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Consensus Buying is Stalling Solution Selling and Disrupting Go to Market Strategy

Consensus buying is stalling solution selling and disrupting go to market strategy for many companies.  Vendors need to adapt to consensus buying as organizations today are more risk averse.   Solutions today are more complex as vendors strive to differentiate, add value and command higher prices.  In response, customers are embracing a consensus mentality  when making purchasing decisions to protect themselves as an organization and as individuals.

Consensus Buying is Stalling Solution Selling and Disrupting Go to Market Strategy - RiskOrganizations have become increasingly risk averse when making purchase decisions for solutions costing up to six and seven digits. Concurrently, vendors experience this aversion to risk in the form of longer sales cycles and lower close rates.  It’s a “Catch-22” because vendors have been promising organizations solutions for decades and customers learn, months or years later, that the “solution” either was incomplete, did not provide live up up to the unique selling proposition, or required extensive customization–delays and additional costs.  The result is that organizations are opting for the classic management technique to to address this issue–slow things down, involve more people and look for consensus.  In this scenario, the organization looks for mutual buy-in or consensus from the organization and that reduces the risk that the decision makers career is on the line.

CEB Customer Loyalty Survey Results Support the Consensus Sales Model

The CEB B2B customer loyalty survey reveals that 53% of customer loyalty is driven by how a vendor sells, not by what a vendor sells.  The B2B customer loyalty survey study included respondents whose titles spanned C-level executives to procurement and influencers to consultants — and the sample was large enough to support insights by each title.  The study defined decision-makers as those individuals that actually signed the purchase agreement. This responsibility fell into two groups of titles: executives or procurement.  It was clear that the overall B2B sales experience is nearly twice as important to decision-makers versus the individual attributes of the sales rep.  In other words, decision-makers do not make it personal (when looking at the rule versus the exception) and as such they view their purchase to be from a organization and not from a person—i.e. a B2B sales rep.

The top five factors (ranked) that decision-makers listed as most important in inspiring B2B vendor loyalty were:

  1. Widespread support to the vendor across their organization
  2. The vendor’s organization is accessible
  3. The vendor’s organization is easy to do business with or buy from
  4. The vendor is willing to collaborate with other vendors that the organization does business with
  5. The vendor provides the best value for the price (note price is in the context of value)

As seen from the rankings above, the number one factor that drives B2B vendor loyalty for a decision-maker is widespread support for the vendor across their organization.  In the old days, no one ever got fired for buying IBM. Today, however, the pendulum has swung the other way — decision-makers are not willing to place their neck on the line for a purchase.

To be fair, many factors contributed to moving the pendulum:

  • The cost of software sold (licenses and recurring support)
  • The percentage that sat on the shelf
  • The percentage implemented at a cost that greatly exceeded the estimate
  • The projects that never reached the planned ROI
  • Terminations associated with the purchase

Decision-makers want to interact with individuals who can think at their pay-grade.  Specifically, their business issues are complex and plentiful. So when a sales rep has insight into these business issues and effective strategies to solve them, value is perceived by the decision-maker.

An Additional Concept

An interesting concept developed by Apple and noted management consultant and author Geoffrey Moore that supports the Consensus Sales approach is the concept of a complete or whole solution in his book Crossing the Chasm.  Moore speaks of this complete solution from a core and context point of view by explaining that vendors should do what is core to them and building an eco-system that completes the solution.  Apple built an ecosystem to add value to its products by deliberately leaving opportunity on the table.  The point is that no one vendor typically offers a complete solution and a best practice is to embrace and empower an ecosystem to to make the solution a complete or whole solution for a customer.  In this vein, decision-makers want a vendor who understands this ecosystem concept and has an “I can play nicely in the sandbox” mentality and will not be a Teflon-coated finger pointer.

Disrupting Go to Market Strategy – Driving Consensus Buying for a B2B Sale

A Challenger Sales Rep fully understands the mindset of today’s decision-maker and knows that they have to manage up, down and all the way around.  In solution selling, the idea was to get to the highest level in the organization and drive decisions top down. It was universally accepted that doing so would be the most efficient and effective sales process.  Unfortunately, selling is not a game of finding Marco Polo, making him your best friend and then getting him  to sign a purchase agreement.  Research shows that there are typically 20 or more people involved in a B2B technology sale and each person may not have THE vote but they do get A vote.

Consensus Buying is Stalling Solution Selling and Disrupting Go to Market Strategy - Ping PongA better analogy for effective selling today is a game of ping-pong.  While it is still critical to connect as high as possible in the organization, it should not be the entire sales strategy. A solution needs to be relevant to the customer’s business problem and provide tangible value that drives action.  And, it is critical to understand how the solution will impact the goals, strategies, structures, processes, systems, staff and compensation of the decision-maker’s team.  A skilled Challenger Sales Rep knows how and when to manage at the top and when to manage at the bottom, but most importantly, they know how to lead to the desired outcome.

