Here's the 2nd half of my interview with Brent Adamson, coauthor of The Challenger Sale and Managing Director for CEB's Sales and Marketing practice.
During our conversation, he shares some groundbreaking research about why decisions fall apart, and how salespeople can build consensus with the 5.4 decision makers needed to make a purchase decision.
You can read it below. Or, you have these options too.
If you missed it, I published the first half of my interview of Brent Adamson on Tuesday. Download the full interview here.
Jill Konrath: Brent, I know you've been doing some significant research around collaboration and getting buy-in earlier in the sales process—versus waiting until a customer is late in the sales process to get everybody in the group together. You actually have some research around what salespeople can do to get buy-in. I think that's a pretty important topic because the number of decision makers has expanded significantly in the last few years and the length of the decision cycle has expanded at the same time. So what have you uncovered recently?
Brent Adamson: The biggest story in selling today is not that we're selling differently, but how customers are buying differently. Up until now, much of our work in the customer buying process has been around informed customers delaying the interaction with sales longer than ever before. But there's a whole other parallel track to that customer buying story which is the consensus story—the fact that there are more stakeholders involved in a purchase, arguably, than ever before.
The consensus first showed up on our radar screen as early as 2006, so that in itself is not necessarily a new story. But what fascinates us is in the last two or three years is that it's morphed significantly to be less a story about number and more a story about diversity. Not only are more people involved in a purchase than ever before, but there's more different people.
It's funny, when we talk to any B2B company in the world, they all have the same story, "We used to sell to X and now we sell to X, Y, Z, A, B, and C." They also tell us, "We used to sell to the Head of Marketing, but now we have an IT component so we have to sell to the CIO too. And now the C suite is involved and now the head of Germany involved," or whatever.
We've done a lot of customer surveys and we've actually nailed that, on average, customers involve 5.4 different people in a typical purchase decision.
And it's not just 5.4 people that are involved, but 5.4 different perspectives that are involved. And so much of our work is now essentially like herding cats. What we're finding is that this has massive implications on deal quality, on margins, things like that. Because if these 5.4 people can't agree, then they ultimately just settle for what we've come to call the lowest common denominator. What's the one thing we can all agree on? "Well let's try to save the company a buck," right?
Jill Konrath: "So now we're just going to look at" . . .
Brent Adamson: Because the 5.4 decision makers couldn't agree, you wind up with low margin small deals that are good enough for status quo . And so that's where a lot of our work is right now.
Jill Konrath: So you have 5.4 people involved and they are all sitting at the table. Maybe they're not sitting at the table because they're spread out globally or certainly in multiple offices. And they have to come together to figure out if changing the current way of doing things is worth investing in and then with whom.
Brent Adamson: Right.
Jill Konrath: So that's a bit of a challenge, especially if you get some people involved in a decision who will be hurt possible by the decision.
Brent Adamson: That's right.
Jill Konrath: It's going to put pressure on their organization, they may have to go backwards, they may not realize any benefit from it at all.
Brent Adamson: Yeah.
Jill Konrath: And you've got others who can't wait to get going and you've got to hold them back because they're terrifying everybody as they're trying to ram something through the organization.
Brent Adamson: That's right.
Jill Konrath: So you have this diversity and then there's the financial guy who only cares about the numbers and the HR people who are asking, "How are people going to feel about this and how will it impact-." Okay, so we've got all these people, what is working to bring them together and create consensus earlier on?
Brent Adamson: To get to what's working, let me first tell you what's not working. It's really interesting. So the traditional approach that I think most of us would adopt is what I call a "track them down and win them over" strategy. Right?
The first thing to do is figure out who the 5.4 are in the first place. Sometimes it's not clear, sometimes your customers don't even know. But let's assume for a second I can figure that out who is involved in the purchase decision. The idea is to approach them one by one and make a pitch to them as compellingly as possible that speaks to their unique needs and to their unique priorities so that I win them over. And once I win over number one, then I move onto number two. I do the same thing with the second person and tailor my offering to make sure that they're on board. Once I win them over, I move onto number three. And so we collect a series of Yeses and we think that, "If I can connect each one of those individuals more closely to my offering to me, that the one plus one plus one will equal agreement."
