We consistently present sales processes and the buyer’s journey as linear processes, when we depict them on a slide as a direct path, beginning on the left side and ending on the right. Viewing concepts like the sales process or buyer’s journeys as linear is useful, as it makes it easier to present the ideas, even if the path is aspirational and ignores the non-linearity of the processes.
The problem with presenting non-linear processes as linear is that it represents a false map of the territory, and one that is harmful to the decisions you make when pursuing a deal, and especially when the decision your B2B buyer makes is going to require consensus.
Buyer’s Have Journeys
In complex, consultative, B2B sales, there is not a buyer’s journey. Instead, there are buyer’s journeys. Not every stakeholder necessary to a decision is at the same decision stage at the same time.
The standard B2B buyer journey might start with the recognition of some problem or challenge, followed by a discovery of their needs and requirements. Once the problem and needs are determined, the buyers look for options and alternatives, interviewing potential partners, and selecting the one they believe is best suited to help them.
The first challenge of building consensus occurs when one believes the linear process, as described above, applies broadly across all organizations and at all times. Mostly, they refer to large, professional buying organizations that are buying something they have purchased in the past.
The second challenge is believing that all stakeholders are in the same stage at the same time. While this is undoubtedly true when there is an RFP, it is less often true when in competitive displacements, especially when the sales rep creates the opportunity by compelling change, something necessary in any modern sales approach.
False Assumptions About Linearity
The idea that your potential buyer has a problem is the starting point for understanding the challenges of building consensus in a complex B2B sale. A more accurate view would recognize that “some buyer persona” perceives a problem worth solving while others don’t recognize the problem, nor do they all agree that it is worth solving, or worth working on now. One stakeholder’s pain point may not be another’s.
The stakeholder framework in chapters seven and eight in Eat Their Lunch provides a framework for looking at stakeholders to make sense of what you are seeing, making visible what is in invisible with a recognition that not everyone is equally compelled to change. One stakeholder may believe the problem is urgent because of the impact it has on their work or their department. Another contact might not recognize that there is a problem.
It’s a mistake to believe that because one person feels compelled to change that the rest of the contacts who are going to need to agree to a change feel the same way. It’s also a mistake to believe that a person with the authority to decide is going to move forward with or without the buy-in of the team they expect to execute the change.
Misaligned on the Solution
Your stakeholders may agree they have a problem worth solving but disagree on how exactly they should solve it. One person or group might believe they need one solution while another thinks they should do something different. To make matters more complicated, the fact that there are two groups with conflicting ideas about the right answer, there may still be people who don’t want to change and support the status quo.
You might identify and meet with people who prefer you and your solution, while other teams haven’t engaged with you, but have engaged with one of your competitors with a different solution. In Eat Their Lunch, we express this idea as “preference,” a single word that tells you enough about the stakeholder to know where they stand.
To build consensus and alignment, you must have a view that makes visible how and where your contacts are not aligned.
Disagreement on the Right Partner
A challenge you will surely find in competitive displacements is the disagreement over who would make the best partner for some new initiative. There will always be stakeholders who support the incumbent, even if you initiated and compelled the conversation around some necessary change.
The stakeholders you are working with prefer you, in part because you helped them understand their world, why they were struggling. You also provide them with ideas about how they should change, and in doing so, they believe you are the right partner going forward. At the same time, those who support the incumbent think they should be retained and given a chance, mainly because they know the business and have earned the right, even though they weren’t proactive and didn’t initiate the change.
What is left out here is that there may still be stakeholders who don’t support the change, don’t endorse any new solution, and would prefer to do nothing. It’s also possible that the people who feel this way may include the leadership team who has competing initiatives they would prioritize over yours.
Exclusion and Leaving People Behind
Your contacts may also intentionally leave people out of the process, attempting to move forward without them, even though doing so is as likely to kill their initiative as allow it to move forward. When some group members are far out in front of their peers, those intentionally left behind have an easy time slowing things down or stalling them because they occupy the moral high ground.
Consensus requires a general agreement around a purchasing decision. Winning a consensus decision can increase the level of difficulty when things are political and where there is no consensus of opinion. The recognition that there is no alignment in the stages of a buyer’s journey (or sales process) allows you to understand whom you need to make a decision and how you might need to align them to gain their support.
The starting point for building consensus is to recognize that there is no single buyer’s journey, nor is there a single sales conversation. When you realize where there are people who are not in the same stage at the same time, going back and meeting them where they are can help them to move forward.