Most B2B sales people would agree that there are several roles involved in the sales cycle — i.e.  a decision-maker, approver, recommender, influencer and sniper (the person who either wants no decision, do it in-house or use another vendor).  Having insight into each of these groups is critical to developing a winning go to market sales strategy.

The CEB study identified end-users and influencers within the overall sales process, and summarized the factors driving their loyalty.  Unlike decision-makers, influencers believe they buy from people and not from organizations.  So if a rep is using the same sales deck or the same messaging with these two audiences it doesn’t matter if there are a lot of nods in the room — that sales cycle is going nowhere. The sales rep may just not know that yet.

According to the CEB study, to win over end-users, sales reps must:

  • Demonstrate a high level of professional (integrity, trust) – this is number one
  • Provide value by offering a unique perspective or adding to the pot of knowledge
  • Does not overstate the value of the solution
  • Understands the customer’s business and proactively helps to avoid land mines
  • Continuously updates on issues and outcomes
  • Is a champion for the end-user within the organization
  • Improves his or her professional standing via the project
  • Provides credible and compelling internal and external data
  • Is accessible to the end-user

Disrupting Go to Market Strategy – Consensus Buying Needs

End-users value unique perspectives, insight into issues and outcomes, anticipating landmines and other areas that help them understand and build their knowledge base.  This is diametrically opposed to most sales training that is designed to teach sales reps to ask better questions to document what an organization already knows about itself and it’s market.  End-users or anyone in the purchase process will not place a high value on a regurgitation of what they said, regardless of how well the output is formatted.  In fact, many customers become annoyed that their time was wasted to ask them and others within their organization a bunch of questions that will then be synthesized.  A synthesis is much less valuable than insights which lead to new perspectives and innovative thinking.  Customers value execution that generates more revenue, profitability, customer satisfaction and/or decreases costs in ways they never imagined and that will be a function of insights and innovation and that is a departure form solution selling.

A Challenger Sales Rep is always most effective when they turn influencers and end-users into internal evangelists by teaching them things that they do not know. Doing so is a huge driver for widespread adoption of  an vendor’s insight and then solution within an organization.  Influencers and end-users will repay a B2B sales rep with loyalty when they are taught something they value and did not know.  This is much different than selling them “something they need” — which is what relationship builders often are taught in solution selling.

It’s important to note that a majority of B2B sales reps miss a huge opportunity every day.  This is usually not based on a lack of intelligence, but on a flaw within many solution selling approaches.   In the CEB study, almost two-thirds of vendors revealed that their sales reps use customer interactions to extract data and information as opposed to providing insights.  Again, it all comes back to the idea of question-based selling.  Questions are not the evil here and there is such a thing as good questions.  However, asking questions to gather more information on how decisions are made and priorities assigned is synthesizing what already exists in the customer’s mind.  A chasm needs to be crossed so that these sales reps can become Challenger Sales reps and that requires empowering the sales team to lead those involved in the purchase process to actionable business insights that can be shared across the organization.  These insights are not only Consensus Buying is Stalling Solution Selling and Disrupting Go to Market Strategyappreciated by end-users and influencers, but by decision-makers as well and these insights must be part of the core messaging.

Consensus Buying is Stalling Solution Selling and Disrupting Go to Market Strategy

A widely-held belief in solution selling is to get to the top and have that executive drive the decision down through the organization. In doing so, sales reps are taught that decisions are made top down and decision-makers push decisions through procurement.  However, this approach is in stark contrast to what was found in the CEB study – i.e. that executives are mostly focused on widespread support for a solution across their organization.  When these opposing views collide, it is easy to see how a sales funnel becomes full at the top (a sales rep has a “good meeting” with a decision maker) and then deals get stuck or fall out of the sales forecast (the other 20 members of the purchase process are not onboard).

The Consensus Sales approach is about 180 degrees different.  While it is important to have a relationship with an executive, it is equally or maybe more powerful today to approach the team involved in the purchase process.  The goal is to harness this team and convert them to evangelist for the solution.  The fuel for this approach are insights and knowledge, and sales reps must lead the purchase team to these and empower them to can carry the torch.  This realization — that internal relationships between the decision-maker and stakeholders is stronger than a relationship that they could establish as an outsider — is a pivotal point in the new consensus sale.  A good portion of those stalled sales and “no decisions” are probably due to a sales rep not understanding that the internal relationship with the decision-maker always trumps the sales rep/decision-maker relationship.

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