The session on “Buyer Centered Selling” focuses on the buyer mentality and helps the seller to understand what problem the buyer is trying to solve. By understanding buyer psychology, the seller is able to make better value propositions. It combines “seller’s challenges” with “buyer’s dilemmas.” Without the collaborative efforts of both seller and buyer, many buying processes are doomed by lethargy, fear, and eroding internal support from the buying community. The session will enable sellers with strategies and tactics that help the buyer address eleven dilemmas likely to slow and obstruct the buying process. The attendee will discover quickly that buying and selling are inextricably connected in their focus on helping the customer buy.
Welcome Tom to the Pitch Link Sales and Marketing Lit Fest. I’m delighted to have you here.
Tom Williams 00:13
Well, thank you. I’m pleased to be here. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this very first Sales and Marketing Lit Fest that features authors of sales and marketing books. It’s a pleasure to be with you and your audience.show more
Thank you, Sir. Let me give a quick introduction, and then I’ll let you carry on with the session.
Thomas J. Williams co-authored “The Seller’s Challenge” and “Buyer Centered Selling” to tackle real challenges salespeople face in selling complex products. While most books talk about topics such as prospecting or cold-calling, no books specifically discuss challenges such as presenting to buying committees, RFPs and other such specific challenges. These books aim to fill that void. The first book, “The Seller’s Challenge”, specifically deals with challenges that salespeople face, such as presenting to a buying committee, handling an RFP, or even negotiating deals. The second book, “Buyer Centered Selling” focuses on the buyer mentality, and helps the seller understand what problem the buyer is trying to solve. By understanding the buyer psychology, the seller is able to make better value propositions. In today’s session, Tom is going to talk about buyer-centered selling.
Tom, the stage is all yours.
Thank you, Subhanjan. I appreciate that very kind introduction. I’m going to actually talk to you today about three different concepts and two chapters on buyer-centered selling. To set the stage for what I hope you’ll walk away with today at the end of the session, as a sales rep— I hope you will learn several reasons why buyers need help to buy, explain the benefits of the collaboration plan, be able to describe the components of a collaboration plan, and then list three different types of buyer perceived risks and ways to mitigate them.
My advice to you, and this first concept we’re going to talk about is— don’t assume that buyers know how to buy. Buyers often don’t know how to buy for five major reasons. First and foremost, often times a buyer has never bought your product or service before, so they have no experience and aren’t sure of how to buy within their own organization. Sometimes it’s because they bought disruptive technology that’s new and very unfamiliar to them. Sometimes they’re new to the organization and they don’t really know the process, the rules, the regulations for making a purchase. Often times they’re undergoing a reorganization, a merger, an acquisition, and they’re unsure of what they can do, and they don’t want to make an inadvertent mistake. And lastly, sometimes they’re newly promoted, so they’ve never done this before and they don’t know what they can do and cannot do within their realm of responsibility. The common denominator in all of these is the buyer’s unsure of how to buy. And this is where a buyer-centered or buyer-centric sales representative can be an enormous help.
So, concept number two that I want you to walk away with is— collaborate with your buyer. When buyers have never bought your product or service before, they welcome help. One of the ways sellers can help them is by introducing a collaboration plan. And the collaboration plan, very simply, guides the buyer and seller through a very complex decision-making process that, without help, would go astray. So, think of this as a roadmap on how to buy. So, what exactly is a collaboration plan? Think of it as a plan that is jointly developed between the sales representative and the owner of the problem or your product champion. It’s a living document that answers three questions: what, who, and when. So, in other words, what activities need to be done to make an intelligent, informed buying decision? Who needs to do them and when do they need to be done by? A good collaboration plan outlines all of the milestones and the activities for a typical buying process. It defines who should be involved.
It talks about how to get internal buy-in for change, the typical decision-making process, your implementation plan, and most importantly, how you’re going to measure whether the buyer actually achieves their desired outcomes. So, think of this plan as a roadmap and guide for the buyer and seller to navigate a very complex decision-making process. Now, whether you call this a collaboration plan or something else is up to you. In the literature, you’ll find a variety of terms to describe the plan I’m talking about. When we wrote the book several years ago, we called it a collaboration plan. Since then, my thought process and thinking have expanded, and now we refer to it as an outcome enablement plan. This term was actually coined by Kevin Dixon in the UK, and we embraced it. Regardless of what you call the plan, the purpose and intent remain the same: to help the buyer buy your product or service.
