Years ago, I worked for a great sales manager named Pete who told me selling was different in different parts of the country. He grew up in New Orleans, while I was from Los Angeles. After I teased apart his perspective, I came to understand his point was that customs are different. For example, he would have a hard time closing a large sale in the south if he failed to take a client out for dinner. Whereas, for me on the west coast, getting a buyer to dinner is a challenging task and not usually viewed as a requirement. My clients in Japan have told me that getting a meeting with a senior buying executive in their culture requires having a same level executive or higher from the selling side. In many other cultures, that helps, but its not a requirement. After having conducted business in over 40 countries around the world, I have no argument with Pete’s observation, however, what I have found is that buyers have consistent behaviors regardless of culture or customs. (As I write this article, I’m in client’s office near London, reviewing opportunities from Russia to South Africa and places in-between.)
Over the years, I’ve literally asked thousands of people from around the world to share the questions they would need answers to before funding a large purchase. Translated from many languages, the core questions are universal among buyers around the globe regardless of culture:
- Why should we change?
- Why now?
- Why this alternative?
- What’s the impact?
- Who does it impact?
- Who can we trust?
The first question is really about impetus. It includes the identification of people/process/technology problems and the connection to the current business issues the executive staff is trying to overcome. When connected together, they form an effective argument for change. Left unconnected, the argument for change can be overshadowed by more effectively articulated options – resulting in no decisionoutcomes for the poorly articulated purchase requests. I’m reminded of a sales person who told me his software sale was delayed because the client wanted to build a parking lot. In that case, someone successfully argued the scaling of the company was being hampered by a lack of employee parking, easily overshadowing the weak plea from engineering for a better code development platform that was not connected to the scaling issue, but could have been.
The second question is about aligning priorities. This is achieved by connecting the people, process and technology problems identified to a business issue that has the attention of the executive staff. If it connects to a business issue that isn’t on the minds of senior leaders, it’s at risk for being delayed until the business issue elevates in priority (if ever).
Weighing alternatives is a multifaceted question. At first glance, it seems like a simple differentiation question, which it encompasses, but can go even further. As pointed out above, it can also be about alternative uses for funds. Or it can be a “make versus buy” question. And lastly, its a test of the current approach, assessing if they can get by with the current solution, albeit potentially lacking.
Impact is about value. The return on the investment will need to align with the metric that has their attention, so it’s context relevant. While one company may be focused on improving revenues, the next company may be more concerned about reducing costs. Developing a value proposition that will motivate action requires attention to the customer’s current business issues as the focal point, and it’s their metric, not the seller’s metric that matters.
“Who does it impact” also has multiple levels. The first implication is about sizing the solution. For example, does the problem set impact one person or a hundred? The second implication can be a funding question. For instance, if it impacts sales and marketing, who is going to pay for it? And finally, there’s a political implication; if it does impact sales and marketing, can they collaborate to succeed with the new solution.
Lastly, the question of trust comes in many forms and includes many time consuming activities on the part of buyers and sellers. On-site product evaluations are educational for the buyer, but overall they are a test of trust and credibility. If your product has severe bugs or other quality problems, your credibility suffers and so does the trust. Reference checks and now social media posts are a test of trust and credibility. Your existing customer list is a testimonial to the trust others have put in your company. Most buyers execute multiple credibility checks to evaluate your trustworthiness.
Although you may have thought of a question that’s not on my list, I’ve typically found its either simply stated differently but aligns with one of the questions above, or its a packaged combination of two or more of the core questions. For example, “what’s the ROI?” is really a concrete example of the “impact?” question. And, “why should we buy the premium provider?” is really a combination of “why this alternative?” and “whats the impact?” providing a means to weigh the added value of their differentiated capabilities. (But please add yours to the comments below if you’d like to dialog about it!)
I’ll leave you with one last thought. This list is potentially the most important list a sales professional can keep front and center. If you are helping your buyers to answer these questions effectively, you are enabling them to buy faster, buy bigger, and insure a measurable return to their business. Conversely, if you are not helping them answer these questions effectively, you’re leaving your opportunity open for risk. Just one unanswered question on their part can lead to a delayed decision, a no decisionoutcome, a loss to a competitor or a loss to a better use of funds.
Kevin Temple guides sales teams to be more agile and improve revenue outcomes. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Enterprise Selling Group is a leader in delivering sales training, coaching and project oversight to improve the agility of sales teams around the world.