Every salesperson longs to find a champion within their prospect who is prepared to recommend the vendor’s solution to their colleagues. Even better if that champion appears to be the ultimate decision-maker. But finding an enthusiastic champion isn’t enough to guarantee that you’re going to win the sale.
I’m not just thinking about people who behave like champions and position themselves as decision-makers when they really aren’t. Sales people come across those fake champions more often than they would like, and with experience there usually comes a better - but rarely perfect - ability to identify the false prophets from the true believers.
No: I’m talking about people who genuinely believe that your solution is the best available and are prepared to enthusiastically champion you to their colleagues. The problem is, all too often, that getting them onside and willing to promote your solution isn’t enough. And it’s not just about their ability to position your solution as being different from and superior to those of your competitors.
Getting their colleagues on-side
It’s about your champion’s ability to make the case for change within their own organisation. High-value purchases are increasingly team-driven, consensus-led decisions and are usually subject to lengthy and careful consideration. Senior managers have learned to their cost that imposed decisions often fail to receive the support of the people who are ultimately responsible for the project’s success.
In many environments, your real competition isn’t the companies you regard as competitors. It’s all the alternative ways that your prospect’s organisation could use the funds that are going to be required - including keeping them in the bank.
Your real competition
Your real competition is often other completely unrelated projects - maybe being promoted by a completely different department. And your real competition also almost always includes the possibility that the prospect will at the end of the day simply decide to “do nothing”.
That’s why cultivating a champion who believes that yours is the best option to solve their particular problem is often not enough to win you the business. Your champion also has to be able to sell the case for change to their colleagues, and to sell their project as being more important to their company than all the other competing projects.
Their ability to sell your solution internally won’t be enough. When their decision comes up for approval, you can count on there being discussions around the ultimate decision-making group along the lines of “tell me again why we need to do this, and why we need to do this now…” as well as the robust promotion of the alternative projects that others have been lobbying for.
Breaking away from the status quo
At this point, your champion has to be able to make a persuasive case for change to their colleagues. They will have to explain why sticking with the status quo would be a risky and potentially far more costly decision. And they will need to explain why this project is in the interests of both their colleagues and the company as a whole.
In short, they have to be able to communicate “what’s in it for you, for your department and for the company as a whole” to their colleagues. And here’s the problem: unless you have selected your champion very carefully, or have been very lucky, they are probably not as good at that process than you might hope.
Coaching your champion
You can’t afford to leave these things to chance. Many of the top-performing sales people that I’ve been able to work with attribute at least part of their success to their ability to coach their champions to make the most persuasive case for change to their colleagues. Luck should play no part in this: you have to be prepared to equip your champion to make the strongest possible case.
It’s usually helpful to role-play the potential reaction of their colleagues with your champion, and to play out some “what-if” scenarios with them - and it’s often a good idea to help them anticipate and prepare strong answers to their colleagues’ inevitable “what’s in it for me, my department and the company” questions.
As long as you apply a modest amount of emotional intelligence to this exercise, you can do it in a way that seems helpful and in no way patronising, condescending or questioning of your champion’s ability. You can present it as the shared learning from helping dozens of people in positions like theirs to successfully navigate pet projects through the approval process.
And anyway, what’s the alternative? Crossing your fingers and hoping? Rather you than me…