It’s Not Really a Consensus Sale (So Don’t Treat it Like One)

As spending authority rises higher within organizations, the number of senior managers or executives able to sign off on significant purchases declines. But because leaders are more likely to seek the opinions of others, there’s been a proliferation in the number of people involved in the buying process. As a result, sales professionals are overinvesting, or worse, wasting time and resources trying to sell to people who don’t have the authority to say “yes,” and can only say “no.”

If CEO’s and CFO’s calculated the cost of this inefficiency in sales hours invested, travel costs, organizational resources applied, they’d faint.

It’s a fixable issue, though because they can use these trends to take a leadership approach to the selling process. This is notably different from the consensus approach advocated by the authors of a March 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Making the Consensus Sale.”

That article relied on surveys by CEB, a member-based advisory company, of more than 5,000 stakeholders involved in B2B purchases. The surveys found that, on average, 5.4 people must sign off on every purchase. This is revealing data, but the interpretation made was that, to succeed, sales reps must drive consensus within the purchasing organization—in essence, that they must sell to a committee.

My conclusion is different. In my work I consistently see and hear that there are actually fewer decision makers than ever to sell to. Not more. This has been consistently the case in evaluating over a hundred sales opportunities sales opportunities with clients. See what conclusion you draw when you examine the opportunities being pursued by your company and considering the following.

Budget line items don’t indicate five or more people accountable, it’s usually one. Sure multiple divisions may financially support a purchase, but I’ve never seen an allocation of budget responsibility go to more than one leader. Few purchase agreements or checks have five signature lines and I’ve never heard of a contract signed by “the committee.”

For example, let’s say a six-person board is asked to choose from among three vendors. The odds that all six will agree on one choice are slim.  Like anyone else, when providing the feedback needed to make a decision, the members of boards and committees are governed, to a certain extent, by self-interest. Perhaps one person brought the vendor into the organization, or another owes the vendor a favor. Accountability or fiduciary responsibility is key here.

There is no doubt that more leaders today favor a collaborative approach versus a command and control style. But it’s still the buyers job as a leader to create alignment among a team, and if a salesperson has to work on creating consensus, it’s a sure sign authority has been at least partially abdicated (among other problems). It’s unlikely that the seller is going to be able to provide the leadership needed and that’s why nearly 60% of sales cycles end up with no decision being made. Ultimately, while more people do have their hands in the decision-making pot, the inescapable truth remains, one person truly decides.

What’s a seller to do? I’ve worked closely with sales organizations in a variety of industries from consulting and technology to consumer-packaged goods observing sales calls, developing opportunities, and formulating strategies. I’ve realized that while all have their nuances, there are some useful commonalities in leading sales cycles where multiple influences are involved in some fashion.

A sales professional does need to have an understanding of the circumstances, objectives, and concerns of the various stakeholders, in order to better help the buyer to make a decision. This needn’t be an overly complex effort and the real caution is to make sure that too much time and resources are spent doing so. It happens so easily because it’s a path of less resistance as stakeholders are often eager and willing to spend time with sales discussing their specific requirements, and sharing their opinions on what the sales recommendation or proposal should consist of. This can become a significant distraction.

The priority has to be creating an appropriate level of engagement with the person making the decision, who is often more difficult to access. Only with an understanding of that buyer’s specific goals for the business can the views of others be put in perspective for what is in the best interest of the customer.

None of this is to suggest a seller should adopt the scorched earth policy by brashly insisting they talk only to the decision maker and treat others impacted as second-class citizens (A mistake I’ve seen plenty of sellers make in the name of getting in to the C-Suite). Most of the time, that just alienates people and rarely had the desired effect.

The key to doing this effectively is identifying their role in the decision and regarding them professionally with respect. Sales teams have a variety of code names for these people, including Influencer, Champion, Promoter, or Supporter, all of them conveying the idea of sponsorship in one form or another. Working with these influencers to gain access to the decision maker is the best bet. That could mean a meeting together, providing an introduction, or even arranging the meeting for the seller. The reasons for doing so range from increased success rates of an implementation with early involvement from the buyer, hearing clear and unfiltered expectations from them, and of course a recognition that if there is someone with the fiduciary responsibility for a purchase, that its irresponsible not to meet with them prior to submitting a proposal. There are many approaches, each of them taking in to consideration the best interest of the potential client.

A financial services firm I’m working with has successfully utilized the strategy of involving their executives to help in creating interaction with priority prospects. A technology consulting firm is working with influencers to highlight the importance of identifying the business outcomes and ROI of a systems implementation—all of which require input from the real buyer.

I’ve seen all of these situations occur and I’ve also seen circumstances where those influencing a decision would not help to create access. In the instance of the latter, this is a major red flag, and without that interaction it’s clear that there is a low probability for success. It’s one of the hardest things for sales professionals to do, but at this point its better to reduce the effort or let go entirely.

Its reasonable to stay minimally engaged as long as the focus is to ensure proper interaction with the buyer. These professionals are no doubt important to the process and can be critical allies once the sale is made and must be implemented. But the most common mistake sellers make is squandering time, effort and energy selling to these people by demonstrating capability, over-investing in diagnosis or needs analysis, and sometimes even negotiating fees. Remember attempting to sell to them is wasted time—after all, they can’t really buy from you and can only say “no”.

“Get to the decision-maker,” has long been conventional wisdom. But selling in today’s environment requires more. It requires a sophisticated approach balancing common interests with your point of view. One that recognizes that, even in an age of committees, one person still has the power to say “yes.”

About the Author

Companies like AT&TLenovo, and The Los Angeles Times, hire Scott Edinger to work with their senior leaders. He is recognized as an expert in helping organizations achieve top and bottom line growth. Scott’s recent book The Hidden Leader is a Washington Post Bestseller, and was selected as one of the best business books of 2015. He is also co-author of The Inspiring Leader: Unlocking the Secrets of How Extraordinary Leaders Motivate (McGraw-Hill 2009), and the Harvard Business Review article Making Yourself Indispensable, called by HBR a “classic in the making.” Scott is also a regular contributor to Forbes and the Harvard Business Review.