John O' Gorman

Q: What’s for desert? A: The salesperson!

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Three salespeople and one procurement professional were deep in debate. The topic was the rise of the competitive tender and the delay in calling sellers to the table.

Salesperson for desert

“The problem is we are being called to the table later” said one exasperated sales manager. Continuing the table analogy he added “they don’t call us in until long after the starter and the main course have been served”.

Then the buyer in the room perked up and said in rhetorical fashion ‘You know what’s for desert don’t you!?!’. Then after a brief pause he exclaimed “YOU ARE!” and laughed aloud.

The laughter from the sales managers in the room was subdued. Everybody knows that if you are called late to the table, the buyer is likely to be fixated on price.

Modern Buying Means Delayed Selling

Why wasn’t everybody laughing? Well, let’s recap on the main points of the group’s discussion up to that point:

1. Buyers are taking longer to buy and delaying longer before getting salespeople involved. The result is that the seller often only appears on the scene at the point where the buyer is looking for competing quotes. This most classically happens with respect to the competitive tender or Rfx.

Are you the type of salesperson that buyers would rather delay calling to the table?

2. Buyers often prefer to do their own research and analysis when it comes to defining requirements and identifying solutions. The availability of a diversity of sources of information (many more impartial than the salesperson), the emergence of cross-functional buying teams, and recourse to external consultants – these factors mitigate against the need to involve the salesperson early on.

3. Is it frustrating? It represents a fundamental shift in the relationship and means that the buyer’s door is no longer open. Indeed, for some proud sellers being shunned by buyers until they want a tender document feels like an insult. As one seller put it, it’s akin to ‘buyers telling sellers that they should only speak when spoken to’.

Why Didn’t The Buyer Call You Earlier?

We asked the 3 sales managers and the buyer to continue with the ‘being called late to the table’ analogy and listened to what was said:

The appetite among buyers for engaging with salespeople has waned. The competitive tender means that sellers are being called to the table later and are not getting to taste, perhaps not even see; what is on the menu. They are not getting to choose between chicken, beef, or salmon – they are not getting to shape the strategy, elicit the requirements and challenge the solution definition.

For the salesperson there are no appetisers, no pallet cleansers and no side orders. By the time the seller appears the buyer has eaten his, or her fill and what’s left? Only to quabble about the bill! Sellers can easily find themselves participating in a reverse auction on price.

Is getting involved later in the buying process costing you your margin?

Meanwhile in the private dining room that is the buying process, the feast is under way. There are lots of people gathered around the table, with much debate and conversation. Nobody appears to be in a rush. There are generous portions of time, with pauses between courses. All that is missing is the salesperson and nobody present seems forlorn about his, or her absence.

But what’s on the buyer’s menu that is forbidden fruit for the seller? Well, first a portion of strategy – the buyer must first digest what the buying organization wants to achieve, the priorites, the business drivers and the metrics in order to make way for the next course.

Then comes the main dish – the solution – with the ingredients including; the full range of solution alternatives, including competing projects, do it in house, competing technologies, and so on.

What is the buyer really missing by not talking to you earlier?

What’s next? It is the promise of success containing the following ingredients; the project plan for implementation, the targets for results achieved, the integration with people, process and systems and so on.

Oh and before getting up from the table a little portion of supplier too!

What Can Sellers Do To Get Involved Earlier?

1. If the seller is going to be invited to the table earlier then he or she needs to appeal to the buyer’s new culinary appetites. These appetites include how to get more for less, how to drive better results/performance, how to manage risk, ensure compliance and so on. That requires moving the conversation off features and benefits, to what matters most to the buyer – the results your solution can deliver.

2. Sales people cannot appear to be telling the buyer what to order. Don’t act like a traditional ‘always be closing’ salesperson. That means not appearing to be selling something, at least not the the traditional hard sell fashion. The salesperson should be encouraging the buyer to sample the full menu and to taste before buying.

3. The seller should appear to be an expert not a salesperson. That is essential to providing good conversation around the table. It requires sharing insights into the experiences of the buyer’s peers and of the buyers industry. It means providing useful information not marketing blurb – that is much more appetising and more filling.

Does the buyer see you as an expert, or consultant – rather than a salesperson?

4. Create the appetite and educate the buyer’s pallet in the form of demand generation, through white papers, case studies and similar activities aimed at those who have not yet started talking to suppliers, or perhaps not even started the buying process.

5. Nurture leads over time. If the seller wants to get called to the table, then he, or she must make contact earlier and stay in contact until the time is right for the buyer – even if that is 6, 8 or 14 months after the prospect downloaded a whitepaper, but refused a meeting. It is too late to join in the conversation when competing suppliers are being evaluated.

6. Networking is an important way of opening doors and meeting potential buyers in a non-sales environment, such as at conferences, industry events and trade shows. In other words if you want to be invited to the table, meet people where they are talking about food.

Are you networking in the right places so as to make contact with the prospects of tomorrow?

7. Market intelligence – ensure that those who are potentially in the market are identified earlier and that if they download your whitepaper, or attend an event, that they are nurtured to the point of sales readiness.

8. Access key decision makers – in other words sell to C Level, or the executive suite. It is at that level where priorities are set, strategies set and decisions are made. If you want to get involved early you have to be talking to senior management.

Be seen as a celebrity chief, or food critic. That means building and leverage your reputation as a market leader, or innovative upstart in your field.

Are the buyers you are talking to senior enough to shape priorities, set strategies and allocate budgets?

9. Ask for referrals – for the prospect that means you have been validated by somebody they trust. If somebody tells a buyer that you are worth talking to that goes a long way to getting you involved earlier in the buying decision.

10. Oh and one more thing the buyer needs to do – help the buyer to buy! That means to help the the buyer to plan the menu, to prepare and serve the meal, to entertain the guests, and to clear away afterwards. The salesperson’s new role is to help the buyer to navigate the requirements of his, or her internal buying process and to build a compelling logic, or rationale for the purchase.

Do you use referrals and introductions to get in ahead of the competitive tender being issued?

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