How to Achieve Consensus in B2B Sales

April 13, 2016 Geoffrey Walters

'The group buying mindset is here to stay,' writes Garin Hess, founder and CEO of DemoChimp. 'The Age of Consensus has arrived.'

One of the main problems we face in B2B sales today is the shift in buying strategy from the single decision-maker to the consensus sale. A 2014 survey by CEB found that, on average, 5.4 people now have to formally sign off on each purchase. The survey also showed that a greater variety of jobs and backgrounds is now represented among the individuals making these decisions. Karl Schmidt, Brent Adamson and Anna Bird explain the implications of this in the Harvard Business Review:

'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.'

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This move towards consensus buying makes life far more difficult for salespeople. Not only do they have to win over more stakeholders to seal a deal, but these stakeholders will often be at cross-purposes, with what’s good for one department being seen as possibly detrimental to another. In fact, the consensus model is sometimes delaying or destroying a purchase before it’s even reached the salesperson.

'[C]ustomers are typically 37% of the way through a purchase decision when group conflict peaks—and in some cases this stalls or, worse, kills the deal altogether,' writes Patrick Spenner in Forbes. 'On top of that, those customers don’t meaningfully engage suppliers’ sales reps until they are, on average, 57% of the way through the journey.'

They’re talking each other out of it before they ever talk to you.

It’s no wonder we are seeing longer cycle times, smaller deals and lower margins. So how does a salesman adapt to the Age of Consensus?

Why The Change In Buyer Behavior?

First, we must ask ourselves: Why has the consensus model come into favor? The first reason is societal. Social order has lost out to personal freedom and hierarchical structures are flattening. A more inclusive, democratic approach involves more debate and the need for consensus among stakeholders.

'Most people have grown to dislike authoritarian, unilateral decision-making in government, at home and at work,' says Garin Hess. 'This cultural shift has dramatically changed how purchasing decisions are made in the workplace… Gone are the days when a lone hierarchical leader boldly makes top-down decisions with subordinates dutifully following behind.'

Increased accountability in a post-recession landscape is another reason for the shift in buyer behavior. Companies are scrutinizing their salespeople to a far greater degree than they were before the global downturn took place, cross-checking their reps’ promises against their results. Teams of buyers are designed to increase this accountability.

Sales And Consensus

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Increased accountability and more in-organization democracy mean greater uncertainty—and uncertainty breeds conservatism. In his booked Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion, Dr Robert Cialdini outlines three ways in which people respond when they are uncertain. Firstly, they freeze; secondly, they make choices that are least likely to cause a loss; and thirdly, they make choices based on a single overriding factor rather than on a number of relevant factors.

As we’ve seen, the salesperson only becomes involved in a deal on average after 57% of the buyer’s journey. But this often means that only one of the average 5.4 buyers in the group is 100% behind the deal. As Tim Riesterer, chief strategy and marketing officer at Corporate Visions, says, 'the salesperson may have to bring the other 4.4 people from 0% to 100%. In actuality, the math to get them all to 100% ready means the purchase decision is really only 10% of the way done when the salesperson is called in.'

You can turn that uncertainty to your advantage. 'Accepting that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity does not and should not stop people from being pretty sure about a lot of things,' said the British philosopher Julian Baggini. It’s your job as a salesperson to accept uncertainty among buyers—and be pretty sure about your own role in persuading them to buy in spite of it. And when the math says you’re really only 10% into the buyer journey when the rubber meets the road, salespeople are still plenty relevant.

Conquer Buyer Uncertainty To Achieve Consensus

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The first thing to do is not to question yourself. Just because the goalposts have suddenly moved doesn’t make you irrelevant, or a bad salesperson overnight. 'It’s the inability of stakeholders to agree on what problem they want to solve that leads decision groups to default to a common desire to either save their company money or avoid organisational risk,' say Brent Adamson and Nick Toman on the CEB website.

'Further, buying groups that are better at coordinating their individual goals, priorities and metrics are more likely to interact successfully, and so purchase more ambitious offerings.' It follows that encouraging consensus between the component parts of a group of buyers is the salesperson’s route to success. We need to teach groups of stakeholders to make better, if seemingly riskier, business decisions. We need to teach them how to buy.

How do we achieve that consensus? Adamson and Toman suggest providing them with a common language is one way. 'Help stakeholders who “speak IT” or “speak marketing” to communicate with one another,' they say. 'This is a crucial part of helping stakeholders identify common objectives and to create greater overlap between stakeholders.' You have to get them to see the value in their terms.

Other methods include making sure everyone in the buyers’ group has a collective understanding of the individual perspectives within the group: does everyone know why each stakeholder wants a certain thing? If you can understand what someone wants and why, it will be easier to compromise and reach a consensus.

Who Are You Buying From?

Of course, this is easier said than done. As Peter Buscemi of Fourquadrant notes, there are several roles in the buyers’ group: decision-maker, approver, recommender, influencer, sniper (the person who wants to torpedo the decision for one reason or another) and end-user. All of these people have disparate goals. Buscemi cites a CEB survey, which showed that 53% of customer loyalty is driven by a salesperson’s ability to deliver unique insight to the customer, 'by how a vendor sells, not by what a vendor sells'.

Buscemi notes that, while decision-makers tend to value the overall sales experience, believing that they buy from organizations, influencers and end-users believe that they buy from people. 'So if a rep is using the same sales deck or the same messaging with these two audiences it doesn’t matter if there are a lot of nods in the room—that sales cycle is going nowhere,' he says.

So what do influencers and end-users value? According to Buscemi, they value 'unique perspectives, insight into issues and outcomes, anticipating landmines and other areas that help them understand and build their knowledge base.' In other words, they like challenger salespeople.

We’ve covered the challenger technique in depth before, and it’s easy to see why it’s key to influencing the buyers’ group. If influencers and end-users love to be educated and the challenger provides them with new, useful information, the influencers and end-users are likely to proselytize to the rest of the group. Not only does the challenger now have the decision-maker on board, he has another two or three people as well, putting traditional hold-outs like the sniper under pressure to agree to the sale.

The Age of Consensus is a daunting one for salespeople, but it’s a change we can adapt to and thrive in. Learning to convince a multi-person, hydra-headed buyer committee can be done successfully if it's done strategically. Turn the influencers and end-users in buyers’ groups into your acolytes and let them preach your gospel to the rest of the group. Internal pressure from colleagues is much more effective than external pressure from a salesperson as a means of achieving consensus.

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About the Author

Geoffrey Walters

A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.

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