Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Research on planning is pretty clear: there is not a significant amount of difference between average and successful performers when it comes to the time spent developing a strategy. Average performers and top performers tend to spend about the same amount of time. What is different is HOW they spend their time. Average performers tend to emphasize gathering information, while top performers tend to emphasize what to do with it. Put another way, average performers spend the majority of their time figuring out what they want, while top performers spend the majority of their time figuring how they are going to get what they want. In simplest terms, you might say this is the difference between preparation and planning.

Putting the key players map together is preparation. Doing something with the information is planning. What does that look like? Consider the following ideas.

Unlimited combinations
Key players are not static. Not only do they move around on the grid from decision to decision. They also can move around during one decision. And because there may be varying numbers of individuals involved in a decision – and because you may have more advocates in certain situations – there can be no standard picture and no standard approach. There are an unlimited number of combinations that will be revealed.

Strengthening the picture
Certainly the greatest goal when looking at this tool is to determine ways to strengthen the picture in your favor, and that means figuring how to create more influential advocates. That being said, every picture, regardless of where people stand on the grid, should encourage you to develop a strategy to improve your situation or preserve it.

Using Advocates
Your greatest asset is a strongly influential advocate. These champions can help us develop a strategy for improving the “picture”, and they can help us put our plan into place. We can also use them to counteract our adversaries. Their influence makes them extremely important.

However, having influential advocates has at least two traps laying in wait. Salespeople often over-rely on their internal champions to carry their banners forward, with no real plan in place about what that actually looks like. They hope for the best, but as the wise man said, “Wishful thinking is not exactly a strategy.” The second trap ready to be sprung is over-focusing on the others in the organization because their advocate is already sold. They think, “Why bother ‘preaching to the choir?’ She’s already in our camp.” This often leaves their strongest champion open for the competition to sway him, which makes for a very nasty surprise come decision day.

Your greatest asset is, of course, your influential advocates. This does not mean you ignore everyone else. On the contrary, it might be useful to pay even close attention to them as you develop your going forward plans. What do you do with the “influencer” who opposes you? Can they be turned? What about the advocate who has little influence? Are there ways you can help them gain stature in the organization, thereby increasing their influence?

But what if your champion is only a paper tiger? How certain can you be of their influence or their advocacy? Is there risk that they might feel the same enthusiasm for your competitor’s solution? Are they willing to “sell” your ideas to others?

Once you have become absolutely certain that an individual is your advocate and yours alone, then the question becomes “What will they do to help you by influencing others who may not be on your side or who may be undecided as to which vendor they’re likely to support?”

Creating Advocates
More selling happens at your customer’s site when you are not there than when you are. So, your advocates’ support is crucial. We all need to have people inside our customers’ organizations who can act on our behalf, who can carry our banner in our absence. In fact, the more the merrier. This is critical because we cannot possibly be present inside our accounts all of the time. Even if we tried, customers would probably call security and have us removed.

So how do we find Advocates? They do not just drop from the sky, but they do grow on trees. Sort of. Salespeople have to plant and then nourish them carefully, like they would a valuable plant. Some suggestions which have paid dividends:

1. Have solutions that help them succeed in their jobs.
2. Strive to be an asset which they can use to make themselves look better.
3. Be a value added resource who isn’t always trying to sell them something, but rather someone who is trying to help them in as many ways as possible.
4. Don’t love ‘em and leave ‘em; keep in constant contact with them to continually build the relationship.
5. Ask them for help (after you’ve earned the right).

Use other champions to help you determine who else is likely to be a helpful advocate – someone who has authority and respect within their organization (it isn’t going to be helpful to have a key advocate that no one likes, respects, or listens to).

Dealing with Adversaries
Whenever we help a sales team draw a key player map and then ask them what to do about Adversaries, the responses are often comical. First, there is silence, followed by some diabolical plot to have the person’s kneecaps broken in the parking lot! We know these answers are in jest (or at least hope so), but the first genuine reaction from almost everyone is befuddled confusion. There are approaches, however, which experience has shown to be useful in counteracting and managing adversaries.

First, you need to know why they are against you. Is it that they truly dislike you, your company, or your products? Or are they just more favorable towards a competitor? They may, in fact, hold you in a neutral position. It is important to figure out if they are actively hostile toward you, or simply in favor of your competitor.

We tend to view all adversaries as bad news, but some news is worse than others. The actively hostile adversary is, in some ways, much more dangerous than the passively opposed. On the other hand, we have seen actively hostile adversaries over-play their position and compromise their influence. And while passively opposed adversaries may not be as uncomfortable to us (we tend to attribute their opposition to simple ignorance), they are also often tough to persuade.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with adversaries. Your strategies and tactics have to take into account many factors, among them the adversaries’ levels of influence and their degree of hostility.

