Up the Down Staircase: How to Dance With Multiple Buyers in a Complex Sale
You’d rather call on a prospect you’re comfortable with than one you’re not, right?
If you’re selling training programs, you call on the vice president of sales or the director of training because you speak the same language. If you’re selling computer systems, you’ll be more comfortable with the head of IT. They each see the need for your solution clearly.
However, conventional wisdom says we should enter the company under favorable conditions at the C-level. After all, it’s a lot easier to get referred down than up. Only the trouble is, getting inside the C-Suite is more difficult than ever.
Granting a Meeting
In Selling to the C-Suite, authors Nicholas Read and Stephen Bistritz tell us the most effective way to gain access to the executive level is through an internal referral—84 percent of executives said they would ‘usually or always’ grant a meeting with a salesperson who was referred internally. Cold calling ranked lowest, and only 16 percent of executives said they would not grant a meeting without a referral.
Fortunately, I have had success getting into C-suites for complex sales, and I want to share my strategies with you. Many times they don’t start at the top. Once you’ve identified a clear buyer need, it’s easier to step onto the corporate staircase at the level of the buying influences, those who will either use your products and services or evaluate them technically.
The key to entering the C-suite rests with knowing your executive’s personal wins. And if his personal win is a hot initiative in the company, he’s likely to involve others within the organization. Let’s say the technical or human resources professionals have already begun to evaluate the problem and are deep into their research to find the right solution.
More Decision Makers
While the C-suite executive may be the final decision maker, he will have his team stress test many solutions and talk with many providers to assure himself that the company is making the right decision.
In one situation, which you can relate to, I did my homework and found a potential issue. I then made that C-suite contact, only to be sent down the staircase to the technical people who deal with the subject day-to-day.
Even if your offer impacts a C-executive personally, there seems to be a tendency, especially in large organizations, to involve more people. According to the 2015 MHI Global Sales Best Practice Study, the number of decision makers involved in the typical deal increased to 5.8 in 2015 up from 4.6. So today, not only are more people involved in a purchase than ever before, but they are different people from in the past. And each may have their own concept of a solution and their own personal preferences for what constitutes a win.
For most sales people, it’s still tough to open the C-suite, and even tougher still to tie your products and services to the major issues the buyer faces daily. For example, pretend you’re selling cost-saving health insurance solutions that impact the bottom line and affect corporate earnings, wouldn’t you think the C-suite would be on top of it as Sherlock Holmes in a mystery saga.
Even so, the C-suite executive is likely to send your discussion down to human resources which has already been tasked with the job of improving quality and reducing cost.
Go Back to C-suite
The point is, you can start with your technical buyer, with whom you are comfortable, and who understands your value proposition, but you must be sure to leverage that connection to get back up to the C-suite.
Starting at the technical buyer isn’t your problem. Your problem is the failure to leverage that resource to get to the C-Suite and to the final decision maker. Many salespeople in my workshops complain that they are pigeonholed with the technical buyer.
So how do you do that? You ask. You bond in partnership with your technical buyer, both of you on the same side of the table solving a problem in the center, and you go up to the C-suite together.
In a complex sale, it’s critical that you know who all the players are, how they interact with each other, and what role they play in the buying cycle. Equally important, you must know how each one wins if they make the change to your solution.
Economic Buyer Out Front
The economic decision maker—the one who gives final approval for most major purchases— is likely a C-level executive actively involved early in the buying process where she helps to define issues and set objectives.
Selling to the C-Suite authors Read and Bistritz interviewed more than sixty senior executives, ranging from vice presidents to chairmen from a variety of industries, and found that 80 percent were involved in the beginning steps of a buying process to understand issues and set objectives.
But then the C-level backs out. He delegates establishing criteria and evaluating options to lower-level personnel who are closer to the situation.
The authors cite an executive who said, “I get involved in the “what and why, not so much the how.” So if you want to sell to the C-level, you need to be involved early in the buying decision, in order to help your prospect company better recognize its problems and define its needs.
Leverage Technical Buyers & End-Users
If you can’t get to the C-Suite with this early discussion early, you need to use your knowledge and experience with the technical buyers and end-users, earn their trust and confidence, then leverage these relationships to ensure your message gets heard in the C-Suite.
