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Feb 10 20

On C-Level Buying

by David Brock

As sales people, we learn that we are to call high. We should be reaching the top executives in the corporation. We believe if only we could reach these individuals, we can wear them down or convince them to buy what we are selling.

Often, we are so focused on reaching that exalted level, we neglect important people at lower levels. We, sometimes, believe that regardless of the decision a buying group might make, we can influence the C-Level to reverse unfavorable decisions.

But too often, we get C-Level Buying wrong. Don’t get me wrong, C-Level executives can be very critical in many buying decisions. In our business, the C-Level executive is the customer, consequently critical to every buying process. In much of my career, C-Level executives have been very important—but also, in thousands of deals C-Levels have been uninvolved and relatively unimportant.

Certainly, in smaller organizations, C-Levels are involved, purely because of the size of the organization and resources. (Yes, I do have to deal with the people trying to sell us maintenance services, only because there is no one in the company that I can delegate it to.)

But let’s dive into this a little:

First, as an executive, I’m not sure I’ve ever really been the decisionmaker. This doesn’t mean I haven’t weighed in with my opinion, and even argued forcefully. But in the end, the people in the buying group own the responsibility for determining the problem, assessing the alternatives, selecting the solution they think best, implementing the solution and achieving the business results they committed.

The moment, I intercede to change their recommendation, I take the responsibility and ownership away from them and make it mine. A sure path to failure.

Second, as much as we would like execs to care about what we sell, too often, they don’t care and shouldn’t care–even if the decision involves $millions. For example, does a C-Level executive really need to get involved in selecting the components and sub assemblies for a new product that is being designed? The product design/manufacturing/quality teams are much better equipped to do this. Yet each of these components and sub assemblies may involve $millions in purchases.

There are billions/trillions spent every year in transactional purchases. Purchases where there are educated buyers who buy frequently, where the risk is low, where the importance to the organization is low. A friend/client sells soap, soap dispensers, trash baskets and a number of facilities maintenance products. They sell $millions every year, never needing or wanting executive engagement. Instead, they try to make the customer buying process as simple and fast as possible, so the customer can spent their time on the things most impactful to their business.

Even in capital equipment and major services/software purchases, very often the exec simply doesn’t care. This was vivid in an example from a number of years ago. I had just been named EVP of Sales for a technology company. One of my RVPs knew I had a relationship with the CEO of our largest customer (The CEO had been a mentor when we were both at another company). The RVP believed in the advice, “Call at the top,” and asked if I would arrange a meeting with the CEO. While I knew it was wrong, I wanted to support the RVP. I called Mike, saying, “Mike, I’d really appreciate the meeting. I know you don’t care about this, but it will help me in coaching my RVP. I’ll owe you dinner.”

We had the meeting, Mike was very gracious in listening to the RVP. Bill, the RVP, had prepared well, suggesting how an expanded relationship could create great value for the company. Mike listened patiently. Finally, he said apologetically, “Here are my priorities, here’s what I care about, here’s where it is important to invest my time…….How can you help me with those issues, how much of an impact will you have?” It turned out, while we did important things, the impact on Mike’s priorities was pretty obscure.

But Mike wanted to be helpful. He said, “I understand you want to call on the ‘highest’ level possible. Let’s look at the organization to see who might be appropriated (There were over 200K people in Mike’s company). We looked at the organization chart, the highest level that might have a remote interest was 6 levels down from Mike.

Third, buying, particularly for complex B2B purchases is, increasingly, a consensus decision. The research says at least 11 people are involved in most complex B2B purchases. The diverse objectives, agendas, interests, risk management, and change issues, necessitate the involvement of many people across varying functions and levels in the organization.

Plus buying is hard–the majority of buying decisions end in no decision made. We have to work with everyone in the buying process, we have to help the buying team navigate the buying process, perhaps even teaching them to buy. Focusing on the C-Level, means we miss the leverage of the majority of people involved in the buying process. We have to sell to all of them. We have to work with the entire buying team, helping them navigate the process, make a decision, implement the solution, and achieve the expected business outcomes.

