Build Bridges, Not Tunnels

By: Colleen Francis

It’s one of the biggest challenges you face with a new customer: scouting out the landscape of their organization and determining who the decision makers are (and aren’t).
And yet when I tell sellers they must broaden their conversations to include multiple stakeholders, I get immediate push-back. “Colleen,” they say, “I don’t want it to seem like I’m trying to go around or above my primary contact.”

I don’t want that either! Going behind someone’s back is no way to build a relationship… and a sure way to sacrifice your sale. But you must find a way to build-out your network of stakeholders in each account. Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum: they’re made by buying communities. And you are in the relationship-building business.

There’s a right way to do this: one that’s respectful of everyone you meet along that journey. You must build bridges that connect you to many—not tunnels that take you under them.
Here are four ideas to help you do that job well.

1. Watch your Language
As you’re getting acquainted with people in your customer’s organization, don’t bluntly ask them whether they have decision-making authority. That kind of question communicates (wrongfully) that you’re assessing someone’s relevance or value. From their perspective, that sure can feel insulting. If that happens, don’t be surprised if they mislead or block you. Instead, use inclusive language. Ask them about the roles and responsibilities that they do have and ask them for their perspective on who else is involved in the process. Stakeholders can find the word “decision maker” threatening if they’re not the one making a decision. Remove the threat by avoiding those words in your conversation. Remember: you’re always talking to a person, not to some position on an organizational chart.

2. Be Inclusive
Gatekeepers exist, and it’s their job to ask you for information before deciding whether to let you proceed further in their organization. It’s also their job to make judgments about you based on the questions you ask of them, so be inclusive. Make it clear that you want to involve them in the next steps to be taken in your relationship-building work.
Ask them:
• “What happens next if we agree to move forward here?”
• “Is there anyone else you recommend that I speak to?”
• “Who else do you think may want to see the relationship-building plan that we’re developing here?”

3. Show Who (and What) You Know
Don’t expect your customer to do your research for you. Do your homework first. Study who does what in their organization and identify where the grey areas are (i.e., where you need more information). When reaching out, use that research you’ve done to show them you’re already familiar with key parts of their business.
Next, name the people you want to meet:
• “Do you think Richard will also want to have a look at this proposal before it’s final?”
• “Would Kathleen in your marketing group like to add her feedback?”
• Should we include Margaret, your CFO, in this conversation?”

4. Give Them Safety in Numbers
I’ve been building bridges inside customer organizations for a long time. And one thing that’s always remained true is decision-makers rarely want to meet with salespeople one-on-one. There’s safety in numbers, so give them what they need. Frame your invitation-to-meet such that it’s made clear that you’re bringing a team. And that they’re welcome to do the same. They’ll gladly reciprocate. Also, ask for a tour of their facility. That’s a sure-fire way to boost participants and increase the number of people you’ll meet along the way, adding them to your stakeholders list.
Yes, it’s easier to reach those who do not have decision-making authority in an organization. And it’s progressively harder to reach those who do. But it is a mistake to skip over (or tunnel under) those whom you think don’t have power. Stakeholders come in many forms and not all of them will reveal themselves easily. And that’s why you must build those bridges… and connect them all the way up.

Colleen Francis is driven by a passion for sales – and results. A successful sales leader for over 20 years, she understands the challenges of selling in today’s market and that business leaders can no longer rely on approaches to sales based on techniques from decades ago.