Even before the current crisis, many opportunities that had been confidently forecast by salespeople were failing to close. This was and still is particularly true of strategic decisions that need to be approved by a group of stakeholders rather than signed-off by a single individual.
The number of people involved in these decision-making groups has risen sharply over the past few years. When the Challenger Customer was first published in 2015, the underlying research concluded that the average decision group size was 5.4. Their latest research reckons this has now risen to between 10-11 actively involved stakeholders.
Think about that for a moment: even before the impact of covid-19, it only took one key member of the decision group to ask “why do we have to spend this money now” (or “why do we have to make this change now?”) for the decision to be potentially delayed or put on hold.
Anyone like to hazard a guess as to how often that question is being asked nowadays?
Not spending is the new normal
Having spoken to a number of clients, I get the clear impression is that this question is now inevitable. It seems that the general consensus is that most organisations are deferring decisions on what are perceived to be non-essential projects and investments.
This does not mean that decisions are now at a complete stop - but it does indicate that unless our customer believes that our proposed solution is going to deliver short-term urgent value by helping them to fix, accomplish or avoid a high-priority strategic or tactical goal, they will conclude that they can probably afford to wait.
Crude non-empathetic traditional closing techniques are going to be of no help whatsoever - in fact they will (and deserve to) damage our future ability to do business with the customer. If they genuinely see the need to go ahead and the obstacle is one of cash-flow, and if both we and our sponsor are convinced of the value we can create, we may choose to be creative in how we structure our payment terms.
If the problem isn’t seen as being urgent, then we may have to accept that the project will end up being delayed. But better delayed than cancelled altogether. As I’ve alluded to, the “why do we have to spend this money now?” isn’t a new one. What can we learn, and what can we do differently in the future?
Establishing the need for change
I’d suggest you start by assessing the quality of the all-important executive summary of your recent sales proposals. I’ve reviewed more than a few recently, and I have concluded that the benchmark isn’t set very high. In fact, the recent rise of standardised proposal writing applications may be making the matter worse.
Of course, I acknowledge the value of being able to assemble proven answers to predictable questions through the use of templated elements. But I have not yet come across any reliable automated approach to writing the critical executive summary.
Other than changing the customer name and the solution and pricing summary and a few other details, far too many executive summaries read as if they could have written for any customer. They focus primarily on promoting the vendor’s organisation and solution. They appear to assume that the customer will inevitably do something, and the only question to be resolved is who from.
I acknowledge that there are some inevitable, unavoidable purchases (for example, the purchase of essential materials to support the production process) where this is true. But most complex B2B buying decisions are actually discretionary purchases - and an even higher percentage will be over the coming months.
Make sure the problem is worth solving in the first place
If there is any possibility that the customer could ultimately decide to do nothing and stick with the status quo, then our sales process must prioritise establishing the value of solving the customer’s problem before we turn our attention to establishing the unique value of our solution.
Our discovery and diagnosis process must emphasise problem solving rather than solution promotion. Our salespeople must be coached and equipped to understand the customer’s current situation, their future goals, the obstacles standing in the way, and the negative impact of failing to achieve their objectives.
We must pay careful attention to identifying and assessing the key members of the stakeholder group - but not just in the predictable dimensions of their role, influence and attitude towards us. We must also seek to understand their attitude to the project as a whole - are they likely to be one of those people asking, “why do we need to do this?”
If we lay these foundations effectively, then we will already have disqualified those so-called “opportunities” where we have no ability to create meaningful value for our customers. We will be able to identify which of our customer’s enquiries reflect a genuinely urgent need rather than a low-priority “fishing expedition”.
Empowering our sponsor
We will have established a far stronger case for change. We will make it less likely that our sponsor will hear the dreaded “why do we have to spend this money now?” from a fellow stakeholder. And if they do, they will be in a much better position to answer them.
We will emerge as better salespeople, and as genuinely trusted resources for our customers. And we may even find a way to convince our sponsor and their fellow stakeholders that a project that would otherwise have been deferred or cancelled should actually still be a high current priority for customer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob Apollo is a Fellow of the Association of Professional Sales, a member of the Sales Enablement Society, a founding contributor to the International Journal of Sales Transformation, a member of the Sales Experts Channel and the driving force behind Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the leading UK-based B2B value-selling experts.
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 - equipping them to create, confirm and communicate their unique business value in complex sales situations.