Sales Rule #1: Know your buyer and what they want to achieve.
It’s a simple rule but one that is often overlooked by the most experienced and successful salespeople. I’ve worked with over a hundred account teams, facilitating sessions to help strategize their organization’s highest-potential accounts. Periodically, the session is hijacked by a sales opportunity so significant that it warrants reallocating some time to the strategic planning of the opportunity. Yet I’m often surprised at the lack of basic understanding of even the largest, most significant sales opportunities.
Seller organizations must thoroughly understand, from top to bottom, the customer’s context and vision before spending any time or resources on a sales opportunity.
When The Customer’s Vision Changes
I recently, worked with an experienced, cross functional account team for a high-tech, B2B products and services company. The 15-member strategic account team had well over 200 years of combined technical sales, support and product engineering experience. Only two years prior, it had unseated the industry leader, a company 100 times their size, as the strategic global supplier for a customer midway into their competitor’s five-year contract. Winning the deal was a true David and Goliath story.
Just two years into the contract, though, the team was mired in an endless stream of out-of-the-blue customer queries, ideas and requests. After a very synergistic two-year relationship, the account team had spent the last few months (including weekends) responding to multiple disjointed and seemingly unrelated mid-contract proposal requests. It was as if the team was intentionally being dragged through rings of fire to prove their loyalty or worthiness. The information requested by the account team’s primary contact seemed very long term and visionary--way beyond their area of responsibility. The relationship with this account, a Fortune 50 company and global leader within their industry, seemed to be spinning out of control before the team’s eyes.
“Who do you think is really making these requests?” I asked. Before we spent any more time and resources responding to ad-hoc requests for complex information and hypothetical “what-if” pricing, we needed to know who was behind them. It was apparent someone in the organization was formulating a new vision, and we needed to find out whom as soon as possible. Until we were confident in our understanding of the vision to which we were being asked to contribute, it made no sense for the team to spend more time and resources responding to possibly unapproved and probably unfunded requests. I didn’t think the team’s current whack-a-mole approach would result in a positive outcome.
What Was The Source Of This New Vision?
• A competitor planting seeds?
• A newly hired executive with fresh ideas from a previous company or industry?
• The IT organization trying to push their internal customer organization to new frontiers?
The possibilities seemed to go on and on.
A recent CEB study concludes that due to the vast amount of online information available, approximately half of B2B buyers’ due diligence has been completed before any first formal sales contact (HBR-The End of Solution Sales). Prospects know what the solution to their problem looks like and how they might achieve their vision long before any formal sales contact with a potential solution provider. In this case, even though this team was the incumbent, on-site vendor, there was no assurance they were receiving preferred access to the executive decision makers. After all, they had been hired midway through the previous vendor’s contract;was the same thing happening to them?
I recommended the team pause and briefly step back with this customer, treating it as if it were a new account opportunity. I asked the team to create a formal sales project plan to acquire the necessary information. Before responding to additional customer requests, they needed to thoroughly understand the answers to these three critical questions:
- Where in the organization were these requests for information originating? For example, had a product line executive seen a competitor doing something innovative to market its product he/she would like to duplicate or enhance?
- Are other external consultants, subject matter experts or competitors being asked for their input? Is there an industry or cross-industry group providing new and progressive ideas? Is a competitor painting a (perhaps unrealistic) vision of the future?
- Who specifically is asking us for our ideas? Are we being managed by a lower-level surrogate while our competitors enjoy direct access to the executives envisioning the future?
It’s So Simple. How Does It Still Happen?
This is a back-to-basics issue that is too often overlooked and, I suspect, adds greatly to the recent downward trend in forecasted sales losses, now greater than fifty percent. See CSO Insights 2014 Sales Performance Study
Easy on-line access to relevant, comprehensive information, customer request complexity, decreased salesperson competency, and first-line sales manager to sales representative management ratios all contribute to the potential lack of understanding of the client/prospect's vision. Difficulty gaining appointments with executives responsible for shaping the future vision often compounds the problem.
Many times, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the strategic significance of the sales opportunity to the buyer and the sellers’ lack of knowledge of the customer’s vision. The teams often seem to know the least about the largest, most strategic opportunities. I suspect the breadth and complexity of the most mission-critical sales opportunities can overwhelm even experienced pursuit teams. No account team will win a significant sale though without a thorough understanding of the customer’s goals and vision for the future. You must discover whose vision it is and how and where it was developed. A stringent, formal internal sales process that qualifies sales opportunities for resource investment may be the best method to ensure your sales teams have a thorough understanding of their customer’s vision.
If your team can’t identify the true buyers, and motivate them to share their vision with you, stop your sales investment and lose early. Use the time to re-invest in relationship-building activities to develop new sales opportunities.