By Brian Doyle, President, Holden Advisors
Business decisions are usually made by decision makers at two ends of a spectrum. At one end are the innovators, who want to try new things and aren’t afraid of failing. At the other end are those who fear making a bad decision and getting called out for it. In my experience, the clear majority of business decision makers sit on the “afraid to fail” end of the spectrum.
And who can blame them? Historically, when times are tough, innovators who go out on a limb for an idea get sidelined or, worse, fired. During the Great Recession of 2007-2009, unemployment reached 10 percent, and many businesses cut down on innovation – even when that innovation may have ultimately increased their profit. Business leaders solved budget issues by cutting expenses and employees, rather than by adopting new ideas. If you were an innovator in those days, you were tagged as someone who “didn’t get it” and may have found your job on the chopping block.
A significant outcome of this kind of recession-driven mindset is that fear of failure drives approval-by-committee. Any important, or even small, purchase or decision could mean a personal loss for each person involved in the decision-making process. According to Brent Adamson, co-author of “The Challenger Sale,” an average of 6.8 decision makers are involved in every B2B purchasing decision. This means that if you are a strategic account manager selling an innovative product or service, the sale will need to be approved by six of your main contact’s coworkers before the deal is done.
So, how can strategic account managers support their innovative customers in getting approval from their committees of seven and up? I’ve broken it down into a six-step process with action steps that SAMs can share with their customers as the two work together to close bigger, more ambitious deals
1. Create a shared need. To get buy-in for a new idea, it’s important for decision makers to believe it’s in the best interest of everyone.
Action Step: Create a threat/opportunity matrix before going to the buying team. Figure out what the risk is if the organization doesn’t adopt the idea. Is it layoffs, stock price dropping? Likewise, articulate the upside of adopting your idea. Is it increased profits that position the company for growth?
2. Share the vision. Stephen Covey, in “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People,” had it right when he recommended that we “start with the end in mind.” If people can imagine the new state and how their daily behavior will change, they can more easily support the vision.
Action Step: Paint a picture of how the customer’s day-to-day will change if adopted. For instance, if you’re planning to raise your prices, how do you want your sales team supporting that price increase?
3. Find a visible champion. Once the vision and shared need have been articulated, find someone to champion your idea – a leader who will promote the idea in meetings and from stages the innovator doesn’t have access to.
Action Step: To help champions explain the idea correctly, write out talking points and make them memorable and easy to understand. I’ve had senior leaders read my remarks verbatim on global all-employee calls.
4. Gain commitment from other key stakeholders. As steps one through three are completed, find ways to get other stakeholders, beyond your champion, onboard.
Action Step: Figure out which things each stakeholder cares about most. I’m willing to bet it’s one or more of the “3 Ds”: demand (leadership mandate), data, or demonstration (competitor or other industry best practice examples). In other words, the CFO will likely want to see the impact of a price increase on his or her margins while the sales leader may want an example of how competitors have successfully implemented price increases.
5. Measure and communicate success. This starts with taking a baseline measurement of whatever you’re trying to improve and then sharing across the organization how it’s tracking, even if it’s a small pilot in one part of the organization.
Action Step: Suggest adding a Finance representative to the team. Very few improvements can be completely isolated from other parts of the business, so when the idea becomes successful, other functions will lay claim to the results. You’ll hear, “It wasn’t your initiative that drove the increase in profitability. It was sales/operations/marketing/fill-in-the-blank.” A Finance rep will serve as an independent third party who can add credibility to the innovator’s claim.
6. Change systems and processes. You want change to last, but it won’t unless the innovator changes the functional processes that support it.
Action Step: Think through how sales are measured and incentivized. If the goal is to increase profit margin but pay salespeople solely on revenue, then there will be a misalignment that is hard to overcome.
The proven process above has helped innovators quickly build momentum for ideas while also establishing themselves as thought leaders with their customers. To sell successful and lasting change, we must be thoughtful about how we build consensus for our ideas. ■
Brian Doyle is President of Holden Advisors. You can find him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/brianadoyle/.