A critical aspect of product management, product marketing, and sales is understanding what makes decision makers tick. What is important to them today? What challenges are they having in their business? What is the cost of not having a solution to important problems? Answers to questions like this can have a dramatic impact on product roadmaps, prioritization, marketing campaigns, and sales deals. While product and sales professionals want to ask these questions, they usually cannot get decision makers to talk to them. Perhaps they are asking the wrong people the wrong questions.
Decision Maker Tag Game
Most product and sales people believe that executives (VPs and C-Level folks) are the key decision makers. These individuals are usually the ones who sign off on a major purchasing decision. Getting their insights would be very valuable. Connecting, much less talking to them is tough. Below is a typical sequence that is used to establish a dialog with a decision maker:
Even offering them an incentive, like a $50 or $100 prepaid VISA card in exchange for a 20 minute phone interview may not produce results. Why is that so? Why wouldn’t someone who has invested over $100,000 in a new solution want to spend 20 minutes on the phone in exchange for $50? There are a couple of reasons. First, executives are busy. They are inundated with requests every day. Second, the requestor usually has no relationship with the decision maker. You are essentially a stranger to them who they perceive as spamming their email. Or they think you are just another telemarketer clogging up their voicemail. The real reason is that the typical ‘decision maker’ is making a decision on behalf of a team that actually participated in the sales process and made the recommendation to proceed. These ‘decision makers’ don’t have the first-hand knowledge to answer the types of questions a product manager, product marketer, or sales person wants to ask.
The Buying Process has Changed
In 2019 the experts agree that the technology buying process has changed. According to Gartner “the average number of customer stakeholders involved in a B2B purchasing decision is 6.8 — up from 5.4 in late 2014.” Buyers are completing the majority of the buying journey on their own. Some interesting stats:
- 57% of the purchase decision is complete before a customer even calls a supplier. (CEB).
- 67% of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally. (SiriusDecisions)
Consider this scenario. A vendor, BigBucks.com, is competing to sell a company their Salesforce.com commission management add-on to GotFunded.com. GotFunded has just filed to go public and they are looking to reduce cost and improve productivity by streamlining their complex incentive compensation system. GotFunded has formed a team to solicit and select a new sales incentive compensation system. The team looks like this:
There are several stakeholders in the decision – sales management, account executives, the Salesforce.com administrator, the I.T. director, and I.T. engineer, and the manager of the payroll system. While the VP Sales and CFO had the ultimate decision making authority, the team of directors and managers actually engaged with the vendors, did the analysis, and made the final recommendation. There were nine vendors considered, and unfortunately BigBuck.com lost out to the perceived market leader Xactly Incent Enterprise. This was the fourth time they had lost out to Xactly in the past quarter. The BigBucks product management and product marketing team embarked on a Win-Loss Analysis project to learn how they could improve their solution and sales process to win more head-to-head deals against Xactly.
BigBucks tried to recruit the nine members of the buying team to participate in a post-decision interview. Over three weeks they sent three emails to the two VPs and one AVP. None of the emails were read, except one by Peter the AVP N.A. Sales. They followed up with two rounds of phone calls. The assistants for the VP of Sales and the CFO took messages, but the calls were not returned. The calls to Peter went to voicemail.
Next they tried a different email sequence with the other buying team members and included an offer of a $50 VISA gift card. Three of the recipients read the first email, but did not respond. When the second email was sent, Janelle the director of sales operations responded and committed to the interview. Phone calls were then placed to the remaining team members. Most went to voicemail, but Prakash the I.T. Director answered his phone. In the discussion he mentioned that he thought the emails were spam. Eventually he agreed to an interview as well.
The BigBucks team learned a lot from the interviews. Janelle mentioned that the team felt it would be hard to model the complex GotFunded incentive compensation system in the BigBucks platform, specifically their approach for district manager and AVP commission overrides. Also, the Xactly solution had a mobile version that let individual reps see not only paid commissions, but future commissions based on their current forecast in salesforce.com. In Prakash’s interview he noted that BigBucks did not have their own SSAE 18 SOC 2 certification and instead relied upon the certification of their cloud provider. This was a total disqualifier for him. Between the two interviews BigBucks learned that price was not the major factor in the decision. Gartner’s Magic Quadrant leader endorsement did resonate well with the team. The fact that BigBucks was not included in the Magic Quadrant was perceived as a negative.
Tips for Getting Decision Makers to Talk to You
There are some basic tips for getting customer and prospect personnel to talk with you:
Target the Right Individuals
Teams should target mid-level titles like managers, directors, and team leads – not executives or C-Level positions. Generally senior executives are too busy to consider participating in such exercises. Unless you have a personal relationship with the executive, making a cold ‘ask’ for an interview has an extremely low chance of success. Additionally most executives are not actively involved in evaluating new solutions. They can only provide limited and generally second-hand feedback. Their role is to act upon the recommendation of the team.
Mid-level titles tend to be more open to discussion if it is convenient and non-threatening to them. For situations involving lost deals, interviewees are sometimes reluctant to participate out of fear that their comments may be misconstrued by the losing vendor or used as a justification to launch some type of award protest. Mid-level titles also are in the best position to provide actionable intelligence since they were the people that actually did the analysis and made the actual recommendation.
Introduce the ‘Ask’ During the Process, Not After
Adam Shapiro, the President of Sales Reform School, is a noted authority on technology sales. He advises his clients that a sales process is really a set of escalating commitments between the buyer and seller. If the seller agrees to develop a customized presentation for a buying team, they agree to dedicate the time to listen to it. If the seller produces a customized proposal, the buying team agrees to review it by a certain date. The same principle applies to post-decision interviews. Both the seller and buyer invest significant time and energy in an evaluation process. The sellers should ask during that process for the ability to conduct a post-decision interview once the process is complete. By planting the seed during the sales process and receiving at least tacit agreement to participate, the chance that the buyers will actually do post-decision interviews increases dramatically.
Buyers are doing sellers a favor by participating in interviews. Everyone is busy. A small financial incentive, like a $50 gift card can tip the scales to get someone to participate in an interview. They can use it to buy some coffee or give it to one of the children. Interestingly, offers of larger amounts like $75 or $100 do not increase the interview commitment rate. Instead it tends to attract interview candidates that were only involved on the fringes of the process. Those candidates are more interested in getting the gift card than in helping out the seller.
Close the Feedback Loop
As a professional courtesy, you should follow up with the interviewees and let them know how your company has adopted the feedback they offered. While you may not always be able to give a positive response, it demonstrates that you took their comments seriously and you valued their input. It may not help you in the current sales cycle, but people move onto new positions and new companies. The second most common reason why an individual looks at a vendor for a new project is that they had a positive experience with them in a prior role. By closing the feedback loop you can set your company up for more success in the future.
Getting decision makers to talk to you is tough. Most sellers would love to connect with the executives who signed off on the purchase of their or a competitor’s solution. The reality is that executives and C-level individuals rarely participate in these types of interviews. Teams looking for feedback from buyers should focus on the mid-level personnel involved in the process. They should incorporate the ‘ask’ for a post-decision interview into their regular sales process instead of waiting until after the process is complete. You should offer a modest incentive to encourage buyers to participate in an interview. Finally, you should follow up with the interviewees with how you did or did not take their advice.
To learn more about successful programs to obtain feedback from customers and prospects check out Win-Loss Analysis: Process & Lessons Learned.