Why Consensus Is King
Collaboration is working with someone to produce or create something. Consensus is an opinion or position reached by a group as a whole. These two commitments work together. To collaborate, you need people to work together. To build consensus, you need people to agree to go in a certain direction. Thus, you may need a consensus to agree to collaborate. And after you’ve collaborated on a solution, you need a consensus to agree that this is the solution the group wants to implement.
Today, in most large corporations, consensus is king. The people with titles and roles indicating they are “decision makers” no longer want to take action unilaterally. In fact, it’s likely that unless they are forced to do so by extreme circumstances or emergencies, they won’t. Leaders today don’t want to make a decision that they have to ram down their people’s throats, and they don’t want to create problems by not allowing the people who are going to be impacted by a decision to help shape that decision. So, while you may have been taught that you need to find and work with “the authority,” likely someone with a C-suite-level title, it’s now more likely that the power to decide has been distributed among multiple stakeholders, all of whom have a say in the change initiative. This means that you don’t need “the” decision maker. You need a consensus.
Who’s Got The Power?
I once made a presentation to 14 people at a prospective client’s company. At the conclusion, after I had answered three or four questions, it suddenly occurred to me that most of the 14 people had the power to say no to the sale and kill it. But no one person had the power to say yes and make it happen. There was no single authority. During the question-and-answer period, I tried to figure out who might have enough authority to at least initiate change. What I noticed was that many of the questions weren’t being directed to me. Instead, they were directed to the supply chain manager, the human resources manager and one technical person. As soon as any of these people answered a question, they would immediately direct a question to one of the other two.
I took a chance and decided to try to set a meeting with each of the three individually. I met with the supply chain manager, who then recommended that I meet with the human resources manager. After that meeting, I got the green light to work with the company. (As it turned out, the technical person wasn’t essential to the decision-making process.) Obviously, a consensus was needed at this company before a decision could be made. But it didn’t involve the entire group. I had to figure out who had the power and who didn’t.
Why Leaders Like Getting A Consensus
Company leaders want “buy-in” on major decisions—that is, they want assurance from those affected by the decision that they will participate in the change initiative from the start. If the leader doesn’t have buy-in, those who actually do the work will be less committed. And they won’t necessarily put in the time, resources and energy needed to produce the outcome. Some may simply resist the change effort, while others may actively work to ensure that it fails. If, on the other hand, those who must execute the change are allowed to participate in a consensus, they will be more committed to the decision. And the leader can hold them accountable for making it work.
Fears That Get In The Way Of Consensus
Reaching a consensus when making major decisions may be a good thing for businesses, but it makes selling more difficult for you because more people are involved. You’ll need to identify and gain access to these individuals, and possibly to the stakeholder groups they represent. Unfortunately, the identities of these individuals may not be something your prospective client is willing to supply, for a number of reasons, including fear of losing control, fear of stirring up the natives (and inciting a hornet’s nest of resistance) and fear of extending the process.
Without Consensus, No Deal
The real danger you have to address is the danger of a “no decision.” A “no decision” produces the same result for you as a no when you ask for the commitment to decide. All you do by avoiding the tough work of building consensus is to move that decision forward in time. You lose the opportunity earlier rather than later. Much of the time spent calling on a single stakeholder—even one whom you believe to be the decision maker—ends with a decision to do nothing. This is true even when the single decision maker you are working with needs the outcomes you sell, and even when she may be able to say yes without anyone else’s consent. More and more, decision makers refuse to go it alone and decide. Look back over your notes from the last few meetings you’ve had with your dream clients.How many times did you meet with one stake holder alone? If there were more people in the room, have you had the necessary conversations with them to be absolutely certain you have their support? If you don’t know that you have their support, then your deal is at risk.
How To Gain The Commitment To Build Consensus
If you know you are going to need to bring other people into the sales conversations that lead to change, you want to talk about that with your contact very early in your process. You want to
gain an agreement that building consensus is going to be necessary, and that you are going to help your prospective client get that consensus. Remember, control the commitments, control the process.
Lose control of the process, lose control of the outcome.
Early in the process, you need to gain the agreement to build a consensus from your prospective client. You might say, “At some point, we’re going to need to bring those who will be involved in making this decision into the conversation. Who are we going to need, and when does it make sense to bring them into our discussion?”
There is a lot in this ask. You have presupposed that other people will be involved, that you need them to be involved, and that your prospective client agrees to both of these. Then you return control by asking your prospect when it makes sense to bring other people into the conversation. You hope she will respond with a list of names and a confirmation that the next meeting is the right time to start.
But it doesn’t always go the way you hope it will. Let’s say she replies, “I am the one who will make this decision. I’d prefer not to have anyone else involved.” If that language doesn’t scare the life out of you, it should. You know that you aren’t likely to win a deal with only a single stakeholder weighing in on the decision. Being single-threaded is too risky, and it’s more likely you will lose to the status quo than you will find your way to a positive outcome. Is she telling the truth? She might be, but it’s not likely, even in smaller deals. More often than not there will be multiple stakeholders.
You can respond with something like, “I understand you have concerns about bringing other people into this conversation. Can I share something with you?” Wait for her to say yes, indicating her desire to learn more, before continuing with, “It’s been my experience that when we don’t involve anyone else in this process, later on they either work to oppose what we’re trying to do or make it really hard to execute. Is there a way we can identify the people who will be involved in decision making, and build the support we need without losing control of what we’re doing?”
Or you might say something like, “Who can we bring in now who will be supportive and help us build support from the other people we need?”
Listen, none of this is easy—for you or your prospect. Your job is to do whatever is necessary to serve her, even when you bump up against resistance. You may not get what you need on the first attempt. If your prospective client tells you that she alone will make the decision, or she will make it for her team, you are going to need to use skillful means to ask again and uncover who else is going to be instrumental to a decision to move forward. You might try another approach by asking, “Who would support this decision and might help us with the insights we need to make sure everyone gets what they want?”
If your prospect gives an indication that she knows where resistance might come from, you can be very direct. Ask her, “Who do you think is going to resist what we decide here?” Some stakeholders will oppose a change because of an internal political squabble, or because it doesn’t serve their long-term goals. But, more often than not, they have very real concerns. It will be your job to work through this process.
Excerpted from The Lost Art of Closing: Winning The Ten Commitments That Drive Sales by Anthony Iannarino with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Anthony Iannarino 2017.
Anthony Iannarino is the bestselling author of The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need and the founder of The Sales Blog, which draws more than 50,000 readers every month. He leads a high-performing sales team, speaks to sales organizations nationwide and teaches part time at the Capital University’s Capital School of Management and Leadership. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.