Now, there are various ways to construct a collaboration plan. Our preference is to include the following components, but feel free to modify them as you see fit. First and foremost, you want to define the plan owners. Typically, this is a one to two-page plan. Plan owners are simply the sales rep and the buyer, who could be the one owning the problem you’re trying to solve or the product champion. The situation appraisal component comprises several aspects. Think of it as the current situation or problem, the root cause of the problem, constraints to solve the problem, the impact of the problem, and the desired outcome the buyer wants to see. The third component is the stakeholders who are impacted by the change or would receive value from making a change. Every change involves some form of commitment, so we want to establish those commitments upfront and define them so that everyone can agree to them. The barriers to change are the risks, which we’ll discuss in detail shortly. Lastly, we will talk about the major milestones and define timeframes by individual, as well as any required deliverables.
You can develop this collaboration plan using several software programs that allow you to collaborate with your buyer. Alternatively, you can simply use a Word or Excel document or a Google equivalent. The key to developing the plan is to do it in conjunction with your buyer.
Now, what are the benefits of a collaboration plan? Well, there are actually several, and I’m going to list a few here for you. There are benefits for buyers. First, it documents for them and helps them get agreement on the situation appraisal. What this does for them is it immediately gives them a document that they can circulate among the other stakeholders to build consensus. This is actually a problem that we want to solve. Second, it provides commitments between the buyer and seller. So there are certain things that the buyer will need to do to move the process along, and there are certain things the seller will do. It documents those commitments and tracks them. It provides a mutual to-do list so that everybody knows what needs to be done to keep the project moving along. And the reason we want to move it along is that we want to define when the buyer wants to get the actual outcomes that they want delivered. Once we know what they want delivered and the timeframe, we can move backwards to determine all the activities and milestones needed to accomplish that. And lastly, it provides a nice roadmap for buying and ultimate transparency between both organizations.
Now, the benefits for a seller are also enormous. First and foremost, it’s opportunity identification. As a seller, you know that you have a buyer who’s engaged and really wants to make a change. They’re going to buy something. You may not know if they’re going to buy it from you, but you know that they’re going to make a change. The second thing it does is— it builds trust between you and your buyer. Your ability to develop a collaborative process and use a roadmap is significant. Thirdly, it provides early differentiation. Think about how often your competitors are using a collaboration plan. And I bet that unless you’re selling software as a service, it’s very infrequent. So immediately, this differentiates you as a seller who operates differently and has the buyer’s best interest at heart. You are developing the document to help the buyer buy the product. And lastly, there’s virtually no buyer ghosting. So think about this for a minute. How many times have you seen a deal go dark because the stakeholder didn’t respond? If you have a collaboration plan, you can simply reach out to your contact or champion and remind them that in order to achieve the outcomes they desire within the specified timeline, they need to provide responses from x, y, and z. They’ll appreciate your proactive approach.
Now, you might be asking yourself, how do I position this collaboration plan with a first-time buyer or someone who has no experience? Well, it’s actually very easy. The first thing to do is simply ask them. You might say, “John, do you mind if I ask, have you ever bought a similar product or service before?” If they say no, then you can respond with something like this: “John, it sounds like we can help you since we’ve been through this buying process several times before. We were with clients who faced similar challenges. Would you like to see the roadmap that we use to help prospective clients make informed decisions? It outlines the milestones and activities for a typical buying process. It defines who should be involved and how to develop internal buy-in. It explains the typical decision-making process and the implementation plan, as well as how to achieve the desired outcomes. I can share it with you, and if you want, we can even tailor it to meet your specific requirements. The plan will be beneficial to you regardless of whether you choose to do business with us or not.” When you do this, it’s very hard for a buyer to turn down that type of request. Most buyers will be thrilled to collaborate and think that they’re fortunate to have a seller like you who is willing to help them.
Now, if you’ve got an experienced buyer or a buyer that’s a repeat buyer, purchasing the same thing over and over, the plan can still be useful. It’s just something you would start with later in the document, closer to maybe the decision process and implementation, and how you’re going to deliver measurable results.
Alright, let’s talk about concept number three. Let’s briefly discuss buyer-perceived risk. Now, a risk is any uncertainty that matters to a buyer. A buyer’s risk has two components. The first component is the probability that something will go wrong, and the second component is the negative consequences if it does. Buyer-perceived risk can derail deals. It can cause a deal to stop, be delayed, reversed, or simply go away. Think of them as hand brakes, barriers, or pinch points that must be addressed by the seller. Risk is perceived, and it can be either perceived or real, varying by individual. As the seller, it doesn’t really matter whether you think the risk is valid or not. What matters is that from the stakeholders’ point of view, one or more of them has a perceived risk, and because it’s perceived and important, it must be addressed by you as a seller.
Today, the elimination of risk is front and center in every buyer’s mind. No one wants to make a buying mistake, and everybody wants outcome certainty. As a seller, it’s up to you to address and alleviate any perceived risks that have surfaced. Now, there are three different levels of buyer-perceived risk in terms of likelihood and probability: low risk, medium risk, and high risk. For example, if you’re buying printer paper for your organization, the risk to the buyer is very low, and maybe even nonexistent. However, if you’re buying something or recommending a purchase of office furniture that affects a number of people, then the risk may be medium, but it’s still a fairly low-cost initiative. Where it often becomes high risk is when you’re buying manufacturing equipment or making a multimillion-dollar purchase, such as buying cardiac pacemakers for a hospital.
Now, my advice to you is to run toward risk, not away from it. Acknowledge the elephant in the room and embrace it. Don’t ignore risk because it’s not going to go away. One of the best ways to acknowledge risk is if you’ve delivered or built a collaboration plan or if you’ve identified all the stakeholders. Now, you can go back to each of them individually and ask them about the perceived risks they see in making a buying decision or a recommendation. And remember, it’s not uncommon for different buyers to have different types of perceived risk.
In the book, we described 12 different types of buyer-perceived risk. We don’t have enough time to go through all of them today, so I’m going to pick three and walk you through some of the elements. The first risk is personal risk. It occurs when a buyer or a buying team makes a purchase, recommendation, or decision, and it doesn’t work as expected. As a result, they incur a potential personal loss that impacts them personally. When this happens, they’re afraid of things like job loss, demotion, loss of remuneration, credibility, or political capital. They’d much rather stick with the status quo than risk any of these negative consequences. No one wants to recommend a purchase that could cause business chaos, disrupt employee morale, or lead to reduced profits because any of these negative outcomes can be career-ending or career-limiting.
To mitigate personal risk, there are several things that you can do. Firstly, an interactive demo or product trial allows the buyer to directly interface with your product. This builds confidence and allays fears. If you have references, testimonials, third-party endorsements, and case studies, these provide external validation, as buyers can learn from their peers’ experiences before making a purchase. Lastly, you can conduct a site visit. Sometimes site visits are done at your company headquarters, where key executives are present. Other times, it can be done at the buyer’s facility, allowing them to see the product in use through one of your customers. Site visits can be valuable in mitigating personal risk.
When selling a large deal, senior buyers and CFOs often have a series of questions. They want to know if there is a strong business case for the product or service, if the project is tied to an organizational priority, if it will maximize productivity, and what the impact of doing nothing would be. They also question the achievability and believability of financial metrics, the level of commitment required, and if there are any hidden costs. CFOs, in particular, ask these questions to ensure wise spending and avoid previous disappointments. To address their concerns, prepare a list of these anticipated questions and provide clear answers. Discuss them with your product champion so they can present the answers to senior executives in a satisfactory manner.
If you want a CFO or senior executive to approve a high-cost item or a non-budgeted expenditure, you need to mitigate the financial risk. Apart from answering their questions, developing a business case is crucial. Collaborate with your champion to build a compelling business case tailored to their words and language. The champion should take ownership and present the case convincingly.
Execution risk is another common concern for buyers. They want to ensure the supplier can deliver the product on time and within budget. They inquire about the implementation process, the team involved, the training provided, and ongoing customer service and product support. To address this risk, demonstrate flawless execution with downside risk protection. Introduce your implementation team, share on-time delivery data, provide customer testimonials and post-implementation survey results, and discuss how you have overcome unexpected business problems.
If you have already developed a collaboration plan or identified all stakeholders, you have already addressed potential execution risks. Additionally, introduce your implementation team and share on-time delivery data. Customer retention and referral data can also be shared. Finally, it is recommended to discuss how you have successfully overcome unexpected business problems.
Buyers aren’t stupid; they know that there’s an implementation, don’t always go smoothly. So talk to them about where some deals, where some implementations, have gone astray and talk to them about how you’ve mitigated and eliminated or dealt with those particular situations. And last but not least, you can offer guarantees— If your company will do that.
And some examples are, you can offer a money-back guarantee. Maybe it’s an extended product warranty, maybe it’s a buyback program. It could be provisional backup equipment or guaranteed service support. The whole idea here is we want to build confidence for the buyer that they can buy the product and have confidence that you can execute okay within the book.
There’s also a handy worksheet for you. It’s called a Risk Assessment of Mitigation worksheet, and it’s just a handy worksheet where you can develop a list of risks. Take a look at all the risks and determine by stakeholders who has what risk. Define whether it’s high, medium, or low, and also what your mitigation strategy is.
Now, if I’ve done my job, you should be able to answer each of these questions that we talked about as learning outcomes at the beginning of this session. As we conclude today’s session, if you decide to buy the book, you can go to our website or you can contact me via email and receive a complimentary workbook that’ll walk you through a series of exercises on each chapter. There’s also a series of concept cards that cover most of the chapters. And if you also go to the website, you can download an ebook on our Outcome Enablement plan, which is really the collaboration plan. I always enjoy being able to get to stay in contact with people. So if you’d like to contact me or learn a little bit more about our organization, here’s some information for you. So thank you for the opportunity to be with you today. I appreciate it.
