A client of ours, who provides a uniquely designed sales performance improvement program design for a unique niche, was involved in a large, complex sale with a major company in their market. Traditional sales theory would lead to a focus on one of two roles/personas at the company:
The executive in charge of sales revenue, or
The executive in charge of training.
My client won the sale, and in the debrief we confirmed something very few people would have expected. While the client did a yeoman’s job selling to the typical roles, it was the head of technology (CTO) who was the key player that led the company to not only buy from my company, but to do so without decreasing the scope or paying less than my client proposed. It was also the CTO that prevented the head of training from “checking with outside vendors” to see if they could do the “same thing for less.”
The CTO had no formal role regarding the sales approach or training programs that were implemented by this company. Yet, because of the insights and knowledge that my client developed regarding this company, the CTO was engaged from the beginning. Looking back, it’s likely the smartest decision that was made during the several months of the sales process.
The Missing Persona
While I am in no way suggesting that everyone start prospecting the CTO at the companies they want to do business with, this “outlier” influencer is not a unique phenomenon. This particular CTO represents an increasingly important and often overlooked role player in the sales process: the Initiator. (If you’re familiar with Gartner CEB’s research on The Challenger Customer, you may be familiar with what they refer to as the Mobilizer, which is very similar to the Initiator.)
Now, before all the cynics and veteran salespeople start thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s nothing new here. I always look to find a coach/sponsor/champion/mole when selling complex solutions,” note that the Initiator is much more than someone who provides you insights into how to sell to your prospect.
There are four criteria that make someone a potential Initiator:
They have, at least, some authority within the organization. They are not necessarily a “C” or senior executive, but they must have enough authority that people at multiple levels and in multiple disciplines listen to them and respect their view.
They have the pulse of the entire organization.
They’re strong communicators.
Most importantly, they’re the people who are always looking to advance the company. They may not love change, but they embrace it when it’s necessary. They’re the ones who are constantly pushing the organization to get (and stay) ahead, change the game and build advantages.
The Initiator is no “chicken little.” They don’t welcome change for the sake of change, and when most salespeople first come in contact with an Initiator, they don’t realize that’s what they are. This person is not easy to get hold of, is skeptical, direct and challenges your viewpoint. For most salespeople (and others) initial meetings with an Initiator are not their idea of fun.
One of the tips that I share with salespeople looking for an Initiator is actually quite simple: find the skeptic in the organization who has authority. Build the case for change with them, and they’ll lead it within their company.
If you do not have a strategy, plan, and series of plays to attract, engage and delight Initiators then be prepared for longer, disruptive, unpredictable sales processes where, to win, you must demonstrate superiority in capability without receiving the premium you need to support that superiority.
3 Keys to Winning Over The Initiator
Realize that Initiators are often not directly involved in the business discipline you are selling to. Initiators come in all shapes, sizes, experience levels, and genders. Finding them and winning them over is rarely easy, but it’s often the most valuable action in the entire acquisition process.
1. Ditch the Pitch
The fast way to lose an Initiator is to use traditional, trite and/or generic sales tactics or messaging. A good rule is that if you look, feel or sound like a typical salesperson an Initiator will do everything they can (including lie) to stay away from you.
You’re not going to win over an Initiator with any of the following tactics:
Content that highlights your authority, expertise and/or capabilities around your solution. (Yes, that’s right, thought leadership content can be interesting and it can even drive some traffic, but it doesn’t win over an Initiator).
Demos (no matter how good), decks, or claims of superiority.
I hope you’re not reading this thinking, “Yeah, we don’t do any of that,” because it’s unlikely that you, in fact, you don’t do this. That said, f you truly don’t, you’ll be well aware of how unique you are and how difficult this is. Don’t believe me? Check out your website. How much of the content and messaging on your home page is about you and your solution? How much of the content on the entire site is about you?
You see, Initiators aren’t looking to buy anything. They’re not interested in you.
What they care about is getting better. (They want to leap, not to limp.) They’re looking for resources and people that bring unique, valuable, and directly relevant perspectives and insights. If they meet you, listen to you, and agree with everything you’re saying, then they’ll leave the interaction having made the decision that they don’t need you. That’s right, if you can’t demonstrate to them that you can show them where they’re wrong, then it’s unlikely you’ll win them over. They may like and respect you, but they won’t need you.
2. Deliver a Strong Point-of-View
There are five ingredients to a strong commercial point-of-view (POV):
It’s all about the customer, and the unknown or misunderstood problems/opportunities facing the customer.
It’s relevant, important and specific (remember, relevance and importance are in the eyes of the beholder, or, in this case, the Initiator).
It challenges the Initiator’s existing viewpoint or mental model and reframes the conversation.
It’s designed to initiate or deepen an investigative conversation or journey.
It connects to strength and distinct advantage of your company (this is the commercial part).
You’ll notice that 80% of a strong point-of-view is focused on the customer and is supplier/vendor agnostic. In many ways, a strong POV represents an evolution of the age-old relationship dynamic: no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. In this case, Initiators aren’t so worried about how much you care as they are with your unique ability to help.
3. Be Helpful
The Initiator is often not directly involved in the “buyer/purchasing” process, and even when they are, they’re often the ones who cause the process to be initiated and are no longer actively involved when you or your salespeople show up.
Initiators generate demand and disproportionately influence the specs and decision criteria. Remember, the Initiator isn’t looking to buy things, and as a result, they often do not care much about who sells to them. So long as the “solution” meets their specs and criteria, they’re good. They’re focused on outcomes, not solutions.
This means to attract and engage an Initiator, you must be there when there’s nothing to buy (and therefore nothing to sell). This means you need to be an expert in their business as much (or more) than yours. If the only thing you’re prepared to talk about is how your solution works or even why they need it, you won’t have the staying power to win with the Initiator; that means you’ll be thrown into the heap of me-too companies that your prospect will engage with after they’ve decided what they need and they’re looking for supplier/vendor/partner who can give it to them at (or very close to) the lowest price.