Who’s Who in the Zoo: Identifying the Influencers
My business partner and I both like to watch football when it’s in season, which it always is, thanks to ESPN, TiVO, and various start-up leagues which compete for our springtime attention. We are drawn to the drama of violent hits and artful grace that abound in well-played contests. But we have to confess to a guilty pleasure in watching trick plays unfold. Perhaps it’s the surprise. Perhaps it’s the way they can make the proud tumble into humiliating defeat. Perhaps it’s just the fun of seeing it all unfold.
One of our favorites trick plays has to be something called the Fake Substitution or Hideout play. It relies on equal parts misdirection, confusion, and complacency, not unlike a good magic trick. Most of us who watch football are accustomed to situational substitutions. A linebacker leaves so the defense can bring on an additional defensive back when the situation calls for a pass, or a tight end will be replaced by an additional wide out. It’s so common we almost do not notice it. Which is why the trick sometimes works. A player—usually a receiver or running back—jogs lazily toward his sideline, as though he is being replaced, except that he is not really leaving. At the snap of the ball, he is at the sideline, ready to run up field and catch the gently lofted pass, with nothing between him and the end zone. Unfortunately, the play may draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty if done incorrectly, but that is a matter for the referees. For us, it’s just plain fun.
It also reminds us of one of the cardinal rules in strategic selling: Know who all the players are at all times. We have all been victims of this “trick play”: we lose a deal because someone behind the scenes (or at least, behind the scenes to us!) preferred our competition. We may trot out some familiar excuses or cry foul. But the truth of the matter is we just did not notice them. They were right there, standing on the sidelines.
Top performers work very hard at identifying all the potential influencers, both those for us and those against us. What are their roles? How much influence do they have? Let me share with you a real customer example:
Robert was a key account executive for a publishing company selling to a major retailer. Robert was the point man for an account team. The customer was redesigning its customer checkouts, and Robert and his team were hoping to get new magazine racks placed at all of them. Robert and his team discussed their opportunity strategy, as well as who the decision influencers were. As he began to share his strategy with his team, one member pointed out that they were overlooking three critical influencers.
Robert realized that two of the people he didn’t even consider were members of a special committee which was formed by corporate. This special committee included managers at the store level. Since Robert doesn’t sell at that level, he didn’t even consider their role in the decision process. Fortunately for Robert, he was able to build his strategy that included key issues the store managers wanted addressed in the new checkout design. Thus, Robert and his team won the business because their strategy incorporated a solution that provided the local store manager a clean checkout rack that didn’t block the view of other point-of-purchase merchandise.
Being able to identify the key influencers involved in a buying decision is obviously critical. However, merely knowing “who’s who in the zoo” isn’t enough. Another critical best practice is building consensus of opinion around a decision. Building consensus requires two elements of clarity. First, you must have clarity regarding how the multiple buyers define the problem. Second, you need clarity about how the multiple buyers define value in the solution. Looking to Robert’s story above, if the corporate buyers didn’t agree with the challenges of the store managers, the decision could have been delayed or the plan to change the checkout totally scrapped. Fortunately for Robert and his team, the corporate buyers and the store managers both had a common understanding of the problem and the desire to fix it.
However, mere consensus on the problem is not enough. Top performers realize that they must connect how the customer defines the problem and the way their product solves it. When a decision includes multiple decision makers, this connection may be complicated and challenging. But failing to do it may result in more wins for your competitor.