But as one of our members in Sales and Marketing at CEB told us, "The world I live in has this problem of one plus one plus one equals zero." In other words, even if I win over each of the individuals, the deal's not yet in the bag. Even if each one of them has looked at me and said yes. When they all get together around a table (figuratively or literally) and have a discussion, the deal can still fall apart.
We found out that in many ways this problem of consensus and diversity for the 5.4 is not just a selling problem, it's just as much a buying problem. The issue isn't so much that those individuals don't appreciate our offering, it's just they can't agree with each other. And so the bumper sticker phrase we often use for this work right now is that "the challenge of overcoming consensus today is not so much doing a better job of connecting individual stakeholders to us, it's doing a better job of connecting those individual stakeholders to each other."
And this becomes really interesting because that's actually a very different dynamic. Think about what those individual stakeholders are disagreeing about or where they're failing to reach consensus, what they're struggling to agree on. From our data it turns out the thing they're struggling to agree on is not whether or not you're a great supplier, but whether or not a problem is even worth solving in the first place and what the right solution to that problem is irrespective of supplier.
Jill Konrath: Right.
Brent Adamson: Right? And so that's where we need to plug in to help the 5.4. It's not about helping them to decide whether or not we're the best answer, but whether that solution is even worth pursuing irrespective of our answer. It's a very different dynamic.
Jill Konrath: It's a hugely different dynamic. I see this happen in my world all the time too. What do you do when they don't all come to the table thinking that it's going to change? What have you found that's working and helping to get consensus that the problem is worth doing something about at an earlier stage?
Brent Adamson: One of the things we found last year in our marketing work that's really interesting to us is, first of all, when you look at the most likely point of disagreement across the 5.4. Again, it's not the supplier but it's the problem identification and the solution selection irrespective of supplier. And it peaks at solution selection, just getting agreement on what we should even do in the first place.
When we ask customers, "At what point in the purchase process do you typically reach that disagreement point, that sort of node where consensus is likely to either for or fall apart around the solution?," that point turns out to be 37 percent of the way through the purchase process.
So now take these two numbers I've put out here so far and put them together, it's really interesting.
Jill Konrath: There's a huge drop-off point.
Brent Adamson: That's exactly right. Think about what this means. Customers left to their own devices are unlikely to contact the supplier until 57 percent of the way through the purchase, but consensus is most likely to fail at 37 percent of the way through the purchase. I often ask marketers, "How many deals have we lost over the years that we never even knew were on the table because customers never could reach consensus around moving forward?" And the answer is "Who knows?" It's an unknowable thing.
As a result, we're finding that a reactive strategy for consensus is not going to work. We have to essentially go out and build consensus—instead of just waiting for consensus to fall apart and then try to stitch it back together. That means there's a huge role for Marketing to play around the consensus issue. If Sales is only called in later and has to reactively stitch together consensus, then we need Marketing to play a bigger role.
And so we've come at this from both a Marketing angle and a Sales angle. On the marketing side, it's a lot about the language and the collateral. The messages and the content that we create need to be constructed in a way where multiple stakeholders can see agreement as opposed to divergence.
A lot of the work in Marketing around personas, personalization and tailoring of content, while important, could actually create more distance across stakeholders as opposed to greater connections across stakeholders if done too far or done in the wrong way. And so all of our answers, whether they're Sales or Marketing right now, are really focused on, "How do we do a better job of making an individual, personal, tailored connection that also sets someone up simultaneously for connecting with others at the same time?"
Some of that is through different designs of messaging and collateral. Some of that is just design and ways of creating collective learning across a customer group. And some really interesting things we're just looking at and just learning to understand right now.
