Ray Collis

Selling To Teams: Lessons From Sport

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Sporting lessons on how to sell to teams

Some organizations don’t do team work very well. That is a problem in the context of collaborative buying decisions, cross functional buying committees and internal approvals procedures.   

Some organizations are a dream to sell to,  while others are a nightmare.  The individuals involved may be nice to deal with, organized and professional.  However when it comes to working as a group the opposite is true.  They are a challenge to sell to because the people making the decision are pulling in different directions.  When it comes to acting as a buying team it is the difference between golf and basketball!


The Problem With Some Buying Teams

Getting people working together effectively in teams poses a real challenge for some organizations. The reality is that many key project/buying teams are more like working group than teams.


Too often it is a group of individuals, rather than a real team that is charged with making the decision. To draw a sporting analogy the members are playing golf rather than basketball – that is to say they play as individuals rather than as a team.  So the question is:  ‘Are you selling to a team of golfers?’

Are You Selling To ‘A Team Of Golfers’?

When the people who are making the decision don’t work well as a team the salesperson is faced with:




These are the characteristics of poor teamwork, or a dysfunctional buying team.  Selling to a ‘team of golfers’ adds greatly to the work for the sales person. It results in longer, more unpredictable and ultimately costlier sales cycles.

In short the culture of the buying organization has implications for the salesperson’s strategy and success. So it should be a factor that is used to pre-qualify the opportunity, or at least inform the expected timing of any deal. For example if the typical sales cycle is 3 months, selling to an organization that is be-deviled with politics and dysfunction is likely to take 6 or perhaps even 9 months.


Selling To ‘A Basket Ball Team’

When the buying team plays like a basket ball team, all working together to get the ball into the one net, the salesperson’s job is made a lot easier. 


good buying teams

It is no accident that these are key variables used to define what is called ‘organizational health‘ – that term is a clever re-packaging of what is often called organizational behaviour, or culture. The term was coined by Patrick Lenconi who argues that organizational health is the single greatest advantage a business can achieve.  Of more immediate concern to the salesperson, organizational health has a direct bearing on the complexity of the sale.

buying team

Those organizations that are easiest to sell to are characterized by effective team work within the buying group, as well as the broader customer organization. But, what does a healthy buying team look like, well Lencioni defined a healthy team as a ‘small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization.’

The size of the buying team is important for several reasons not least of which is the fact that it is difficult to unify a larger number of people – there are simply too many opinions.

Many organizations, driven by the need to be all inclusive, have too many people on important project/buying teams. This may be an attempt to compensate for the absence of a cohesive  management team capable of making decisions effectively.


Strategies In Selling To Dysfunctional Organizations

So, ‘organizational health’ is another factor that the salesperson must pay attention to in winning the sale. It is important because it determines how those charged with making the buying decision will behave.  But that is not all, it also sets the context for strategy, finance, marketing, technology and everything else within the customer’s organization (all of which are factors that can bear upon the buying decision).


It is important for the salesperson to gauge the ‘organizational health’ of the buying team and to the extent that is possible to adjust the sales approach accordingly.  Where organizational health is poor the following strategies should be considered:

1. Slow down – trying to rush a decision is likely to back-fire. Learn about the culture and look out for an ally or champion who can help you navigate it.

2. Adopt a more collaborative approach, engaging all the stakeholders in co-creating the solution.

3. Focus on building consensus around a clear and compelling definition of success or the essential requirements.  Don’t get lost in the detail too fast.

4. Simplify the decision.  Allow for piece-meal commitments.  Break the decision down into smaller lower level commitments (e.g. pilots and phasing).

5. De-risk the decision.  Address risk or inertia up front, engaging with the concerns of all the different stakeholders and showing how risks can be effectively managed and mitigated.

6. Find a powerful senior management sponsor. Organizational dysfunction is often a feature of a command and control organizations where one or two senior figures rule by dictate.  In this case connecting with these figures, or at least with what they are trying to achieve is critical.

So, revisit your list of customers and prospects and keep the following in mind:


To find out more about Organizational Health – click here to buy a copy of ‘The Advantage’ by Patrick Lenconi which inspired this insight and from whom the basketball – golf analogy was adopted.


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