Sales professionals and their solutions are inextricably linked. The perceived value of the solution is tied to the quality of the sales professionals’ insights. The more sales professionals prove themselves, the more they prove the legitimacy of the solution.
However, it is becoming increasingly difficult for sales professionals to prove themselves as the number of decision-makers in a group increases. Moreover, this team of stakeholders is often a tight-knit group. They are driven by similar goals, have a shared history and are often united by their skepticism of outsiders (like a sales professional). Therefore, effective sales professionals consider how they can better position themselves to exclusive groups of stakeholders. Social psychology research has a few answers.
Researchers at the University of Queensland conducted a study to understand the dynamics in play when a newcomer approaches an existing group. Their findings offer valuable insights to sales professionals who want to earn the buyer’s respect.
To study the different ways group members responded to recommendations, the researchers examined how they react to suggestions from within the team and suggestions that originate externally. Not surprisingly, they learned that recommendations “arouse more negativity and are less influential when they stem from a newcomer.” Then, they went deeper to uncover why this dynamic exists, and they learned that groups become more receptive to a newcomer’s suggestions once they saw the newcomer as “psychologically invested” in the group.
This finding is important to sales professionals, because it reveals that group dynamics come first. Without first finding their footing within the group of decision-makers, sales professionals cannot ask the kinds of incisive questions that reveal the customer’s needs. Here are three ways sales professionals can become more psychologically invested in the stakeholder’s group.
Align to the Stakeholder’s Identity
As more solutions begin to look like one another, sales professionals are discovering that customer centricity is a key competitive advantage. Companies that adopt a customer-centric approach are better able to connect with the customer’s needs and more fully realize how their solution meets those needs. The value of this approach is clear, given that that “more than a dozen Fortune 1000 firms [such as Coca Cola, Hershey, Intel, HP, and JD Edwards] have created a more specialized function — chief customer officer — to acknowledge the importance of customer centricity related issues in the boardroom,” according to the Journal of Service Research.
A customer-centric approach earns the stakeholder’s respect, because it illustrates that the sales professional is focused on solving a problem, not just making a sale. Part of the reason that sales professionals are regarded with skepticism is the fact that their mere presence suggests that some aspect of the decision-maker’s group needs to change. Easing this tension begins with the sales professional’s conscientious effort to become part of the customer’s team, to rise to the level of a trusted advisor. A trusted advisor is a person whom the stakeholders seek for advice, guidance and input. Becoming a trusted advisor represents the pivotal point in the relationship where a sales professional becomes part of the stakeholder’s group and, more importantly, part of the stakeholder’s identity.
Fostering openness is a critical precursor to aligning with the stakeholder’s identity. The sales professional cannot align to the stakeholder’s identity without knowing what that identity entails. Openness reveals it.
Sales professionals, however, must take the first step. They must demonstrate openness by sharing ideas that are relevant to the customer’s unique challenge. This task is difficult given the wealth of information the customer can access before even engaging with a sales professional. Therefore, it is critical that when sharing insights, sales professionals take the time to leverage in-depth research that avoids surface-level ideas. This is an opportunity to rise above the competition and illustrate higher-level preparation. Moreover, upfront research enables the sales professional and the customer to delve into the details of the challenge in the first conversation, saving valuable time. Granular research can also reveal powerful ideas that might not have surfaced during the dialogue. The most resonant ideas emerge from an exploration of three questions:
- What possible assumptions guide the customer’s thinking?
- What relevant information might be absent from the customer’s thinking?
- What has been the customer’s solution to date?
Approach With Authenticity
Authenticity emerges when the sales professional ensures that every insight, comment and recommendation connects directly to the customer’s challenge. Effective sales professionals ensure authenticity by remembering that every piece of information they share with the customer is followed by an answer to the question, “So what?” How does it connect to their goals? In other words, authenticity is not a strategy — it is a mindset.
However, authenticity is lacking in many business relationships. “Approximately 70 percent of firms have yet to develop strong relationships with customers,” according to research from Accenture. Authenticity cannot be faked; it emerges from a genuine interest in the customer’s business and its challenges.
In a business landscape crowded with similar solutions and competitive prices, it is more important than ever for sales professionals to find their place within the group of decision-makers. Doing so means:
- Ensuring every decision made in the pursuit of the sale is customer-centric and serves the customer in some way.
- Being open in the dialogue and sharing insights and ideas that will encourage the customer to reciprocate.
- Adopting a mindset of authenticity based in a genuine interest in the customer’s goals.