There are five stakeholders you meet in most deals: Buyers, Amplifiers, Seekers, Influencers, and Coaches–BASIC. Sometimes stakeholders play multiple roles, and other times the stakeholder array is large and each has a single part to play.
Beginning with early-stage prospecting and information gathering, through qualifying and into discovery, ultra-high performers (UHPs) are identifying and mapping BASIC. They leave nothing to chance. UHPs build relationships and get to know their audience.
Buyers are essentially decision makers, people with the ultimate authority to say yes or no. There are two types of buyers:
- Buyers who can authorize the deal, sign a contract or a purchase order, and say yes to the commitment
- Buyers who can fund the deal and write the check
Sometimes these stakeholders are the same person, and other times they are not. For example, the CIO may be able to say yes to a new software purcahse but until the CFO agrees to release the funds nothing will happen. A corporate purchaser can say yes to your terms, and general managers at field locations can say yes to approving the budget.
Understanding this difference will save you the pain and anguish of closing a deal only to see the order fail to materialize.
Amplifiers are typically stakeholders who see a problem or gap that your product can fill. They are advocates for change and amplify the message, problem, pain, or need up through the organization. These folks can be low or high on the totem pole and have varying degrees of influence on the outcome of the deal. In most cases, their influence is indirect. They use the product, are impacted by problems or pain, or perceive an opportunity. Ultra-high performers are masters at leveraging amplifiers in bottom-up strategies to push distant decision makers, who may be disconnected from the need, problems, and pain, to take action.
Seekers are stakeholders sent to look for information or who do it on their own. Seekers are inbound marketing fodder. They download e-books, attend webinars, peruse websites, and fill out web forms. Ususally seekers have little or no buying authority or influence, yet put up a façade of authority and block access to other stakeholders. Average salespeople go for this ruse hook, line, and sinker. Many deals are lost because salespeople give away their leverage early, get stuck with seekers, and allow disruptive emotions to keep them from moving up to a higher-level stakeholder.
Influencers are stakeholders who play an active role in the buying process. They can be advocates and on your side, naysayers who are against you, or agnostic. Developing relationships with influerencers is critical in complex sales. Your goal is to develop and nurture advocates, move agnostics into your corner, and neutralize naysayers.
Coaches or sponsors are insiders who are willing not only to advocate for you but help you with insider information. In any complex deal, developing a coach is a huge competitive advantage. In long-cycle sales where incumbent vendors have a strong foothold, the absence of a coach or sponsor can put you at such a disadvantage that it is a disqualifier to continued investment in the opportunity.
The One Question Ultra-High Performers Never Ask
In a recent training session, a sales rep called Ryan grabbed me on a break and asked me this question:
Jeb, over the past month, I’ve had several of my potential accounts hit a wall because the person I was working with turned out not to be the decision maker. What is frustrating me is these people told me in our initial meeting they were the decision maker. I don’t understand why people lie to me like that, and I want to know how I can identify who is telling me the truth and who is not.
Ryan is not alone in his frustration. Average salespoeple often find themselves mired in stalled deals because they were dealing with the wrong perosn.
This usually happens because the stakeholder either says outright or insinuates that he or she is the final decision maker. Believing this to be true, the salesperson goes through the sales process with the stakeholder: connecting, discovering, presenting solutions, and asking for the business.
Then bam! Out of nowhere the stakeholder says:
Thank you for this great information, but I’m going to need to review this with my boss (the committee, my husband, wife, friend, peers, etc.) before we can make a decision.
If you’ve been in this situation, and I bet you have, it makes you want to scream. You try to get around it by asking for a meeting with their boss, but most of the time it is too late or they are unwilling to give you access. You fear if you go around them you’ll poision the relationship and lose any hope of closing the deal.
It is an awful conondrum, and the net result is that your deal is stalled. You try to explain it to your sales mamanger and put it in the best light. But you’ve still got egg in your face because you’ve been had by your stakeholder. I’ve been there, done that, and have the T-shirt to prove it.
How does this happen? How do salespeople get themselves into this situation?
Let’s begin with reality. Sometimes there is no way around it. Sometimes you are not going to get to the decision maker (buyer) and will be stuck working through an influencer. The key is knowing this up front and adjusting your strategy to align the sales and buying process to match reality.
Sometimes you are dealing with a deceitful person who knows how the game is played. These people have no intention of doing business with you. They’re just using you for free consulting or pricing information to use as leverage with your competitor.
These stakeholders are easy to spot because they are unwilling to engage, resist emotional connections, renege on commitments, and push you through the sales process just to get what they want. Salespeople driven by desperation are the most likely to get used by this type of prospect.
The most common reason this happens, though, is the salesperson asks one simple but deadly question:
Are you the decision maker?
This is the one question ultra-high performers never ask when qualifying a prospect. When you ask this question of any stakeholder, 90 percent of the time they are going to say yes.
Why would a stakeholder lie to you so blatantly? Most stakeholders don’t say they are the decision maker, when they are not, from ill intent. They are not bad people trying to hurt you.
When you ask a stakeholder, “Are you the decision maker?,” you put them on the spot. This creates the painful mental stress of cognitive dissonance. If the stakeholder says no, they are admitting openly that they are not important, which conflicts with their self-image that they are important.
So, they say yes because it makes them feel significant. They blurt it out without even thinking.
Then you, the salesperson, reinforce the lie with attention, compliments, and your focus. It works great for both parties until the moment of truth when you ask for a commitment and the stakeholder’s little house of cards crumbles.
This, by the way, is why your supposed decision maker disappears and your deal stalls. They are embarrassed to admit that they have little power, have wasted your time, and are not important.
You must be smart about uncovering stakeholders, intentional with building and nurturing stakeholder relationships, and strategic in your approach. In mid- to long-cycle, complex sales, pigeonholding yourself with a single stakeholder creates risk and lowers win probability. You must leave nothing to chance.
Begin with research and BASIC mapping. This has become infinitely easier to do with social media sites like LinkedIn and sales intelligence tools like DiscoverOrg.
Map who’s who in the account. You won’t always get a complete map. However, even with incomplete information you can either level-up higher in the organization or develop questions to get information from the stakeholder without bruising his or her ego.
The most important step you can take, though, is to change your question. Instead of asking “Are you the decision maker?” use indirect questions such as:
- Tell me about your buying policies?
- Could you walk me through the buying process?
- How does your organization typically make decisions about bringing in new vendors like my company?
- How did you make the decision on this service the last time you signed a contract?
Indirect questions work because they trigger your stakeholder to tell a story and reduce their temptation to take the leading role. Most important, you avoid putting them and their ego on the spot, and that gives you a higher probability of getting a straight answer so you know exactly where you stand before getting too deeply into the sales process.