I have found that users, particularly those with high levels of influence in the organization, will typically be involved throughout the buying process. The user level is often where the problems (or at least the symptoms) are first recognized by the prospect.
The user then reaches out to those with technical expertise to establish the buying criteria that must be met by suppliers, who typically becoming involved after the need is defined by the technical buyer’s research (the 57% zone we discussed in a recent blog). More than likely, the technical buyer has had discussions at the C-Suite to get buy-in to pursue a solution. Probe deep to understand the outcome of those discussions.
Even though salespeople do their homework, Sales Benchmark Index indicates that nearly 60 percent of all qualified sales pipeline opportunities actually end up in “no decision.” In other words, the majority of the deals you are working on won’t lead to anything different at the end of the process. In some industries, such as banking and insurance, sales leaders say 80 to 90 percent of “final presentations end up with the prospect sticking with the status quo.”
What this means for salespeople is that despite what your buyers are telling you, you need to have the patience to take a step back in the process and make sure that they (all of the buying influences) have a true concept or buying vision: 1) they’re convinced they can no longer stick with the status quo; 2) they understand the needs and requirements they should be considering; 3) they appreciate the urgency of the situation; and 4) they know what capabilities and strengths they should be looking for.
Ask Key Questions
Let’s look at an example of how you do that. Imagine you are successful in scheduling an initial meeting with a user buyer who heads the department (head of technology, human resources, accounting). Assuming you set that meeting with a topic of interest (what we call a valid business reason), and the meeting is going well based on user interest, you now need to build the strategy for the sale. Don’t sell your final solution at this stage, it will be a big mistake. You need to uncover missing information by asking the right questions.
You might ask, “Who else would you need to talk to about this?” “Who will be involved in the decision making process?” The fact that you know your product well, and have sold to similar organizations; you can influence the thinking of those involved. I also like to ask, “If you like our ultimate solution, who gives final approval?” This helps me understand who the economic buyer is.
For those of you who have been through Strategic Selling® with me, you can see what I have just done. I have started to identify the four buying influences in any complex sale (Economic, User, Technical, and Coach). If the user buyer identifies the economic buyer, then I need to understand how involved he or she has been in framing what the solution should look like.
It turns out, according to Forrester Research, 74 percent of executives indicated that they give their business to the company that helps them establish the buying vision. That means that 26 percent rely on a side-by-side competitive comparison to choose their winners.
First Understand the Issue
To sum up, understand the issue before you give your solution. That’s why you need to get insight from all those most impacted. Rather than immediately request a meeting with the final decision maker your user has identified, ask her if you can spend some time speaking with other user buyers, especially those who would be working with your solution day to day, to observe and further diagnose the need. Then what you would like to do is set up another meeting with her to bring her your findings.
As an example, the health insurance salesperson might ask, “To better understand the issues you are facing with your claims process, can I schedule some time to meet with your employee benefits people who are dealing with this day to day?’ “I’d like to get a better understanding of the process from their view and to report back to you on a solution that will deal with the issue.”
First, in most cases she will likely agree with your suggested action. You’re demonstrating that you’re focused on their issue and not there will a quick answer to the solution. Second, she will be more confident in bringing you to the economic decision maker as you have invested a lot of time and understand the issue best. This is a big credibility builder.
When you’ve done your heavy lifting with the user-buyer, you will find out a lot about the issue, start to understand the culture, and how the decision really gets made. Because of self-interest, those users will help convince the vice president of human resources that you bring expertise which can solve their problem. They will help you get to the economic decision maker, too.
To win complex sales is difficult. You face lots of competition, many decision makers, and an intertwined decision making process with each one holding on to his or her own reason for buying. That means you help each one along the way.
To win complex sales takes sales strategies and tactics that are more effective than those of the competition. And how you and your solution are positioned is your most important differentiator.
To win complex sales takes entering at the right step, moving at the right pace, working through relationships, and ending up in the C-Suite.
Now don your top hat and cane as you channel your inner Fred Astaire and tap your way up that beautiful, welcoming corporate staircase.
See you on the upside,
For more information on how to simplify the complex sale, go to www.pleinairestrategies.com
Or call Bill in San Diego at 760.340.4277 or 213.598.4700