Are you an organizationally savvy salesperson?
Do you ask these two questions?
by Jerry Stapleton, for SBT
Every sales cycle is profoundly influenced by political factors, whether we like it or not. Salespeople must remember that in the real world of corporate life political reasons trump business reasons for any decision, including a buying decision.
That’s why something I call "organizational savvy" is arguably the single most important competency required for successful business-to-business selling.
Want to test your own organizational savvy? Solve this case: After nearly a yearlong sales cycle "Eric," a veteran financial software salesperson, sold a huge deal to the chief financial officer at one of his key accounts. The two had celebrated closure of the sale via dinner with their spouses. And the CFO had made all the appropriate announcements inside the company.
A week into the installation of the software a very embarrassed CFO, tail between his legs, called Eric with some devastating news: the company had decided to cancel the purchase and would de-install the components that had already been installed.
It seems the chief information officer, who hadn’t been very involved in the buying process, killed the deal. According to the apologetic CFO, the CIO had cited some esoteric technical issue for rejecting the software.
Oh, this one’s a no-brainer — Technology Sales 101 says you gotta involve the CIO! You’re right, obviously. But are you right for the right reason? Let’s find out. Start by factoring this into the mix: the chief information officer reports to the CFO.
In the real world of corporate life there is no way that an executive would allow a subordinate to give him such a black eye as occurred in the story above. After making such a public display of his decision to buy the software the CFO would simply tell the CIO — in so many words — "Make it work!"
What makes this case even more unusual is that the purchase in question is financial software. Who should be more influential on such a purchase than a company’s CFO? And then to be upstaged by a subordinate, no less? What’s wrong with this picture?
The one most important political question
Eric was at a loss. When he related the story to me, the situation was still warm. So I gave him one question to ask his lower-level contacts about the players involved in this decision: How long have the CFO, the CIO and the president been with the company? A few days later Eric called me back. The bottom line: The CFO had been with Eric’s target company for 20 years. The president had been with the company for about a year, the CIO had been hired six months ago, having come from the same company as the president.
Is it getting a little clearer? Sure, it’s obvious by now. The CIO, while officially reporting to the CFO, actually carried more influence in the company — and not just on IT matters — than his own boss.
That insight was critical to the outcome of the sale, but Eric had not bothered asking the one question that would have yielded such insight. He had relied, like most salespeople would, on the title of the executive buying his financial software. Eric was, after all, talking to the "CFO," and on financial software, for crying out loud. By most measures, Eric was in the catbird seat.
Unfortunately for Eric, he failed to ask the one question that all salespeople should ask but few do: "How long has ‘so-and-so’ been with the company?" While there’s more to a sound political analysis than just this question, knowledge of how long contacts have been with the company, or in their current positions, can reveal a lot about the level of influence of those contacts.
One really bad political question
There’s a good chance Eric had, earlier in the sales cycle, also asked the CFO that classic Vendor question: "Who else should I be talking to?" To which the CFO probably responded with something like, "There’s no need to talk to anyone else, this one’s my baby." Who’s going to argue with that?
Why is, "Who else should I be talking to?" such a bad question? First, what if — as in this case — the contact says, "Nobody!"? You’ve just boxed yourself into a corner. Second, if the contact does give you a name, it’s almost certainly going to be a low-influence contact, and often a gatekeeper at that.
Remember the great quote from Margaret Thatcher: "Being powerful is like being a lady; if you have to tell people you are, you aren’t!" If you keep this quote in mind, avoid the one bad political question, and always find out how long contacts — and those above and around them — have been with the company, you will be well on your way to cultivating your own personal political savvy.
Jerry Stapleton is president of Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. He can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at www.stapletonresources.com.
June 13, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee