There are new rules in B2B sales. There is also a set of rules for how decisions are made, how consensus is built.
Rule 1: There is No Decision Maker
In days long past, one was instructed to find “the authority,” that individual invested with the power to bind their organization to a deal. It was believed, and was often true, that this high-level executive, if properly pursued, was all that was necessary to win a deal. The person at the top of the organizational chart would force his will on the rest of the organization, over any protestations to the contrary.
This person, “the authority” no longer exists. Instead, there are “decision-makers,” each of whom is invested with some power—and some amount of influence—when it comes to any decision to change. Leaders are rarely willing to force their decision on the people in their charge, believing that they hired smart people to make decisions and execute those decisions. These leaders now know that without the support of the people in their charge, execution will be difficult—if it is even possible.
If you are looking for a single decision-maker in a B2B sales, you are unlikely to find one. Instead, you must now seek out all who are going to participate in any decision to change.
Rule 2: Influence is Stronger than Authority
Authority isn’t what it used to be. Influence, on the other hand, is what it has always been: quiet, invisible, and powerful beyond belief. Influence is even more powerful than authority, something that has been true throughout human history.
In a room full of people, influence can be very hard to discern with the naked eye. The quiet person who sits without saying a word, but who is the subject matter expert the rest of the team relies on to interpret what they are hearing, may seem like someone with little concern—and no real impact on the course of the meeting. That person, however, may be the linchpin, the person who whispers yay or nay quietly into the ear of those who will cast votes to move forward or choose your competitor.
The most powerful forces in the universe are invisible, like gravity and radiation. If you are not looking for and working towards uncovering influence, you will struggle to win a consensus.
Rule 3: Your Client Doesn’t Know Who Is Deciding
When your prospective client lets an RFP, they have a well-defined process (even if it doesn’t serve them nearly as well as they might believe), and that process invariably includes the stakeholders that have been assembled to review proposals and presentations. There are many deals that look like this, but there as many or more without a formal process.
When there is no defined process, ad hoc teams are brought together to decide. Your client doesn’t often know who is going to be part of that team. In fact, you may work with one department inside your dream client and get all the way to the end of the sales conversation only to find that another department has torpedoed your deal. The department that kills your deal does so because they have competing interests—and sometimes because they were left out of the process.
The responsibility to identify the people who are going to be affected by any decision to change and build consensus now falls to you. This is true even when your dream client tells you consensus is unnecessary, and even when they believe bringing in other stakeholders is a risk to your initiative. As always, it is your responsibility to control the process.
Rule 4: You Still Need Executive Leadership
In many of the companies you are pursuing, there is a competition over priorities. We often believe that the only displacement we need to make is the one where our competitor is removed. I would this were true, but it isn’t. The truth of the matter is that as often as not, we are not only displacing a competitor, we are also displacing other priorities. Without executive support, consensus is difficult.
The stakeholders who support you are going to have to make the case that you should displace your competitor—or be chosen over them in any contest. They are going to have to make a case to their executive leadership team as to why they are choosing you. If executive leadership is part of the process, you have a greater likelihood of gaining their support, support you may also need when your deal runs into trouble throughout the process of building consensus. Executive leadership is often the tie-breaker or final arbiter on important decisions.
Every day, deals die because of a change of priorities. I wish I could support this with a fact, a percentage that would shake you to your very core, but I cannot. That does not mean it is not significant.
Keeping your initiative alive is difficult when the ground is shifting beneath your feet. Unless your initiative is tied to something strategic, it can easily be displaced by higher priorities. What often prevents your project from being moved into the future is the support of executive leaders who will argue that what you are doing is important to them, and that is should be pursued now.
There is nothing easy about gaining an executive sponsor, but if you would build consensus, you need a leader.
Rule 5: Mitigate Challenges and Be Aware of the Politics
To gain consensus, you are going to have to do two things. First, you are going to have to mitigate the harm your initiative causes some stakeholders where and when that is possible. Second, you are going to have to be cognizant of your client’s internal politics. Of the two, mitigation may be the easier, which in no way should give you the feeling that it is any sort of cakewalk.
If what you are proposing makes some department’s life more difficult, it your responsibility to do what is in your power to mitigate the problems you create. Sometimes that requires you adjust your solution. Other times, it requires asking other stakeholders to change the way they are doing something, the timing, or the investment they are making. When conflict exists, collaboration is possible. If you want the support of those who may be in some way harmed, do your best to help them so they stand down and do not oppose your initiative.
Politics exist in every company, and in my experience, even more so in companies that suggest that they have no politics. One of the ways you might look at the politics is through the lens of how you sequence the meetings you have, the stakeholders you include, and who and what is going to be necessary for a yes. Do you build consensus with the friendlies before bringing in the dangerous opponent, leaving them so far behind that you steamroll him into submission? Or do you bring them in early, forcing their challenge into the light so that you can dispatch it early?
In a change initiative, some party may stand to gain power and influence at the expense of others. Building consensus requires you to be aware of the game that is being played and make good—and strategic—decisions.
These are the new rules of consensus.
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