How many stakeholders are involved in the typical complex high-value B2B buying journey? It’s fair to say that the number is often larger than the average salesperson is aware of, let alone in close contact with.
Various studies have put the average number of active stakeholders anywhere between 5-12 in large and complex buying decisions - and in some cases the number will be even higher.
This is important because organisations have learned from painful experience that autocratic, top-down decisions rarely result in a successful implementation.
In today’s consensus-seeking management environment, without the support of a broad range of key stakeholders, decisions are likely to be delayed or abandoned.
That’s why it’s never been more important for salespeople to identify, engage, assess, and build positive relationships with as many members of their prospective customer’s stakeholder group as possible...
So - what do we need to know about the stakeholder group? Firstly, we need to make sure that we have identified as many of them as possible. There are a number of ways of doing this:
- Asking our existing contact(s) who else is likely to have an interest in the project or be involved in the decision-making process
- Asking our existing contact(s) how similar decisions have been made in the past and who has been involved
- Reviewing previous similar sales opportunities in similar organisations and seeing which roles were involved in those
- Scanning LinkedIn to find likely members of the decision-making and approval communities
It’s important to remember that - particularly if this is an unfamiliar purchase for them - that our contacts(s) simply might not know who all the stakeholders are likely to be. They are likely to guess that the stakeholder network is going to be simpler or smaller than it actually is.
This is more common than many salespeople are willing to acknowledge. It’s important not to take things at face value, particularly if our prime contact fits into the “inexperienced buyer” category and if their view of the decision process seems over-simplistic and unrealistic.
It’s also important to recognise that if the purchase is seen as a significant decision, there is often more than one stakeholder group involved:
- The decision-making group are responsible for scoping the project, agreeing the decision criteria and process, shortlisting potential solutions, negotiating the details, selecting their preferred option, and submitting the internal business case
- The approval group are responsible for reviewing the recommendation of the decision-making group, evaluating it against the other projects that are competing for funding and resources, and determining whether the project should be approved and, if so, when it can start
- The user community, although not necessarily directly part of the core decision-making group, are often asked for their opinions and advice and will need to be co-opted as enthusiastic participants in the implementation of the chosen solution
It’s particularly important that we do all that we can to identify, engage and assess the decision-making and approval stakeholder groups in our significant sales opportunities, and that we recognise that a failure to do so adds significant risk to our chances of winning their business.
Six key factors
What do we need to know? In addition to identifying the players, I believe that there are six key factors in assessing the members of our customer’s stakeholder groups:
- Their role in the decision and approval process
- Their primary perspective
- Their influence on the decision
- Their attitude to the project
- Their attitude to us
- How easy it is to access them
At the start of any sales cycle, these factors will typically all be “UNCERTAIN” - and they must remain that way until we have evidence to support a different assessment.
It’s also important to recognise that our assessment of some of these factors may change or evolve during the course of the sales cycle.
Let’s examine each of these in turn:
Their role in the decision and approval process
Stakeholders can play a number of different roles in the decision process:
- APPROVER: Someone who must finally approve the project before it can go ahead but is not an active member of the decision group - there can be one or a number of approvers
- EXECUTIVE SPONSOR: The senior executive who is most actively championing the project internally. Opportunities without an executive sponsor tend not to result in a positive outcome
- DECISION MAKER: Someone who has a significant vote in the final choice of preferred option, but is not the primary sponsor or a final approver - there are often a number of these decision makers
- GATEKEEPER: A technical or functional expert (often connected with compliance issues, IT policies or security) who is not part of the core decision team but may have the power of veto
- NEGOTIATOR: A specialist who is brought in by the decision group to negotiate the best possible contractual terms (legal and/or financial) - can be none, one or a number of these
- INFLUENCER: Someone within the organisation who may influence members of the decision or approval groups but is not part of that core group - can be a number of these
- CONSULTANT: Someone outside the organisation who advises the core decision group or final approvers, but is not part of those groups - there can a number of these
- INFO GATHERER: They are merely collecting information on behalf of somebody else
Sometimes stakeholders play more than one of the following roles - if they do, it’s best to categorise them in their most important role. It’s particularly important - if you can - that you develop a strong relationship with the executive sponsor.
Their primary perspective
Each stakeholder will look at the project from a dominant primary perspective. Understanding where each stakeholder is coming from can help to ensure that we focus on the appropriate issues and use the appropriate language when engaging with them:
- STRATEGIC: Their primary perspective is the long-term strategic interests of the company and with the "big picture" rather than the fine details (typically a C-Level executive)
- OPERATIONAL: Their primary perspective is the sort- and long-term operational interests of the company (typically representing a line-of-business function)
- FINANCIAL: Their primary perspective is financial (typically representing the finance or procurement functions)
- TECHNICAL: Their primary perspective is technical (typically representing the IT or other technical function)
- CONTRACTUAL: Their primary perspective is contractual (typically representing the legal function)
- COMPLIANCE: Their primary perspective is compliance (typically representing the IT security or legal functions)
It’s said that “you end up talking to the person you sound like” (or to no-one at all). For example, it’s critically important that your conversations with strategically minded stakeholders are about issues or topics they regard as important - otherwise you’ll probably never end up speaking to them again.
