Driving the Right Conversation

April 21, 2016 Mark Emmons

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One kitchen. Many cooks. A recipe for disaster.

It’s a familiar tale. And not just for chefs. A group of well-meaning people come together to solve a problem . . . and ultimately get nothing done. That’s because often the best way to ensure something doesn’t get accomplished is to form a committee. Let’s face it, reaching consensus is hard. After considerable discussion and debate, it can be much easier to decide to do nothing at all. Just kick the can down the road.

Cooks in the Kitchen

Cooks in the Kitchen

And that brings us to one of the thorny dilemmas in modern B2B sales: buying by committee.

Companies, of course, don’t buy things. People do. And we really do mean people. One person might sign the check, but the decision is a team effort. CEB, which has done some of the best research on the subject, determined that there is an average of 5.4 decision-makers in a B2B deal. CEB, by the way, is on the conservative end. Other surveys have estimated that the number of stakeholders can reach double-digits.

Getting all of those folks to agree on something just doesn’t happen on its own. That’s why Adam New-Waterson, the chief marketing officer at LeanData, believes salespeople and marketers must play the role of moderators as they help guide the internal discussions of potential customers toward making a purchase decision.

“We want to create great conversations that they’re having among themselves that hopefully lead them to choose our solution,” New-Waterson added. “If you want people to be having those specific discussions, you need to inspire them to start talking about us in the first place. It’s about trying to get them to speak to each other about the pains our product solves.”

The buyer’s journey has become a wild rollercoaster ride — lots of stomach-churning ups, downs and sharp turns. The products are more complex. The sales cycles are longer. There are all of those pesky stakeholders to win over. So it’s crucial to craft a compelling storyline that acts as a catalyst for those decision-makers.

You must persuade them to conclude, as a group, that the “pain of same” is greater that the “pain of change.”

“It’s all about understanding the challenges that they’re going through on a daily basis,” New-Waterson explained. “We have to figure out how to speak to them in a way that will motivate them into action. We need to understand how they interact and what conflicts they might have with one another that get in the way of making a decision.”

CEB is an authority on creating those discussions. The 2011 book, “The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation,” authored by Matthew Dixon IMG_2012and Brent Adamson, has become a modern sales playbook. It preaches the philosophy that reps should establish themselves as trusted advisors with prospects by doing three things — teach, tailor, take control.

In a 2015 follow-up book, “The Challenge Customer: Selling to the Hidden Influencers Who Can Multiply Your Results,” CEB addressed what it called the dark side of consensus. It describes how as more cooks are added to the deal kitchen, the chances of something going wrong increases. That’s because those 5.4 people, CEB writes, represents 5.4 different perspectives, opinions and agendas . . . and ultimately “5.4 opportunities to say ‘No.’”

The authors added: “It’s not that diverse customer buying groups can’t agree on anything, it’s just that, left to their own devices, they can’t agree on very much and will rarely agree on anything that is highly disruptive or ambitious.”

CEB’s sales methodology suggests identifying “the mobilizer” within each account. This is the person who comes to see the value of your product and also commands enough respect to find agreement among those other 4.4 stakeholders.

But New-Waterson also sees the need for a more holistic approach by salespeople and marketers when it comes to nudging all of those decision-makers toward consensus. Shepherding often independent thinkers with very different priorities to the same place requires finesse.

“The key is to look at all of those people and ask yourself: ‘What is the conversation that I want them to have?'”

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A deal likely will involve earning the support of influencers from a variety of roles throughout a company. It might include the vice president of sales, the chief technical officer and the social media manager. All need to understand why a product or service is going to make their lives easier. But it’s complicated because they all must be engaged in different ways.

When you’re talking to an IT manager, you’re stressing security and stability. If you’re reaching out to a social media manager, clever online memes might be the best way to grab his or her attention. It’s very different messaging with the same goal: getting them to think about their pain and what they can do to solve it.

Just focusing on “me” issues, though, isn’t enough. In fact, it even can be counter-productive if everyone in the buying committee is thinking solely about themselves. When that happens, individuals aren’t considering the common good — the hallmark of consensus. That’s why it’s so important that they also understand the “we” component. They need to see how this will help the overall business, and that’s really why they have to take action.

“The key is to look at all of those people and ask yourself: ‘What is the conversation that I want them to have?’” New-Waterson added. “This messaging needs to be driven by that question. You need to find a way to create urgency that this must be solved. Just floating down the river and doing nothing is the easiest thing to do. But you need to persuade all of them that it actually can be more painful in the long run.”

That means making everyone at the table feel like they are in this together. CEB describes how there’s a “vast difference between a collection of yeses and a Collective Yes.” But by guiding that right conversation so everyone sees the bigger picture, chances improve that they will reach an agreement.

That way in the end, all of those cooks will have worked together to bake a successful deal.

Read further to Part Two of this blog series, The Tactics Behind Driving the Right Conversation.

About the Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the staff writer at LeanData. He previously was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at mark@leandatainc.com.

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