The oil company's environmental director, a strong ally, told us he was the primary decision maker. But after another firm was selected for the job, we learned that he had only 3 of the total 10 votes. His boss, who we had not met, had 5.
Three members of the selection committee ranked our proposal first; another member picked us third. But the fifth member, unhappy about a perceived slight, gave us a last-place ranking, causing us to finish a narrow second.
These are three of many examples I could offer where the dynamics of what is known as the complex sale prevented me and my colleagues from winning an important contract. If you're not familiar with the term, a complex sale is one in which their are multiple decision makers involved. This, of course, is the norm in the A/E industry.
Yet despite its prevalence, we continue to mishandle the nuances of the complex sale. Over the years, I've worked with many firms on critical sales opportunities. Most of the time, there have been obvious gaps in how well the firm understood or was positioned with key client decision makers. In many cases, the firm didn't even know who the decision makers were.
There's a common tendency to focus the sales effort on one or two individuals within the client organization. These may be people who we've worked with, who seem to like us, who simply are more accessible, or who we happened meet somewhere. Often, we draw conclusions about our chances of success based on interactions with these one or two people, only to learn later that we overlooked or underestimated the role of other key decision makers. I've made that mistake many times myself.
It's helpful to keep in mind that in a complex sale:
- The different decision makers have different roles within the buying process.
- Each has a different perspective on what's most important.
- There are often relational dynamics that play a large part, whether between you and certain decision makers or among the decision makers themselves.
There are four principal roles among the decision makers (or "buyers") you encounter. I like consultant Laura Ricci's acronym BUGS to help remember those roles:
- Bosses. These are the ones who control the purse strings and have approval (or veto) authority. A Boss may be a single individual (e.g., an executive VP) or a group (e.g., City Council). Bosses are often in the background, without an active role in the buying process—until they weigh in on the selection decision. One of the most common mistakes that A/E firms make relative to the complex sale is failing to identify and engage the Boss.
- Users. These are the individuals most directly affected by the buying decision, those who you are likely to work with most and often have a similar technical background. Users typically are the focus of your sales efforts, the buyers you know best and are most comfortable interacting with. You're also more likely to overestimate their role in the buying decision, paying too little attention to other key buyers.
- Gatekeepers. These people monitor whether the process is being followed and determine whether your proposal meets minimum requirements. Examples include purchasing managers and contracting officers. Like bosses, they usually have veto power, but only shared approval authority. The importance of Gatekeepers varies widely among clients: With federal agencies, they may be your primary point of contact during the sales process; with municipalities, they may have only a minimal role. It's important that you understand how much weight they carry in the buying decision.
- Supporters. These are individuals within the client organization who want to see your firm win. They may or may not have a direct role in the selection process, but are at least in a position to influence it to some degree. Of course, having a Supporter can be extremely valuable, but beware of overplaying your hand. Be realistic about the magnitude of this person's influence, and don't take his or her perspective as the final word on what the other buyers are looking for—better to ask them yourself.
Uncovering Individual Win-Results
To borrow Miller Heiman's term, win-results are the anticipated results of a sales transaction that constitute a personal win for each individual buyer. In business-to-business sales, we often focus on corporate-level needs and results, giving too little attention to what the people involved want. Uncovering personal win-results adds another level of complexity, of course, because they differ for each buyer involved. A few keys to identifying win-results:
Don't assume win-results based on an individual's job responsibilities. It's easy to conclude that, for example, the purchasing manager cares primarily about saving money and the operations manager is most concerned about performance. But such global assumptions are often misguided. Here's my rule: If you haven't asked, don't assume.
Explore the personal consequences of organizational needs and problems. As I've written in this space before, there is added value in addressing not just technical issues, but the associated human consequences. You'll find that personal win-results are often related to how client problems impact individual buyers. Don't stop short of asking about such personal implications (e.g., "So how does that problem impact your job?").
Addressing Relational Dynamics
The complex sale involves the challenge of not only having to build multiple relationships with each client organization, but having to navigate the sometimes tricky relational dynamics among the buyers. Some buyers run interference for others, especially Bosses. Others want you to believe that they're leading the process when they aren't. Still others simply don't work all that well with their colleagues. So how do you deal with these dilemmas? A few tips:
Work through other buyers to reach the Boss. As noted above, Bosses can be difficult to engage in the sales conversation, and other buyers are sometimes part of the problem. It's usually a good idea to solicit the help of your primary contacts to get access to the Boss. What if they're resistant for whatever reason? Try to make a compelling case for why it's in their interests—and the Boss's—to facilitate that discussion. For example, say a User or Supporter obviously likes your proposed solution. Ask, "Who else in your organization would we need to persuade to make this happen? Can you help get me an audience with them?"
At some point, seek a meeting with the group. Working through conversations with individual buyers has its limitations since ultimately they will make a joint decision. Group dynamics come into play at that point. Better to witness those interactions in person before submitting your proposal. If you can convince the group, you're in a stronger position than trying to accomplish the same through individual conversations. Plus it gives you a chance to observe how the group responds collectively, including interpersonal dynamics, and to help guide them to a consensus.
Don't avoid the buyer who's not your fan. Whether this individual has another favorite firm or has something against yours, you don't want to simply ignore him or her as firms often do. If the buyer prefers a competitor, consider my suggestions for displacing an incumbent. If there's a problem, try to resolve it (directly or indirectly, depending on whether the buyer is willing to acknowledge it). Outline what steps your firm will be taking to shore up any perceived weakness or avoid repeating any perceived past offense.
Make your Supporters look good. Don't settle for simply winning their favor; help them succeed in the eyes of their colleagues. Ask the right questions to expose these opportunities and then respond appropriately. Enthusiastic Supporters can help you navigate many of the relational hurdles you'll encounter among those making the buying decision.