Required Reading: Selling to Influencers

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It’s not uncommon for sales managers to spend time and money training their reps. But in their new book, The Challenger Customer, authors Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon of CEB, a best practice insight and technology company, suggest that in the B2B realm, customers are sometimes the ones who need the guidance. Adamson and Dixon spoke with Associate Editor Oren Smilansky about the importance of coaching key stakeholders to influence decision makers within the organizations you're selling to.

CRM: What changes have you seen in the B2B landscape since you released The Challenger Sale in 2012?

Brent Adamson: If the first book was all about selling, this book is all about buying—there's the bumper sticker version of it. Most of what's really driving change today isn't necessarily how we're selling differently, or for that matter, how we're marketing differently, it's how our customers are buying differently.

Our research tells us that on average there are 5.4 individual stakeholders involved in a B2B purchase decision. Each of those 5.4 individual stakeholders represents a different function, title, and role in the organization. They each have a different set of priorities. When those 5.4 come together to make a decision or realize that they don't actually overlap in terms of what they agree on, what they tend to agree on more than anything else are things like reducing risk, saving time and money, and avoiding disruption.

When a seller enters that environment, it becomes very important to find someone with the ability to drive consensus and change.

Matthew Dixon: Even if you've gone out and challenged the customer with something provocative and insightful, there is a tough road ahead from the point when you've engaged an individual to the point when the deal is signed, and that's what this book is about.

We've found that winning salespeople engage a specific kind of customer. It's not just that you challenge, it's who you challenge that matters.

CRM: Are you targeting just sales, or marketing and other parts of the organization?

Adamson: What we're really thinking about here is commercial strategy. It is a way for a supplier organization to align its entire organization around the realities of the current buying environment. The target audience for this book can be the commercial leaders of an organization all the way up to the CEO's office.

CRM: In the book, you identify seven kinds of customer stakeholders. Can you characterize them?

Dixon: The "go-getters" are project-focused. They're the people who are thinking about taking the idea that the sales rep put on the table and turning it into a reality within the organization. They're thinking about the hoops they'll have to jump through, and the people to get on board. The "teacher" is the big-ideas person. They want to get colleagues similarly excited about a new vision and direction. "Skeptics" are, frankly, pretty mean. They can be pointed with their questions. They put your idea or solution or proposal through the ringer. Those three we call "mobilizers."

"Guides" are good at helping salespeople understand who's who inside the organization. They're good at introducing you to folks. "Friends" enjoy spending time with salespeople. They will cancel their 4 o'clocks so you can continue the great conversation you're having. "Climbers" are about personal movement and advancing their careers. The seventh type we call the "blocker": the anti-salesperson. It's difficult to even engage with them.

CRM: Of these, which should salespeople focus on?

Dixon: High performers focus on the mobilizer stakeholders: your go-getters, teachers, and skeptics. Average-performing salespeople tend to focus on guides, friends, and climbers.

Mobilizers are really far more willing and able to form consensus and drive a new vision across a diverse set of stakeholders within an organization. [Guides, friends, and climbers] may be willing to introduce you to folks, but they're very unlikely to drive consensus or push that vision you're trying to sell into the organization.

How does the company find mobilizers? By giving them the tools they're looking for in the first place, which are insights. We spend a lot of time in the book talking about insight. How do I deliver that content, not just through sales, but through a constant marketing strategy, to ensure that we're identifying and connecting with [customers] and looking for materials that impact their business that they can use to drive change and build consensus.

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