last point is one that is easy for any of us to grasp. Selling to the procurement professional is different and it does limit our expectations of control. And selling to procurement is something that we are having to do more often as a profession – it is an obvious trend.

The 7 Trends Eroding Seller Control

There are at least 7 trends in buying that erode the seller’s ability to control the buyer.

1. More sophisticated buyers

The increased sophistication of buyers is a trend in many industries that has resulted in more confident, experienced and self-contained buyers. These are by their nature more independent and less under the control of the buyer.

2. Buying process starts before the sales process

Sellers are increasingly being called to the table later and then finding themselves in a competitive tender situation where there may be limited access and little to discuss other than price.

How many of these trends are evident in your industry?

3. Buying Process

Many organizations are adopting a more structured and process driven approach to buying. Increasingly there are steps that must be followed if the decision is to be sanctioned internally. The process while it may be resisted at first can quickly become source of comfort for the buyer.

The seller seeking to take control increasingly finds that buying process trumps sales process.

4. Competitive tendering

The rise of the competitive tender has resulted in the restructuring of the process of buyer-seller interaction in many organizations. By limiting access and engagement it often limits the ability of the salesperson to exert control over the sale.

5. The Rise Of Procurement

The professional buyer can be a ‘tough nut to crack’. Coming between the traditional buyer and the seller they can be cold or reserved and are immune to many of the seller’s techniques.

Even if procurement is not directly involved their influence is increasingly likely to be felt. They are laying down rules around buying – implementing processes, systems and procedures – that others must follow. One of the reasons for these processes is to limit the influence of the salesperson.

6. Buying Committees

It is harder to control a team than an individual. The increased number of executives (often from cross functional backgrounds) involved in the buying decision makes it more difficult fir the seller to take control. If managing diverse stakeholders is a challenge for buyers on the inside, that makes it an impossibility for the seller on the outside.

7. Asymmetry of Information

Once the salesperson was the sole source of information for the buyer. That put the seller in a position of power. Today the buyer has access to a wide variety of sources of information – many of which are more trusted than the seller. The buyer often knows more than the seller – particularly when it comes to their industry and their business.

Are We Really Talking About Taking Control?

When a sales manager or sales person says ‘take control’ what does he-she really mean? Well we asked them. Here are some examples:

1. Uncover needs – in particular needs they may not be aware of

2. Drive the agenda – be proactive rather than reactive

3. Challenge and define requirements in a way that puts your solution in pole position

5. Propose a better more creative solution – a better way to solve their problem

6. Engage key stakeholders – access the more senior decision-makers who control budgets

Click to see more examples of what sellers mean by ‘taking control:

7. Prequalify more aggressively – exclude opportunities that are waste of time and focus wholeheartedly on those that can be won

8. Ensure a next-action date and test the buyer’s commitment continually

9. Nudge or perhaps push the buyer along – ‘always be closing’

11. Stay two steps ahead of the buyer – look out for and anticipate any roadblocks or barrier

12. Set out your process for the buyer

13. Find out what the sponsor needs in order to push the decision along

14. Make sure the buyer gets key information

Based on these responses the language used around ‘taking control’ would appear to be nuanced. It suggests a more diluted form of control by the seller.

What do you mean by ‘taking control’?

Taking Control Of The Sales Cycle, or Buying Process?

It was clear that most of the examples provided by sellers really involved taking control of the sales cycle or process, rather than the buying process or buying decision.

What sellers are really talking about is ‘taking the initiative’ and ‘being proactive’ when it comes to key aspects of the sales process, in particular:

– Identifying and pre-qualying opportunities

– Analyzing needs

– Exploring solutions

– Building relationships

Those things are of course under the control of the seller. However there is little mention of controlling the buyer – at least not in ‘a puppet on a string sort of way’.

Is Control All That It Claims To Be?

You say taking control or the illusion of control can be ‘dangerous’- why is that? Well, here are a number of reasons:

1. It May Be Resisted

Every situation is different and some buyers want to be led by the hand by the salesperson. They want the salesperson to take control and to show the way. However that is increasingly rare.

Most buyers don’t want to be controlled, manipulated or closed! When it comes to the characteristics of salespeople that buyers they don’t want to buy from, or even meet, pushiness tops the list.

The salesperson who wants to be seen as a trusted adviser needs to take care not to be seen as attempting to take control.

2. It May Be Futile

Is so much talk about trying to take control really an admission that the seller is not in control?

Trying to corral the buyer along the seller’s process may be futile, even dangerous. Where a rigid buying process is mandated, the buyer cannot skip a step.

Attempts by the seller to circumvent the buyer’s process could result in disqualification. It could even result in a reset of the buying process, or a stalled deal.

3. It Can Limit Engagement

The ultimate prize for any salesperson selling to the modern buyer is engagement, not control. But access to senior level decision makers is becoming more restricted.

Managers are choosing to see fewer salespeople. You only get access by helping the buyer – by being a trusted adviser – not by being a ‘control freak’.

If selling is the battle for hearths and minds, then engagement rather than control is the primary strategy for success.

Unless the buyer has been involved in arriving at the solution and building the rational for the decision he, or she is less likely to be committed to it. That is called the IKEA effect. The lesson for the seller is that unless the buyer is involved in building it, he or she won’t care for it as much.

4. It Could Make You A Less Effective Negotiator

Research at INSEAD for example shows that letting go of the need to control enables people to better see the other person’s perspective and boost negotiation success – you can find links to that research here.

Similarly psychological research at Stanford shows that where salespeople feel they have power, they are more likely to exhibit socially dis-inhibited behavior, such as dis-honesty.

So, isn’t it time to take a more sophisticated view of control?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ray Collis
Ray Collis is a Business to Business sales coach, sales trainer, Director and Buyer Research Practice Lead of The ASG Group - recognized among the Top 5 sales training organizations worldwide in terms of overcoming the challenges in B2B selling to procurement, or the sophisticated buying organization (ES Research Group). Ray is co-author of several books, including The B2B Sales Revolution and QuickWin B2B Sales, and also of the sales blog Buyer Insights.


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