A Varied Adversary Example
Let’s look at an example where there are two types of Adversaries and they require different types of approaches. The first Adversary is a significant roadblock. She had been responsible for bringing in the current program, and viewed any additional programs as a competitor to her own, even a threat. She knew very little about the proposed company or its capabilities, but had still managed to create significant doubt about the solution among the decision team. On the one hand, she was an assailant and was having an impact that couldn’t be ignored. On the other hand, she did not seem to have an extraordinary level of influence, even though she was making a lot of noise.

The second Adversary is, interestingly enough, more powerful than the first. She was a skeptic of the new solution, but didn’t have any allegiance to other solutions. She was highly influential, but only moderately adversarial. It is easy to underestimate this person’s impact.

Regardless of why someone is an Adversary, the goal is to make an assailant either less opposed to you or less influential in the decision making process. The challenge is in how you make that happen. Without knowing the entire picture, it would be impossible for a person to say, “Do it this way” – which is why a complete assessment of the key players within a buying opportunity is critical. Your key player picture is what helps you determine the best course of action. It is similar to a military leader planning for battle. You have so many elements that must be considered to come up with alternative courses of action.

Don’t forget the Neutrals
The trap is to spend too much time working with Advocates or minimizing the damage of Adversaries, while ignoring the folks in the middle. The Advocates and Adversaries have to come from somewhere, which is usually toward the neutral middle. If you don’t try to convert a “neutral” into an advocate, your competition will, and then they become a new Adversary.

Can you increase their influence?
It would be unusual to have someone whose influence cannot be increased. This is because influence on a decision is not typically positional (that is, title does not equal influence). Helping your less influential Advocates understand the scope of the problem you are solving – its impact on the company – as well as quantify the payoff of your proposed solution can be crucial in their gaining more influence. Do they understand the “pain” and the “gain?” Can they effectively communicate them to other decision influencers?

“What if there was no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
One of our favorite films is Harold Ramis’s brilliant comedy, “Groundhog Day,” with Bill Murray. The story is about a Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors (Murray’s character) who is compelled to repeat the same day – Groundhog Day – over and over again. A beautifully sweet fable with profound underlying themes about selfishness, selflessness, and the meaning of life, it also paints a pretty good metaphor for complex selling.

Phil, who has finally fallen in love with Rita, his producer, begins spending all of his Groundhog Days learning everything he can about her. He learns her history, her likes and dislikes, her preferences and tastes, her dreams. It gets to the point where they finally have this exchange (after countless repeated days where he learns something new about her).

Rita: This day was perfect. You couldn’t have planned a day like this.
Phil: Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.

Knowing the key players is like being Phil Connors: learn all you can about the key players for your customer. Who are they? What do they want? Why do they want it? You do not have to be omniscient or omnipotent. You just have to invest the time. As Phil tells Rita (speaking of God): “Maybe he’s not omnipotent. Maybe He’s just been around so long he knows everything…”

In real life
We worked with a medical device manufacturer which specializes in surgically implantable products. They have had steady growth for more than 15 years, and own the majority of market share in nearly every hospital in America. However, there was a trend that operating budgets in the hospitals were getting tighter and hospitals were asked to cut expenses wherever they could. This meant that sales reps could no longer merely walk around the hospital and collect Purchase Orders. They had to begin putting together a proactive strategy allowing them to capture and retain business against lower cost competitors.

Our client implemented a strategic opportunity planning process that included many different elements. They began by analyzing their customers’ critical decision factors. What was most surprising was that many of the sales reps couldn’t provide immediate answers to the five critical decision factors.

The good news was they didn’t assume they knew. They immediately began asking questions inside their hospital accounts. They asked about the length of the decision process. They asked if the decision process going forward would look the same as it did in the past. They wanted to know about the sense of urgency, as well as who were the key players. Finally, they wanted to know what the competitive landscape looked like. Was there going to be new competitors coming to bid that might offer the hospital a lower cost solution? What was interesting is that there was a common thread running through most of the hospitals. Given the cost-cutting trend on budgets, most hospitals changed their decision process fairly significantly. Most instituted a new evaluation process for purchasing new products, and they included additional product users who would provide their feedback and influence on the decision. Fortunately, our client’s sales team didn’t assume things were merely status quo.

They asked questions to identify the five critical decision factors, and they were able to develop proactive sales strategies that enable them to position their solutions with the right people and at the right time. Effective sales planning will teach you to learn all you can about the key players and then develop an effective plan for improving your position.