Remember the last time you developed a strategy for a critical sales opportunity? Perhaps it was to accelerate growth of a key account or to pursue something ambitious. It can feel quite a burden can't it, dedicating enough time to develop a creative and robust strategy to achieve what feels out of reach. Sometimes we would rather trust our experience and instincts to navigate us through. But what do we miss?
Excellent sales operators overcome client resistance and extremely negative perceptions at senior levels. They create pockets of advocacy and strategic ‘influence agents’ who effect change in others on their behalf. They know what strategic relationships to build and how to sequence all those interactions and navigate the politics. The problem is though, it's largely unconscious. It’s instinct. It’s not deliberate and it is in-precise. Therefore, their success is slower, sub-optimal, and extremely difficult to replicate.
The first time I remember learning the military’s approach to strategy, 'The 7 Questions', it was my basic intelligence training and I was learning how this process was applied to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A few weeks later, I was in field training learning how to apply the same process to clearing an enemy position 300m away. What struck me at that moment was its scalability. That’s a pretty big leap! Yet, it was just as effective. What was also enlightening was how the process was used successfully in extremely pressured environments; I have fond memories of a training sergeant in my earhole and enemy fire closing in, yet applying it in a matter of minutes. So, when a client says to me, they don’t have time to strategise their account growth, I challenge it with this story.
The Applied Influence Group’s approach to influence strategy takes the fundamentals of 'The 7 Questions' and makes them highly relevant for complex b2b selling. It focuses on the long-term human factor, where multiple stakeholders and complex challenges are involved. It provides fast, comprehensive analysis and creates the essential plans to tackle these challenges when your experience and instinct is not enough. Which, in our experience, is more frequently the case than most sales people realise!
So, what are some of the key takeaways from our influence strategy process that can break down the successful actions that excellent sales people use instinctively, in order to replicate them?
Ask 'So What'? In the first of The 7 Questions, we examine the situation we want to change and identify factors effecting it, i.e. time, competition, the political environment, legal considerations or personnel, and then ask, 'so what'? For instance, when influencing a buying decision in an important new account, you may have identified the organisation has poor internal communication between business functions, and information is rarely shared. Well, ‘so what’? What does that mean for you and your proposition? It could be that you need to assume information won't naturally cross-pollenate in the client in the way you expect, meaning you need to reach more stakeholders with the same sales message than originally thought and think carefully about the order in which you do that to navigate 'politics'. Asking ‘so what’? ensures there is deduction, rather than just fact, and helps you think with purpose.
Speak the same language. It is a remarkably familiar scene for me to be with a sales team mid strategy development, and a team member reveals a game-changing (for better or worse) piece of information. For instance, revealing the current decision maker is a contractor who won't be in role in three months time - but wait, 'we don't have any other relationships'! Exactly. Information is not deliberately withheld, it's usually that they just didn't appreciate its significance (because they didn't ask themselves 'so what'?) or perhaps the team hadn't been speaking the same language. Sometimes, it's simply because the question had never been asked before. Spending ten minutes profiling your stakeholders together as a team with a shared framework can reveal often-missed information and completely alter the way you engage with the client.
Identify your point-person. Good profiling can help determine the best placed-person to have a particular interaction with a client. This might not be the most obvious choice - but the answer can't be revealed until sufficient client profiling is done. Self-awareness helps identify when you're not the best-placed person to achieve an intended effect, but that someone else (e.g. the most junior person in the team, your EA, or Sharon the tech specialist) is more suited based on their personality, connections, attitude to a relevant issue, existing relationship, or many other reasons.
Make it flexible but timely. There is a military saying of ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’. Your strategy will need to flex: goal posts move, priorities shift and assumptions are proven wrong. So when assessing the control measures you impose on the execution of the strategy, allow time for review and adjustments. For instance, you might have a conditions-based decision around how you engage with a senior stakeholder (i.e. a decision that can only be made once something else has happened first, like winning buy-in from their number two); make sure to include a step in your strategy for how to adapt if you fail to do this. You should determine realistic and agreed time boundaries and decision points, with someone responsible for controlling that process.
Think of the superstars in your sales team that have turned around major accounts and altered client perceptions worth 10s of millions. If you asked them, could they tell you how they did it and break down the strategy for doing so? If not, how can you be sure they could do it again? An effective sales strategy not only facilitates more aiming and less shooting, but also provides the framework to hit the bullseye.
If you're curious about how influence strategy can accelerate your sales success, you can fire away at firstname.lastname@example.org