Fourth: We confuse the approval of the decision, the signing of a contract, the release of funds with decision-making. Certainly, if the buying team has not made the business case, the executive will not approve. It’s our job to help the buying team make that case. But the signature and release of funds is not a decision-making act. Often, corporate governance policies require certain levels or roles for releasing funds. One very large corporation I worked with required board approval for anything over $100K. The board was inundated with approvals for manufacturing equipment, software, services, development tools, etc. The board wasn’t involved in the decision-making. They didn’t have the time and didn’t care to meet with sales people. They just had to fulfill a governance requirement (thankfully, that was changed to $10M.)

Fifth: The C-Level simply doesn’t have the time to be involved in the majority of buying decisions. Let’s run a thought experiment, focusing on sales people trying to reach C-Levels.

There are about 15-20M sales people in North America. Let’s assume 20% of them are involved in complex B2B sales. That’s 4M sales people. All of them believe they need to reach the C-Level. All of them are pursuing multiple deals (10s to 100s). Now let’s look at those 4 million sales people, each pursuing only 10 deals a year (we know it’s much more), and they only want to spend 60 minutes with only one C-Level executive in each deal–no repeat calls, etc.–this translates into 5,000,000 person days of executive time a year. And we know the reality is far higher.

If C-Level is the critical path for all complex B2B decisions, these executives would have little time to do their jobs, they would have to be meeting with sales people constantly.

Executives simple do not have the time we want them to take and think they should take. They are going to invest their time where it’s important and where they get the greatest return on that investment in time–it’s unlikely to be with sales people.

As much as we may want to focus on them, they don’t have the time to focus on us.

So I’ve gone through a long diatribe, where have we gotten to?

Are C-Level executives critical in our selling efforts? They can be, but then again, they may not be or may not want to be. A universal declaration about C-Level selling can actually be detrimental to what we are trying to achieve.

What do we do? We have to understand how our customers buy the types of solutions we sell. We have to identify who is typically involved, why, what their roles are. In many cases, the C-Level is an important part of the buying team, and we need to get them engaged. Sometimes, however, I think we don’t do the hard work of understanding how customers buy and helping them with their buying process. Instead, we try to take short cuts by inflicting ourselves on the C-Level, making it their job to figure that out.

What about executive sponsorship? Where we can get it, it can be helpful. But sometimes it might not be. For example, in the case of Mike (the CEO) and Bill (the RVP), Mike offered to introduce Bill to the person 6 levels below him (someone Mike didn’t know). Bill wisely declined and said he could introduce himself.

What about “Right Level Selling?” Perhaps rather than grossly generalizing that we need to engage the C-Level in all our sales, perhaps we ought to adopt a philosophy of “Right Level Selling.” That is, identifying all the people with a vested interest in the outcome of a buying decision, developing relationships and working with them. Also, identifying the “executives,” that have a vested interest and some level of engagement, and engaging them—even if they are not C-Levels.

Again, the discussion should be less about gross generalizations about C-Level selling, and more about helping our customers buy and Right Level Selling.

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Feb 8 20

What Does It Mean To Be “Authentic”

by David Brock

I was recently have a discussion with someone. It spanned some comments on LinkedIn and private discussions by email. I had reacted to something he had posted, suggesting that while his premise was very good in many circumstances, that there might be a number where very different approaches might be applied.

We wandered in the conversation, he kept presenting data to support his argument, me responding, “Yes, and there is more….”

At one point, perhaps out of frustration, he said:

“It’s really important to note I share my experience vs. it’s always this way in every case – I give my authentic truth”

Which got me to thinking, “What is authenticity?” Is it sharing and being true to our experience? Is it something else?

Authenticity seems to be hot right, now. I see it in the literature and news nearly every day. I don’t recall reading or hearing people talk much about authenticity 10-20-30 years ago, or even when I read about history. I don’t know if that means we were inauthentic then. Most of the historical references tend to refer to physical objects, as in “Was the art piece authentic or forged.”

