Consensus And The Unparalleled Problems Of Alignment

There is nothing more critical to success in sales than your command of the fundamentals. Those fundamentals include things like prospecting, commitment-gaining, presenting, overcoming objections (what we more accurately describe as “resolving concerns”), and negotiating. While these fundamentals are still every bit as necessary, there are new fundamentals that require more exceptional skills, present more difficult challenges, and demand more from salespeople — one of the most challenging being building consensus and the unparalleled problems of alignment.

Lack of Alignment: Compelled to Change

One of the primary challenges in building consensus may be present from the start of your sales conversations. You may have been fortunate enough to find someone inside your dream client’s company who is highly motivated to change. This person (or persons) is struggling with something that compels them to do something to improve things, or maybe you compelled them to do something different.

At the very same time you’re meeting with your highly motivated contacts, there are other stakeholders who are not at all compelled to change, believing that there is no problem at all. Those contacts who may not be known to you may be too far away from whatever is compelling their peers to recognize it as a problem, something we might call “the ground truth” problem. There may also be other people who are going to weigh in on any decision to change who believe that the problem isn’t worth solving at all.

Solving these consensus challenges requires that you help those who support a change to convert those who feel no compulsion to change.

Lack of Alignment: Priorities

If a lack of agreement on whether to change is not complicated enough, there is also the problem of a lack of alignment on the company’s priorities. One person on the leadership team believes your initiative is critical and should be fast-tracked as the highest priority. Another person on that same leadership team believes they should pursue another initiative first.

While people may agree that there is a reason to change, there are competing priorities, all demanding the investment of time and money. In Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away from Your Competition, I wrote a guide for displacing your competitor. What we didn’t have room for in that book was a chapter on how to displace other priorities, something that the Level 4 Value Creation process can help you achieve by proving your initiative will have a more significant impact on some strategic outcome.

Building consensus here requires that you help your contacts build the value of your initiative enough that it overtakes other efforts.

Lack of Alignment: Process

I struggle with the idea of a buyer’s journey as applied in business-to-business sales. The idea of a linear process pretends that a group of people are all at the same stage at the same time with the same goals. Reality isn’t kind enough for this to be true, and the larger the number of people, the more they will lack alignment. Different stakeholders can hold varying ideas about the process of making change, a challenge made more difficult when contacts live around the country or world, as time zones can make scheduling nearly impossible.

One group can schedule meetings around a potential change while others miss the meeting, creating a gap in where they are in the process. Some people miss meetings intentionally as a strategy to slow or prevent progress and protect their priorities. Others can and will leave out people who are later going to be necessary to any decision to move forward, preferring to avoid their concerns or opposition to their project.

Moving your initiative forward may require that you help your contacts identify and execute a process they believe will result in a decision to move forward.

Lack of Alignment: Right Solution

Recently I watched a group of people argue over whether they should outsource a specific outcome or bring it in house and do it themselves. One group believed outsourcing made more sense, preventing them from being distracted by something not core to their business. The other group thought they had the internal skills and that it would save money. Either choice would provide them with the outcome.

Where there is more than one way to solve a problem, some stakeholders may prefer one over another. The fact that you found contacts who believe you have the right solution is helpful, but it doesn’t indicate that there are not people who think that there is a better solution, or that the solution they prefer is not going to be better for them. Internal conflicts like the ones listed here are common among teams, some with a process that allows them to sort out their differences and come to a decision, and others who struggle to decide if it means some people don’t get what they want.

Creating a preference for your solution means differentiating from your competitor’s or an alternative. Consensus often requires that you make changes to mitigate any difficulties your solution creates for the stakeholders that prefer another solution.

Lack of Alignment: Right Partner

In Eat Their Lunch, I call this “preference.” Whom do the stakeholders want as a partner, and how strong is that preference?

The people who meet with you may prefer you, believing you are the right partner for them and their company. There may also people, known or unknown, who prefer your competitor, a fact that may be unknown to you unless you ask questions that uncover the lack of alignment. If you work in an industry that requires you displace your competitor to win business, you can count on there being people who support the incumbent. Even when there is no incumbent, if there is a competition, you can expect there to be some who prefer your competitor.

Building consensus may require you to flip some of the stakeholders that prefer someone else.

Going a Different Direction

If you had engaged in the sales conversation with contacts that ended when they told you, “We decided to go another direction,” you have found two mistakes, the first is not knowing there were stakeholders who were left out and did not ask the questions that might have let you recognize a lack of alignment. As difficult as it can be to solve alignment problems, it’s less painful than losing.

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