When Three's A Crowd: Navigating An Agreement Network Is Key To Sales Success In The Age Of The Customer

In most cases, the answers to life’s more complex questions have really simple answers. In today’s selling environment it’s often hard to determine who exactly is “the buyer.” Your salespeople are given a lot of inputs:

  • Your executive leadership want them calling on “business people” or “executives.”
  • The sales training courses they have been to instruct them to find “champions,” “decision-makers,” and “influencers.”
  • Marketers produce information about “personas.”
  • Business unit leaders and other subject matter experts talk about “users” or “doers.”
  • Sales managers tend to be more interested in understanding the opportunity (Access to power? Is it qualified? Is there budget allocate? When is the account going to make a decision?).
  • Their contacts within an given account give them different people or process steps to follow, or kick them over to procurement.

With all of the different voices – “You should do this,” “You should say that,” “You need to present this way” – echoing  in the heads of your salespeople, things can get very confusing.

A Tale Of Two Sales

The thing is – the buying environment for most of us has changed, leaving us with two distinctively different buying patterns:

  • On the one hand, the customer knows what they want and have developed fairly sophisticated procurements steps to acquired what they need at the best possible price.
  • On the other hand, the customer is looking for the expertise to help them get value from their investment and solve a problem.

In either case, the answer is a lot simpler – when customers know what they want, they are acquiring parts, and when they are looking for an answer to a question they don’t know the answer to, they are looking for a partner.

If Two’s Company And Threes A Crowd . . . What’s Five Or 10?

Regardless of which pattern is in play, the number of people your customers involve in deals is increasing. On the acquisition side, the driver is to save money and procurement functions are implementing increasingly sophisticated steps that are commodifying (if that’s a word) many purchases (which creates margin pressures for you). On the value-seeking side, the problems your clients need help with are increasingly cross-functional in nature, meaning that a lot of buy-in on the customer’s side needs to happen in order to move forward.

In both sales, there are many people involved, each with his or her own objectives. Often, the individual objectives of some of the people can be misaligned with the company’s objectives or the goals of your sales team. So you have to be able to help an executive sponsor gain buy-in for a new approach. Most of companies we work with are extremely interested in fighting against the commoditization forces of the formalized procurement process. To do that, they are combining different products and services together into “solutions” that must be sold to a collection of stakeholders that is very different than the group of people with whom the current sales force is currently interacting.

Navigating The Agreement Network Is The Key To Achieving Differentiation

Unfortunately, few organizations are preparing their sales force to effectively navigate all of these different people to reach enough consensuses or buy-in among the executives with the money such that they will feel comfortable releasing their funds. We call this navigating an agreement network, and the graphic below depicts it visually.

“Everybody Wants Something”

I know what you are thinking: “Holy cow, is it really that complicated?!” Well, yes . . . and no.

Somewhere along the line, our management disciplines have disconnected common sense from decision-making. Executives are using more data-driven approaches to make more objective and defensible decisions. The problem with data-driven approaches is they require good data, and few companies possess modeling information about the combination of emotional and analytical decision-making steps people go through when making business decisions.

This is why humans have not yet been replaced by robots to sell in complex situations, because while selling is more of a science than an art, it’s a social science and not a mechanical one. In order to factor in all of the brain science that’s coming out about how people handle change – or the cognitive ability of our brains to digest massive amounts of information – sometimes it’s simpler just to recognize that human beings already know how to deal with these issues if we choose to not make them so complicated. To me, the whole idea of navigating an agreement network is best summed up by a 1950’s Looney Tunes clip from a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon.

The chicken hawk represents your traditional sales force and he’s eager to get a big deal, but all of his efforts to directly catch Foghorn Leghorn have failed. He needs help to figure out how to catch the big chicken. The dog, the cat, the mouse – they each want something. And this is where my favorite quote from the late great motivational speaker Zig Ziglar comes in, “You can get everything you want in life if you help enough people get what they want.”

Making What Looks Complex, Simple

So yes, confronting the reality that the conversations your salespeople need to have isn’t a simple presentation is hard, and it does feel uncomfortable – but it’s what they really have to go through.

They really have to help a lot of people in an agreement network each get something in order to get what they want. What’s even harder is that in your company, it’s likely there isn’t any one person who can help put together the mosaic that represents the agreement networks of our customers. That part is hard. However, the good news is that someone in your company knows what the answers are because you’ve solved the problems those stakeholders face before. All you need to be able to do is: first, model out the agreement networks of your audience; second, map the various messages or “things each of the stakeholders want”; and third, create a way to help salespeople match the informational needs of the people they encounter in the agreement network with the mapped content required. When it’s presented this way, salespeople can follow the trail and be successful chicken hawks too.

Learn More?

One of the core themes in our upcoming Sales Enablement Forum from March 3-5 is identifying different sales and marketing processes that map to different buyer patterns. I’m looking forward to seeing you there.