I received an email from a prospective client who said her company really wanted to hire me to speak to its sales staff. But before she could offer the opportunity, I’d have to discuss the gig with the company chairman, because he had high standards as to who’s allowed onstage during his big conference. Of course, I agreed to speak with him—he was “the authority,” after all.
My call with the chairman went perfectly. He believed I was a great fit. But he asked whether I would be willing to talk with the CEO so he could hear my message and approve it before I was offered the opportunity. Naturally I said yes, and that call went well, too. The CEO needed to make sure the sales director was onboard, though. So next I met with the sales director. Then the CEO and sales director together. And then with the CEO one more time. Only then did the first person who called me, the meeting planner, offer me the opportunity and send a contract.
I needed six calls, about three hours in total, to win the opportunity to give a keynote speech that lasted 45 minutes. If you sell today, this story will sound very familiar. You can expect a hefty time investment to precede any “yes.”
What consensus is (and isn’t)
Buyers want consensus. But before we get into why and how you can help them build consensus, let’s look at what consensus is.
Consensus consists of three parts: consideration, relationships and agreements to act. Consideration means that you gather input from the people who will be affected by a decision. It means you meet with these stakeholders to learn about them and their needs, challenges and feelings. When you exclude people—that is, when you don’t consider them—they don’t consider you and may work to block your efforts.
You also must realize that your customer’s company is a complex web of relationships. These people work together. They likely care about each other and won’t agree to a change, which may make someone else’s job harder. Because of these relationships, personnel often stick with the status quo.
Consensus is an agreement to act. This is an important definition. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is fully in favor of the decision, but that all stakeholders agree to move forward even if all of them don’t get exactly what they want.
The customer’s inability to make the trade-offs necessary for consensus is, in part, why so many deals fail to close and why so many companies limp along, never solving their biggest challenges. To build consensus, you have to help clients navigate the trade-offs.
How to help a customer build a consensus
Leaders and managers know that consensus increases an initiative’s chance of success. They don’t want to invest their time and money in ventures that fail. They know that consensus eliminates the natural resistance, foot-dragging and opposition to taking action once a decision is made. Here’s how to help them unify and decide to hire your business.
1. Know that there isn’t just one person making the decision
In the past, you were likely taught to start at the top of your customer’s organizational chart—the decision maker. Although that was excellent advice for a long time, it’s no longer a solid plan.
A single person once held supreme authority. Now it’s much more likely that authority resides in all of the stakeholders who’ll be affected by a decision and be charged with executing. The C-level executive doesn’t even want to see you until you’ve worked with those stakeholders to build consensus, and they aren’t signing off on anything without their support.
The difficulty for salespeople is often that lots of stakeholders within your customer’s company have the power to scuttle a deal, but none who have the authority (or who are willing) to say yes will do so without group consensus.
You no longer need ‘a’ sponsor or coach within your client’s company to help you navigate a deal from target to close. You need multiple sponsors and coaches. Instead of finding ‘the’ person with authority, you need to find all of the people who constitute that authority. You no longer have an economic buyer (an individual who makes a buying decision). You now have economic buyers, plural, as more and more people within companies are responsible for producing financial results.
2. Get stakeholders to the table
The work of helping your clients build consensus within their companies begins by bringing more stakeholders to the table.
That seems like a no-brainer, but many salespeople don’t do it. They believe that doing so will put their deal at risk. They believe that if they ask their main contact to bring more people into the deal, they will alienate the person who gave them the opportunity to discuss that deal in the first place, and/or they mistakenly believe they risk more by including others when the real risk is in excluding them.
You must get before all of the right people to obtain the required consideration of your product or service. You must also leap the hurdles of the many people who can’t approve your deal but who can block it.
- Ask early. Start by asking your contact something like, “It sounds like this decision is going to impact a lot of people. We’ll probably need their help. Who else should sit in if we want to make this a success?” The sooner you bring stakeholders to the table, the better your chances of gaining their support. Waiting can anger important stakeholders, making them feel like afterthoughts.
- Identify obstacles. Some people who stonewall your efforts may not want or need what you sell. Some will oppose any attempt to change the status quo. You increase your chances of achieving consensus if you identify those people early. You can ask the stakeholders within your prospective client company, “Who might not like the direction this project will take? How do we help them understand its value to the whole organization?” You might also need to ask, “Who can help us convince them to let this project go forward even though they may not actively support it?”
3. Pitch ideas and trade-offs to solve potential problems
One primary reason that consensus is so elusive? The product, service or solution you’re selling improves the performance of a customer’s company as a whole but makes tasks more difficult for some stakeholders.
Here’s a common example. Let’s say you sell software that helps customer service departments deliver a better customer experience, more quickly remedies clients’ problems and offers customers more and better ways to communicate when a problem or challenge arises. How could anyone oppose a project that produces such highly desirable results?
Well, that same project might mean that the IT department has to invest in new infrastructure. And maybe IT staffers will have to scrap projects already underway to bring in this new software solution. Bottom line: The initiative will make their work more costly and difficult, so they oppose it.
And the HR department? It might lack the budget for training customer service reps to use the new software. So HR might also block your solution.
Finally, marketing staffers might resist any change that would result in customers having new channels for communicating with the company. Or they might object to your solution because they’d have to develop brochures explaining it, and they already have an overflowing to-do list.
These examples demonstrate how initiatives fail and why the status quo can be your most difficult competitor. Your role is to mitigate such challenges, which you can uncover by bringing the stakeholders to the table and identifying obstacles. Then you need a plan to deal with them.
Let’s stick with our software example in figuring out your plan.
The question for the IT department might be, “Could you support this initiative if we could get you the budget for the infrastructure you need?” Or you might ask, “If we could bring in additional help, could we have access to a few of your key people to ensure that this project goes right?”
To appease human resources, the trade-off might go like this, “If we throw in the training, would that help you to support this initiative now and sustain it in the future?”
Some people or departments—in this case, marketing from our example—may not receive what they want but may still be persuaded to support your solution. Your conversation with marketing might be worded this way: “I’m sorry this changes so much of what you’re doing right now. But we’re afraid that if your company doesn’t implement these new channels of communication for customers, it will lose customers to competitors who do. Can you help us by supporting this change now if it puts your company in a better position for the foreseeable future?”
In every case, you build consensus and gain agreement by sharing why the new initiative is important to your customer’s company.
It’s hard work to build a consensus.
Gaining the consensus to close a sale is often difficult for the salesperson and their clients. But sales opportunities can be lost to no decision because neither the person selling nor the person leading change inside the company focused on building a consensus.
In case you mistakenly believe that consensus is important only in large, complex sales, let me share another story. I asked my family to go out for dinner while I was working on this article. My 16-year-old son wanted only chicken wings. One of my 14-year-old twin daughters wanted only Chipotle. The other twin wanted only tortilla soup, which isn’t available at Chipotle or a wings restaurant. And my wife, believing I should have already decided and made arrangements, was unhappy that I even asked her. We reached the consensus that it was Chipotle for that dinner (because my wife likes it), with another family outing over the weekend to a restaurant that served tortilla soup and wings. It’s a little of that trade-off strategy I mentioned.
I’ll bet similar scenes play out at your house (and in your customers’ companies). And if you can’t easily build a consensus about dinner, imagine what it’s like in the business world.
This article was published in August 2014 and has been updated. Photo by Friends Stock/Shutterstock