Jill Konrath: So what would you say to salespeople who've initiated a conversation with Eric, got a call with Eric. And they've met with Eric and Eric has expressed interest and said, "We're thinking about if we should change or not."
What should a salesperson be doing if Eric is sort of interested and thinks that it's going to be hard to reach his goals unless they do something different?
Brent Adamson: Okay, got it, so I'm selling to Eric. Now traditionally if I am a good sales professional, I'm prepping well and doing my research, then what I'm trying to do is understand Eric as deeply as I can. Right? What is Eric's role in the organization, what is Eric's function, what traditionally do people in Eric's function look for, what are his needs? And I'll do some of that on my own, some I'll do in the interaction trying to figure that out in the moment. That's all still really important, none of that goes away. But traditionally what we do is we'd figure that out and then tailor our offering as closely as we can to whatever we find out. Right?
Jill Konrath: Right.
Brent Adamson: But the other thing we find is that the best reps are asking a different set of questions all together. So beyond Eric, who else is involved in this purchase decision? "Is it Janet, or is it Susan, or is it...?" or they think of roles, "Is it the CFO or the procurement officer?" And by the way, if Eric doesn't know that, to what degree do I need to show Eric or teach Eric who else is needed to make a decision. This goes back to your point earlier about coaching the customer. Who else should be involved?
First of all, can I help Eric understand who else is going to have to be involved in this purchase? Second of all, are there ways I can help Eric understand what those people care about around my solution or around the area that my solution speaks to? And third, how can I equip Eric to better speak to them in terms they care about when Eric goes to make a business case or a new course of action? Is Eric better equipped to have that conversation with 4.4 other people who act very differently, talk very differently, care about very different things? Am I essentially equipping Eric to be a good advocate for that course of action?
We actually profiled a case from Marketo right now about this. So Marketo is selling marketing automation to Heads of Marketing, but the problem is if the Head of Marketing says, "I want marketing automation, it's a great tool." Then the Head of Marketing has to go the CIO to get sign-off because it's an IT tool, but the IT person will say, "We already have a CRM system."
Then they have to argue, "No, it's not a CRM system, it's totally different," right? But the CIO doesn't understand. So is that Head of Marketing equipped to understand what CIO's care about, what language they use, what their objections will likely be? All the things that we prepare our sales reps to do: objection handling, better talking points, better use of language, better stories. Can we equip our mobilizers, the Erics of the world, to be better equipped to have those conversations on our behalf as well?
Jill Konrath: That's cool. I've seen a lot of star performers do this too, they're saying, "Eric, we got to get these people in a room soon because the longer we wait to get the people in the room, the more problems you're going to have if this is something that you really want to do."
Brent Adamson: Yeah, absolutely. The trick is though it's not to get them in a room but what you do with them once you get them in the room.
Jill Konrath: Yeah, I suppose.
Brent Adamson: Because if you get them in a room and do a product demo—and our data actually is pretty clear—it's not going to help you very much. Because if you do a product demo, then you're solving for the wrong problem. A product demo is to win them over for you as the supplier as opposed to someone else. But again, the point of disagreement is not who's the right supplier.
Jill Konrath: Right.
Brent Adamson: Instead, you need to get the decision makers in a room and have a conversation about what they're trying to accomplish, irrespective of supplier.
Jill Konrath: Cool. Well, our time is up and I truly appreciate the time you've given us today.
For anybody who's listening, I highly recommend getting "The Challenger Sale." It's absolutely a mind-changing book that will open up a lot of thinking for you. But I can't wait until your next one comes out too. So thanks so much for everything today, Brent, truly appreciate it.
Brent Adamson: You're welcome, Jill. And congratulations on the new book. We're super excited for you. It's great stuff.
Jill Konrath: Thank you. Thank you so much. Bye-bye.
I published the first half of my interview of Brent Adamson on Tuesday. Listen to the full recording here.