If you believe that selling is difficult, try buying. To get a better sense of the buyer’s burden, draw on empathy, a critical soft skill in sales. There is a concept used in geopolitics called strategic empathy, which is the antidote to strategic narcissism. The historian Zachary Shore’s concept of strategic empathy is “the skill of understanding what drives and constrains one’s adversary.” As applied to sales, strategic empathy is recognizing that what you do is not what constrains or limits your client’s action.
When a group of people have done something the same way for many years with success, it's challenging to convince them they need to change. This can be even more difficult when what they are doing seems to work well enough. Until the problem reaches a threshold, where change is critical, most people and organizations will resist change.
This resistance can cause successful companies to miss the inflection point and fail because the window of opportunity for making change passes. This is why companies may stop thriving, and eventually close. For example, Blockbuster failed to recognize that Netflix was building a better model.
Investment in the Future
Inside companies, there are executives who share initiatives and, at the same time, compete to prioritize their individual projects. This generates conflicts around what gets funded and dies on the vine. Not every initiative deserves the investment required to bring it to life, but it is impossible for every good idea to get funded.
The politics inside companies give some people more power than others. This can lead to investments in projects based on a champion’s influence rather than what will most improve the company’s results. You need to help your client choose the right priorities.
Because they have limited time and energy, good executives will prioritize a few projects or initiatives they believe are most important. Stakeholders become unhappy when their important initiative doesn’t make the top three, and prioritization can also affect salespeople. What you believe should be your prospective client’s priority may not register on the long list of potential improvements. This can happen because your client doesn’t recognize they must change to address shifts in the industry and wider business landscape.
Opposition and Consensus
Every company has an immune system that attacks what it believes is harmful to the company. This can happen when key decision-makers unilaterally reject an initiative that doesn’t align with their priorities, but it can also happen when people without power resist change. Often, these lower-level employees are responsible for actually executing a change, so when they drag their feet long enough, an initiative is starved of time and effort. This is slightly less than sabotage.
If you have ever won a deal only to lose it because a group of stakeholders worked against you, you know that people who are not part of the executive suite can make everyone miserable and cause a change to fail. Your opposition may kill an initiative before it has a chance to succeed.
The way to overcome resistance and prevent sabotage is by building consensus. This is hard enough within a single department, but reaching organizational consensus is a magnitude more challenging. When stakeholders from human resources, information technology, accounting and finance, and marketing all get a seat at the table, your buyer must find a way to reach a consensus, which is only slightly less difficult than colonizing Mars.
You may have a client that needs to change but is unable to move forward because one department is unwilling to adjust what they do to support the change that would allow the main buyer to get what they need.
Fear of Failure
When buyers are uncertain, it can often feel like the safest thing to do is nothing. You may have done this in your own life, avoiding a commitment because you weren’t sure it would work out the way you needed it to. To help buyers feel confident in their decisions, salespeople should focus on new strategies that create certainty of a positive outcome.
The legacy approach, where you talk up your company and your solution, doesn’t seem to hold the power it once did. You may have to up your game when creating certainty.
When a decision-maker fears failure, it seems safer to do nothing. You may be better off not doing something than pursuing it and failing. The person who fails may lose their political power or lose an opportunity to advance into the next role for which they are being considered.
This fear is real and causes problems for buyers. This can be true even when the company and the buyer need to improve their outcomes.
The Value of Being One-Up
The concept of being One-Up stands because the salesperson has more knowledge and experience helping their clients improve their results. This is true when the buyer rarely must make the buying decision they are facing. The more you can create value for buyers and decision-makers, the more you can affect your contacts.
This brings us back to strategic empathy, which means understanding the challenges your buyers have as they pursue an improvement in their business. The reason I write posts like this one is because by knowing these challenges, you have a better chance of recognizing where and how you can help your contact, even though many challenges require candor and access to different stakeholders.
The Buyer’s Burden
When buying is already difficult and stressful, you need to create value for your contacts by helping them make a good and effective decision to change. Your buyer’s problems are your problems. Without the empathy to understand why buyers struggle, you will be challenged to provide them with what they need to confidently move forward.