Your salespeople are spending too much time with the wrong people


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…or at least, that’s the conclusion from a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. In it, the authors of the Challenger Sale reveal some fresh conclusions from the Corporate Executive Board’s ground-breaking research programme into B2B buying and selling behaviours.

In “The End of Solution Sales“, they conclude that most traditional sales people are spending far too much time with the wrong people – because they tend to seek out friendly informants. Perhaps it’s human nature for most of us to want to avoid disagreement – but as the authors point out, comfortable conversations rarely cause people to change their perspective.

They go on to suggest that traditional sales training approaches – by stressing the need to find an advocate or coach – may actually be reinforcing the problem, and encouraging sales people to waste their time in what frequently turn out to be unproductive conversations that do little to influence the buying decision process.


Perhaps encouraged by such thinking, the researchers found that average sales people tend to gravitate towards three stakeholder types – “guides”, “friends” and “climbers” – that the authors collectively refer to as “talkers”. These talkers tend to be approachable and to openly share information – but these types are usually ineffective at establishing the company-wide consensus that is typically required when making complex buying decisions.

This focus on “talkers” is, I believe, a primary explanation for why so many apparently promising sales opportunities – after making what initially seems to be great progress – fall into a black hole of indecision in which previously helpful contacts either go “radio silent” or prove to be completely ineffectual in taking the opportunity further.


On the other hand, the researchers found that consistently top-performing sales people were far more inclined to go into harm’s way by seeking out a different set of stakeholder types – “go-getters”, “teachers” and “sceptics” (collectively referred to as “mobilisers”) that responded to the sales person’s provocative ideas with hard questions and healthy (and open) scepticism.

Whilst conversations with “mobilisers” were often uncomfortable, they were often far more productive, and characterised by a candid exchange of opinions rather than mere pleasantries. Sales people who still rely on a “product pitch” approach are unlikely to get anywhere with these types of stakeholders.

Mobilisers are not interested in your company, your products, or your services. They are concerned about facilitating positive, productive change for their organisation. They are motivated by issues and insights and the opportunity to learn something new, valuable, and actionable. And if they are so naïve or inept as to ask them “what keeps them up at night”, your sales people deserve to be invited to exit the stakeholder’s office through the nearest open window.

Mobilisers reveal their interest and their engagement by pushing back against what they have just been told and by asking tough, specific questions. In our experience, these conversations offer a far better basis for accurately qualifying the true potential of an opportunity. They can help sales people to understand whether a truly strong case for change can be established, and whether the vendor’s approach stands a chance of being regarded as credible.


By the way, the research identified a final stakeholder type – the “blocker” – that was easier to spot, and easier to avoid. Simply put, blockers are determined to preserve the status quo – for whatever reason – at all costs. Even otherwise ineffective sales people usually have little difficulty identifying them.

Identifying stakeholder types

Bear in mind that these seven profiles are not mutually exclusive, but the researchers concluded that almost every stakeholder had a bias towards one of the identified profiles when it came to their interaction with vendors. The following decision tree – derived from the article – can help sales people to work out which category any individual stakeholder is most likely to fall in to.

Stakeholder Type Decision Tree 600

In summary:


  • Go-getters: champion need for action based on great insights
  • Sceptics: push back on almost everything, wary of complexity
  • Teachers: share insights and persuade others to take action


  • Climbers: are focused more on personal gain than on corporate good
  • Friends: are approachable and willing to facilitate access to others
  • Guides: share information normally inaccessible to outsiders


  • Blockers: dislike change and strongly defend the status quo

How do stakeholders prove what type they really fall into? By their actions. There’s a distinctive difference between people who aspire to be mobilisers and those who actually have the influence and power to do so – and you can only prove that by testing their ability to actually make things happen.

What next?

First, I strongly suggest that you read the original article. I recommend that you share the thinking with your entire sales team, and get them to assess their current contacts within their prospects against these 7 stakeholder profiles. Be prepared to contest their assessments – it’s all too easy to classify talkers as mobilisers through wishful thinking. If the contact hasn’t appeared willing to push back or challenge your sales person, they are very unlikely to be a mobiliser.

If your sales opportunities appear to be primarily driven by talkers, you should be properly concerned for your forecast. Work with your sales people to develop a plan to identify and engage the real mobilisers – and if that attempt fails, you need to seriously consider whether that opportunity should be qualified out.

If you think an external perspective might help (it usually does) or if you’d like a full-size version of the decision tree, then please drop me a line or give me a call.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


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