Written by Steve Gielda, Principal – Ignite Selling

Everyone knows that being successful in an account means knowing who the key players are. Knowing the key players in your strategically important accounts is one of the most crucial and most challenging tasks you will have in the world of the complex sale. We want to know who they are, what they want, and why they want it. We want to know their ups and their downs, their ins and their outs. While not providing a magic pill to make it easy or always successful, our goal here is to give you useful tools and proven best practices to make it manageable.

Harry: The Need to Know Key Players
Harry is a sales rep for a corporate wellness solution. We were asked to help him in the creation of a strategy for a new opportunity. Once we’d heard the details about the prospect, we asked Harry our first specific question. “Tell us about the key players inside your prospect’s organization, the ones who will be responsible for making this decision.”

According to Harry, there was a supporter inside the account. It was the individual with whom Harry had spent the most amount time and who seemed to be helping Harry in the development of a sales strategy. He seemed to love Harry’s solution, and Harry clearly hoped to use him as his internal champion. However, his “champion” lacked decision-making authority, and Harry worried that this would hinder his ability to achieve his sales goals. There were others of whom Harry spoke, including one individual Harry viewed as the most troublesome, someone who seemed to be working against him. This person was most definitely not a supporter of Harry’s organization and in fact had said bad things about Harry’s company to others. Harry wasn’t sure why, but this individual was clearly no friend. And then of course, Harry talked about the “dude” – the one key individual with whom final authority rested. Unfortunately Harry had no relationship at this level, and his champion had advised against going directly to him. He had recommended, instead, that Harry work through him. It was a bleak picture, but Harry felt hopeful that his internal champion could help him.

Our next question – “Is there anyone else?” – drew a troubling response: “Um, I don’t think so.”

Why this topic matters
Complex sales are complex. Avoid the temptation to dismiss this point simply because it states the obvious. It is often the obvious point which is overlooked at our peril. The complexity we speak of here relates to the number of people who play roles in major purchasing decisions. There is seldom one Big Kahuna who unilaterally owns the decision.

There is no escaping this fact. Success in complex selling means managing many different players, a trend which will only increase in worsening economic conditions. Why? The answer might be as simple as shared blame. As companies put greater scrutiny on major purchases, very few want to stand alone on risky decisions. Consensus not only means vetting ideas through more brains; it also means that blame can be spread around.

Don’t most sales people know this already? Certainly, most sellers acknowledge that they are selling to groups today more than they were a decade ago. Our friend Harry’s situation wasn’t unique, and Harry knew it.

Given that everyone will acknowledge the role of multiple individuals in any buying process, you’d think it would be common place for people to have a strategy for how to manage them. Indeed, most salespeople will tell you that they do have a strategy of sorts. Our friend Harry had one.

Harry’s strategy was to continue to work with his champion to advance his sales efforts. He hoped his champion would promote his solution to the other key players in the organization, including the highly-influential “Dude”. Harry wanted the chance to come in and present to others in person, and felt that this champion’s efforts might pave the way to a meeting.

Harry acknowledged the need to proactively address his “enemy” – the individual who seemed to have it out for him and his company – and he had a couple of ideas about how. One approach was to use his champion to directly confront the enemy, to use his friend to build credibility for his company and solutions. A second, albeit far less serious option, was a dark alley confrontation.

Harry’s plan, when he thought it through, did not fill him with confidence. In reality, it showed that he really lacked a plan. Why?

Harry, like many other sellers, liked to call on people with whom he had a high level of comfort. He preferred to spend his time with “friends” rather than “enemies”. If his friends were more influential than his enemies, he tended to win. If not, he tended to lose. Given that he typically had more friends than enemies, he usually won more than he lost. The downside, of course, was that he might lose some he should win.

Another reason Harry’s plan was lacking has to do with human nature. People, with some notable exceptions, avoid confrontations. Harry was not different. Calling directly on his enemy was almost unthinkable for Harry. Why would he? It might result in a disagreement, which would certainly be counterproductive. Better to let his friend do his fighting for him in this case. Most sales people prefer to let champions carry their banner for them, having no real strategy on how to counteract or neutralize apparent enemies such as Harry’s.

Selling inside our “comfort zones” has other downsides, the most prominent of which is that our perspective on the situation tends to be skewed. We are only hearing one side of the story, and it may be woefully inadequate. More than that, our champions may be less influential than we realize. It’s not that they can’t help us at all, but it may be that they cannot help us enough. Moreover, we should not to put all of our eggs into one basket.

Harry’s strategy suffered from each of these problems.

How do we get started?
The King from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” famously said, “Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end; then stop.” And so it is with developing a plan to manage the key players in your accounts. Let’s go back to the first question we asked Harry: “Tell us about the key players inside your prospect’s organization, the ones who will be responsible for making this decision.” And then the key follow up question: “Is that everyone that will be involved in the decision?” The first step is to make sure you have a clear idea of everyone who will play a role in the decision. A soundly built structure does not start with the foundation, but rather with the plan. Your well-built sales strategy should start with well thought out plans. Starting at the beginning means carefully assessing the “lay of the land.”