If you’ve tried to sell software or services lately, you probably felt that your conference line has gotten a little crowded.
It isn’t just your imagination. When it comes to customers buying new software, things have changed dramatically in the last 10 years. And whether or not you’ve noticed it, these changes kill sales. They have diminished the effectiveness of what used to be tried-and-true sales practices. The truth is, these changes have happened subtly. For heads-down, forward-charging salespeople, these buyer changes might have flown completely under the radar.
But the effects likely haven’t. For instance, sales processes have gotten longer. Communicating with buyers has suddenly become a group affair. Getting buying consensus—a yes—from a buyer practically requires an act of Congress. And it seems like the most random individuals within the buyer’s organization can swoop in and veto your sale.
What is going on with buying consensus? What is this change that has taken place? By understanding the changes that are happening almost across the board among buyers, a sales team can adjust accordingly to meet these challenges and turn them to their advantage. Here are four of the biggest changes that have occurred:
- Buying groups have gotten bigger
Remember the "good ol’ days" when you only had to worry about winning over one or two stakeholders on your typical sale? And there was just one single decision-maker you had to please? Well, those days are now officially gone. According to a recent CEB survey, the average buying group is comprised of 5.4 people. That’s 5.4 people for whom you must provide answers to questions, resolve concerns, and paint a picture of relevant benefits and ROI.
But why so many? Experts have their theories. For starters, society at large—from social media to the United Nations to the conference room—is shifting away from centralized decision-making. There is also that pesky tendency of organizations and individuals to avoid risk, and spreading out the power of decision has become one way to do that. And finally, there is the problem (perhaps of vendors’ making?) of products and services becoming more and more complex—so much so that businesses must assemble a team just to digest and reach consensus on whether to purchase them or not.
Ultimately, this means that salespeople must shift their strategy away from insinuating themselves into the lives of one or two individuals and focus instead on influencing and responding to the needs and priorities of half dozen people or more for every buyer they pursue.
- Everyone holds the trigger
Having a handful of stakeholders wouldn’t be so bad if decision-making authority rested with one person. If only that were the case.
In their groundbreaking HBR article, “Making the Consensus Sale,” researchers Karl Schmidt, Brent Adamson, and Anna Bird commented on this growing distribution of decision-making power:
“[R]eps today rarely find a unilateral decision maker,” the trio says. “More often, they discover that the authority to make decisions rests with groups of individuals—all of whom have different roles, and all of whom have veto power.”
In a recent webinar, CEB confirmed this trend as they spoke of any of the 5.4 stakeholders in a given sale holding the power to torpedo a deal at any moment. Unfortunately, as this trend makes an agreement to purchase your product or service less likely, it also increases the likelihood that the only consensus your buyer will reach is that of a veto.
All it takes sometimes is one member of the buying group not to show up at the crucial decision-making meeting. It’s veto by absence—and it happens more than any salespeople want to admit.
- Buying groups are more diverse
Just when you thought things were hard enough with larger buying groups, research has also found that these groups are also not as homogeneous as they used to be. Any salesperson hoping to sharpen up their pitch to speak to the needs and priorities of just one department is going to be sorely disappointed.
“[T]he variety of jobs, functions, and geographies that these individuals represent is much wider than it used to be,” observed Schmidt, Adamson, and Bird. “Whereas an IT supplier might have once sold directly to a CIO and his or her team, today that same firm may also need buy-in from the chief marketing officer, the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, legal counsel, procurement executives, and others.”
So how do sales teams pivot to meet this challenge? They go to great lengths to personalize the heck out of their messages to each member of the buying group. But even this can have ill effects if taken too far, inadvertently “driving a wedge” between group members and preventing consensus.
- It’s sometimes difficult to tell who is in the buying group
Finally, it’s not like every organization has an org chart of who is exactly in any given buying group. Recent examples found that salespeople struggled to identify who exactly was in the buying group, and this had a significant effect on their ability to close sales.
After all, how can you work with the individual needs of buying group members—and that surprise veto out of left field—when you don’t have every member on your radar?
Changing Focus to Consensus
If the above revelations have you wondering how your sales tactics can keep up, you’re not alone. Most sales organizations are having to blow up their strategies to adjust to these new, larger buying groups. One thing, though, is for sure: salespeople need to stop thinking of only pursuing one decision-maker. And secondly, salespeople need to stop pushing communication on buyers and start thinking about how they can communicate and provide the answers to so many buying group stakeholders. But how to reach so many at once? The answer will lie in salespeople’s ability to recruit the help of the main stakeholders and coach them toward buying consensus with the others.