Their influence on the decision
Different stakeholders will have different degrees of influence over the decision-making process. It’s important to understand where the strongest influence lies:
- DOMINANT: They have a dominant influence over the decision (likely to be either none or just one of these)
- STRONG: They have a strong influence over the decision (could be one or a number of these - it is unlikely that every member of the decision group is this influential)
- MODERATE: They have a moderate influence over the decision (there will almost inevitably be some of these)
- WEAK: They have little influence over the decision (there may be some of these). This is a RED FLAG if they are your prime contact
- NON-EXISTENT: They have no influence over the decision
It’s particularly important that you are actively engaged with stakeholders who have a dominant or strong influence over the process - relying on someone with moderate, weak or non-existent influence as your prime contact can be tremendously dangerous.
Their attitude to the project
Salespeople usually recognise that it is important to assess the attitude of each stakeholder - but this isn’t just about their attitude to your organisation and solution. It’s just as important to understand their attitude to the project itself:
- STRONG SUPPORTER : They are a strong supporter of the project - going out of their way to champion the project over all other possible initiatives
- SUPPORTER: They are positively inclined towards the project, and regard it as a high priority
- NEUTRAL: They have neutral feelings about the project
- AGAINST: They have negative feelings about the project, and may regard other projects as a higher priority
- STRONGLY AGAINST: They are strongly against the project, to the extent of actively trying to block it
If you cannot persuade stakeholders who appear to be against or strongly against the project itself to be more positive, you at least need to try and neutralise their input - by ensuring that the more positive and dominant stakeholders are able to carry the day.
Their attitude towards you
It’s important to also attempt to understand each stakeholder’s attitude to your organisation and your solution:
- STRONGLY POSITIVE: They are strongly positive about us - going out of their way to champion our solution over all other options
- POSITIVE: They are positively inclined towards us
- NEUTRAL: They are neutral - favouring neither us nor any other option
- NEGATIVE: They are negatively inclined towards us and may favour other options
- STRONGLY AGAINST: They are strongly negative towards us, to the extent of actively trying to block our solution
Once again, if we cannot persuade stakeholders who currently appear to be negative towards or strongly against our approach to be more positive, we at least need to try and neutralise their input - by ensuring that the more positive and dominant stakeholders are able to carry the day.
Ease of access
Finally, it’s important to assess how easy it is to access and engage with them:
- VERY ACCESSIBLE: It is easy to engage with this stakeholder, and they are very responsive to our requests
- FAIRLY ACCESSIBLE: It is relatively easy to engage with this stakeholder, and they are generally fairly responsive to our requests
- HARD TO REACH: It is hard but not impossible to engage with this stakeholder, and they are not very responsive to our requests
- GETTING HARDER: It used to be relatively easy to access them, but it has recently become increasingly hard
- IMPOSSIBLE TO REACH: Despite a number of attempts, we have never been able to engage with this stakeholder, they are not responding to our requests, and the situation seems unlikely to change
Momentum is important in any sales opportunity. If we sense that momentum is being lost - particularly if a previously accessible key stakeholder is becoming increasingly difficult to reach - this should raise a red flag.
Two final considerations
Based on everything you’ve learned about each stakeholder, there are two final considerations:
- What is the single most important thing, in the context of the current project, that they need to fix, avoid, or achieve?
- What is the most important way in which we can create meaningful value for them?
If you are able to create a personal benefit theme for each stakeholder that resonates with what’s most important to them, the more likely you are to win their support.
Perfect knowledge is impossible
In any complex sales situation, perfect knowledge of every stakeholder is an impossible goal. But it’s almost always possible to know more - often a lot more - about the members and the dynamics of the stakeholder group if we first acknowledge what we do and don’t know.
In addition to identifying as many members of the stakeholder community, it’s important to know as much as we can about each member. It’s important that we don’t allow our judgement to be compromised by hope or assumption. If we’re not sure about a particular person or factor, it’s far better to mark that up as “uncertain” rather than guess - and then resolve to do what we can to make a more reliable and accurate assessment.
Stakeholder mapping is one of the core components of Inflexion-Point’s outcome-centric opportunity management framework (example below). If you’d like to learn more, and to explore whether the principles could be applied in your sales organisation, please reach out via LinkedIn or directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post was originally published on LinkedIn.
About the Author
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a recognised Sales Futurist, an active member of the Sales Experts Channel, and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading proponents of outcome-centric selling.
Following a successful corporate career spanning start-ups, scale-ups and market leaders, Bob now works as a strategic advisor, mentor, trainer and coach to ambitious B2B sales organisations - teaching them how to differentiate themselves through their provably superior approach to achieving their customer's desired outcomes.