Authenticity is one of those words, I suspect it’s meaning is in the eye of the beholder. One can look it up in the dictionary, here are a couple of perspectives:

Authenticity is about presence, living in the moment with conviction and confidence and staying true to yourself. … Everyone wants to be authentic. Though the people who preach its virtue often don’t understand exactly what the word meansAuthentic is defined as: “not false or copied; genuine; real.”

Not false or imitation REALACTUAL “an authentic cockney accent”

True to one’s own personality, spirit, or character is sincere and authentic with no pretensions.

Somehow authenticity seems to have something to do with our values, beliefs and being true to them.

But too often, we seem to be “weaponizing” the concept of authenticity. There are implicit, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I’m representing my authentic self.” Or, implicitly, “I’m good and you are bad.”

Alternatively, authenticity is used as an excuse for all types of behaviors, good or bad. Stated differently, “I gotta be me….” (Thank you Sammy Davis, Jr.)

As we look at the spectacle of the Presidential impeachment, I’m sure none of the parties involved felt they were being inauthentic, regardless of their position, yet we seem further polarized and increasingly tribal.

Which also brings us to the idea of authenticity and the truth. In the sense of real objects, authenticity as applied to real and fake, makes sense. But what does authenticity mean to ideas and experience. Again, looking at the impeachment, there are lots of conflicting ideas and experience, yet I believe each were probably authentic. And no one seemed to be searching for any kind of truth–if any kind of truth existed or was meaningful.

I think our interpretations of authenticity often lead us to closed mindsets. Yet we know to learn, grow, progress as individuals, organizations, and peoples, we should have open mindsets.

I worry, that unless provoked, as in this conversation, I never really think about authenticity. I never think about whether I’m being authentic or not. I never think about whether the person I am interacting with is authentic or not.

I have values and principles that make me, me. Among those values are honesty, caring, a sense of ethics and integrity, making a difference, meeting my commitments, being open, constantly learning/growing, owning my mistakes, forgiveness, and not taking myself too seriously. And I hope I demonstrate those in my behaviors and interactions with others.

I don’t know that I’m being authentic or not. I’ve never considered the question. To be honest, it’s not an important question to me.

But authenticity seems to dominate a lot of our conversation and our thinking. What am I missing?

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Feb 6 20

Does Being On Commission Make You Untrustworthy?

by David Brock

I read a discussion between some wickedly smart people. One person took a position that one could not be a “Trusted Advisor,” and be on commission. He later extended the argument to include being accountable for achieving a quota compromised the ability of the sales person to be trusted.

To be fair, there are people and organizations that are driven purely by self interest. They structure everything they do around maximizing the return they get, regardless the impact to the people they deal with, including customers.

We have movies like Glengary, Glen Ross, Boiler-room, The Wolf Of Wall Street that glamorize those types of sales people and organizations. We see news about the incentives and tactics of many of the companies behind the Opioid crisis. We have legacy stereotypes of the commission driven coin operated sales person.

So the focus on self interest, the drive for money or quota attainment can create these behaviors and destroy the concept of sales people as trusted advisors.

But I suspect these people and organizations will always find ways to exploit others (perhaps their own employees) and it’s not just the fact they are paid commission or have a quota.

But there is nothing inherent in quota or commission systems that cause people to be untrustworthy.

Let’s look at this a little more deeply.

  1. As sales people, we can’t make our quotas or commissions, until the customer has determined that we are the people that are the best to help them solve their problems. Stated differently, the path to our personal success is dependent on the customers choosing us and putting us in the critical path to their success.
  2. Perhaps restating the first point, our drive to get the order is not incompatible with the customer’s drive to solve their problem. What is critical to our shared success is aligning our individual self interests.
  3. The focus on self interest, of our own goal attainment, as measured by quota and incented in commissions, is no different than the focus of customers in their problem solving/buying cycles. They are driven by their self interest and goal attainment. Their job performance is evaluated on this, their ability to be promoted is evaluated on this, their ability to meet their goals is driven by this, in fact their ability to achieve bonuses or certain incentives are driven by meeting their performance objectives (a kind of quota).
  4. Stating number 3 a little differently, does the fact that our customers have performance goals (quota) or bonus incentives they may be trying to achieve make them any more or less trustworthy than sales people with similar orientations?
  5. Sales people waste their time and the customer’s time, creating huge trust gaps by chasing the wrong opportunities. That’s why focusing on our ideal customer profile (ICP), focusing on the problems we are the best in the world at solving, those that are experiencing those problems and want to do something about them is critical. These, with collaborative problem solving behaviors are what build and reinforce trust.

