Recently, working with a client, we were talking about a major change initiative. I asked the question, “How will you be making a decision on how do implement this initiative?” There was an awkward silence, the CEO eventually said, “I don’t know…… What should I be doing? What should I be looking at? Who should I be involving in the decision?… ” She reeled off a number of questions and concerns all around making decisions on this initiative.
While we were working on a specific project and talking about a major transformation initiative, all of a sudden it struck me that we face the same thing in selling and understanding the customer decisionmaking process. In complex B2B initiatives, the reality is they probably don’t know!
Let me backtrack a little. From the very first sales training program I went through, through programs we have led for 1000’s of sales people, through 1000’s of deal reviews, we always ask, “What is the customer’s decisionmaking process?”
We are trained to pummel the customer with questions:
- Who is the decisionmaker?
- Who else will be involved?
- What are the key issues influencing the decision?
- What are the criteria you will use to evaluate alternatives?
- When will you make a decision?
- What approvals or executive support do you need to more forward?
- What funding do you have for this project?
We have been trained to ask these questions, usually as part of our qualification or discovery processes. We take those responses, we know we have to validate them by posing these questions to a number of people involved in the project. But these answers shape our engagement strategies. We map who we need to talk to, we probe the key issues, we develop strategies to respond to them.
We’ve, also, been taught that we have do continue to re-validate the decisionmaking process through the buying process. Things change, the key issues inevitably change as the customer learns more; people involved in the project may change. So we re-validate their decisionmaking process, adjusting our strategies based on these criteria.
But the reality, in complex B2B initiatives, is they probably don’t know. They will, possibly, make some wild-assed guesses, based on what they know right now, but they will wander, things will change. This isn’t just for buying initiatives, we see the same thing happen in internal projects and other change initiatives–just like the example demonstrated by my client.
We’ve seen the research supporting this. The Gartner “Spaghetti chart” is a classic example of how customers struggle, change, start and stop, struggle some more. We know through Ted McKenna’s and Matt Dixon’s work in the Jolt Effect, the majority of buying efforts end in no decision made, primarily because of FOFU. We see Morten Hansen’s work in Collaboration, similar things with the majority of internal change initiatives. And we know through Hank Barnes’ work, that if they do make a decision, there is a high probability of regret as the implement it.
Just reflect on major changes and initiatives in your own organization. Could you clearly and concisely answer the questions we ask about the decisionmaking process?
The reality is our customers don’t know. They may have vague ideas, based on other projects, but because they don’t solve these problems every day, they have little experience in doing these things, so they shouldn’t know.
What do we do? How do we determine their decisionmaking process?
To address this, let me go back to my conversation with my client.
After admitting she didn’t know what to do or how to make a decision, she asked, “What should I be doing?”
We went into a series of discussions, talking about the people that should be involved, the issues they should be looking at, the data they needed to collect, the research that should be done, how they might learn more about what others have done, how they assess the risk, building the business case. Through that process, she also realized she wasn’t the decisionmaker, even though she was the CEO. She realized several parts of the organization owned the problem and they needed to be in agreement about the path forward. She recognized they needed consensus across the organization, that dictating a solution would, inevitably, fail.
As a consultant on this change initiative, I fully expected my client would not be able to answer the questions I had posed. Since they had never done this before and recognized they needed help in addressing the issue, my job was to help guide them through the process, to help them figure out what they needed to do and how to do it.
As we reflect, our jobs as sellers is the same. We have to help our customers figure these things out. We have to help them navigate the process. While they may have some initial ideas on the decisionmaking process, their key issues, etc, they really don’t know and they need help doing this.
Our job, as sellers in complex B2B decisions, is to help customer figure this out. To help them make sense of everything they are experiencing, helping them figure out how they might make a decision based on the work they are doing. If we don’t, the probability is they will fail, or they will take far more time than necessary to figure it out and if they do, they are likely to have regret later on.
We have far more experience in these problems and issues than our customers. We have seen others go through similar efforts–some succeeding, some failing. We know the questions the customer should be thinking about. We know to ask, “In our experience, these people should also be involved in this decision, why don’t we get them involved?”
We are most impactful when we focus on our customer, their business, and what they are trying to achieve. We bring more experience and expertise to the situation than they have. We can help them make sense of the information they look at, we can help them build confidence they are doing the right thing. We build trust in this process.
And, in doing this, we increase our ability to win, reduce no decision made, and decrease their buying cycle by 30-40%!
Perhaps, we need to move beyond pitching our products, and help our customers make great decisions!