Selling is no different than any other collaborative process. If our individual goals and objectives cannot be aligned under a common goal/objective we will never be successful in achieving the individual or common goals.

We know 53% of customer buying processes end in no decision made, primarily because of the inability of the customer to align their individual goals an objectives, working together for a shared goal.

We know the majority of “partnerships/alliances,” whether internal or external fail because of this inability to align.

We know that the lack of flexibility, openness, collaborative behaviors in aligning around a common goal drives higher levels of distrust within the team.

What drives success in “problem solving,” in achieving goals, in resolving conflicts, in innovation, change and growth? At it’s core is the ability to align around a common vision and values. It is the ability and willingness to be open to differing points of views, to learn, to resolve conflict and align around common purposes/goals. The ability to do this both builds trust, but is essential to goal achievement.

This applies within functional groups working in an organization, across functions within an organization, or across different organizations working with each other–most often manifested in buyer-seller interactions.

It is too easy to rely on old stereotypes. blaming commission and quota for the existence of or lack of trust. There is nothing inherent to commission or quota that drives distrust. Just like within an organization there is nothing inherent to an individual’s performance objectives and compensation plans that drives distrust.

Instead it is the inability of the sales person and customer to align in what they are trying to achieve–which is always to solve the customer problem.

Saying commission and quotas drive distrust plays to the stereotypes and myths many want to perpetuate about sales people. It plays to many of the excuses people want to create around poor performance. But in reality, it diverts us from the real issues that impact building and maintaining trust in/across organizations.

We are better than this. We must be better than this if we are going to support our own ambitions and those of the customer.

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Feb 4 20

Trusting Yourself, Trusting Your People

by David Brock

Charlie Green and I were having a conversation about “Trust.” (Charlie is the world’s go to person on anything having to do with trust, particularly in sales.) We were discussing a concept I had, I’m still trying to work it out in my mind, Charlie helped in clarifying it.

Let me try it on you, I’d love your feedback and ideas.

I am thinking about the concept of trust as it applies to sales management. I was trying to understand the difference between managers that display trusting behaviors–genuinely, not naively. I’ve noticed the managers that tend to do this are the highest performers and best leaders.

I’ve also noticed these managers have a high degree of “self trust,” and that translates into trust in their people.

These managers focus on the following:

  • Making sure they have the right people in place.
  • Making sure the people clearly understand their jobs, performance expectations, and how they contribute to the organization’s overall goals.
  • Making sure their people understand the key priorities and goals of the manager/organization (Otherwise known as “Commander’s Intent.”)
  • Making sure they have provided the systems, processes, tools, programs, training, etc. to do their jobs.
  • Making sure they get the support their people need to do their jobs.
  • Making sure they both protect and promote their people within the organization.
  • Making sure they continue to coach and develop their people.
  • Making sure they and their people continue to learn and develop ans people and business professionals.

In doing these things, these managers, “trust” their people to do their jobs. They engage in adding value in helping their people, but they never micro-manage, because they know they are doing the things most important to maximizing performance in the organization.

This concept is analogous to the concept of “Commander’s Intent.” There’s a great discussion of this in General Mattis’ “Call Sign Chaos.”

Contrast this with poor managers and micromanagers. One might assume micromanagement is a manifestation of their lack of trust in their people. But the more of these managers I meet and interview, the more I discover their own lack of self confidence and trust in themselves.

While they never admit it, and many of their behaviors tend to overcompensate for their own lack of understanding of what drives performance. Too often, these managers have failed to do the things great managers do. As a result, they are filled with uncertainty and self doubt. To compensate for this, they tend to micromanage, assign blame, divert attention from their own capability.

What are your thoughts?

Does a manager’s own lack of confidence in their own abilities, drive them not to trust their own people?

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