Thank you, Tom. That was very nice, very in-depth. So, guys who are here, you can see a resource icon next to the chat, and if you click on that, you can download this deck that Tom just used. It will have all these details for you. Incidentally, Tom mentioned Kevin Dixon, and Kevin and I have been talking about how Outcome Enablement is actually what it should be, neither sales nor buyer because both are sort of one-sided. Outcome enablement is what is actually a two-sided view, which essentially, end of it should be really one side. I mean, the buyer and the vendor need to be on the same side; otherwise, we are sort of at some point working in conflict if we cannot align our interests. Then there will be conflicts and frictions remaining, which is what will impact selling and buying. I think Tom will be able to explain that better. But yes, Outcome environment is what it is about, and it’s not about buyer or seller environment. Tom, thank you, lovely, lovely session, and I really enjoyed going through it. It was like what we wanted. It was short and dense. So people can have a lot of time to think about what you said. It’s definitely not a 20-minute job. Any questions?
What value can a seller add when there’s an RFP, and the requirements seem to be set in stone? That’s a great question. We did a chapter on RFPs. I think it’s in the “Seller’s Challenge”, the first book. But there are different types of RFPs, and we outline the different types in there. So one of the first things to do is to find out whether it’s a real RFP. In other words, has this been written in a fair and equitable way, or is it written by one of your competitors, or has it been written in a way that the procurement or other people have reached out to suppliers in advance because they have to do an RFP? A lot of government organizations and such, have to do it like that.
So one of the things you can do is respond to the RFP, and if they allow you to ask additional questions or provide additional information, do that. Or you can politely decline to respond to the RFP because in your opinion, they’re missing key value points that you think should be articulated. And also, if you know the best way to do this, of course, is to always get ahead of the RFP. If you know your company is going to have to do this or is thinking about an RFP, initiate contact with stakeholders well in advance. But there’s a follow-up on that. I’ll be happy to answer it, or if you want to go ahead and send me an email, we can set up even a Zoom call and talk through it. And I’ll even share with you what we have in the book, how to handle the other lack of motivation to change.
Yeah, this is something we didn’t cover in this topic, but we did cover it in the book where we talk about how to create insights or bring perspectives that cause people to think differently. If you think about change, we’ve got to get people to go through a series where they’re not interested at all to acknowledge that they need to do something different or even investigate looking at something different. So they walk through a series of steps, and I can also walk you through that if you want to on a call. Any other questions, Subhanjan?
Yeah, yeah. I think one is coming up.
Okay, it’s a great question. What comprises an effective selling team that is buyer-centric across departments? Boy, this starts with the CEO, and it’s got to be not just so we say we’re customer-centric, but every department, every employee needs to actually be customer-centric. So what I mean by that is when you’ve got customers that are on hold for extended periods of time, when you’ve got someone from finance demanding payment, those are not buyer-centric activities. And so what you really need to do is to have a series of people that are really centered around and understand how does the buyer buy, what is the buyer’s decision process, what are those series of steps that they walk through, and kind of follow-up— the process that I outlined in the collaboration plan or that’s in the book, to really be buyer-centric. It’s more than just putting it on a piece of paper that we’re buyer-centric. You’ve actually got to demonstrate it on a day-to-day basis. And for example, do they ever make sales calls, or is the executive team ever making sales calls? So there’s a lot that goes into this, but it starts with the strategy at the top, and it also starts with the bottom up where people are offering suggestions to the management team. How do we become more customer or buyer-centric?
Yeah, I think this is absolutely critical because everybody thinks that saying that the organization is buyer-centric is good enough, but you don’t actually do much about being buyer-centric. Tom, I have one question in case there isn’t something else coming up, I don’t know, but I have one quick question if that is okay. I lost it, sorry. I’ll come back. I’ll come back.
As you’re thinking about it, you know, going back to the last gentleman’s question, you know about building up a seller’s team. Every time I’ve taught managing large accounts, I was brought into the organization because they lost a major account. And that’s sad because there needs to be a program in advance so you don’t lose accounts, you don’t have customer churn, right? And so the question that gentleman’s asking is extremely, extremely important about how do you create a cross-functional selling team that is really buyer-centric and that emanates and resonates with the executive team so that everybody’s on the same page that we’re here to satisfy customers. If we satisfy customers, the end result is we’ll get sales right and we’ll get profit.
So the question I was about to ask you, well, see, we talk about this building a collaborative model to go forward. How do we actually… How does the buyer think that it is worthwhile investing time with this vendor to build a collaborative plan?
Well, when you present it, I think if you present it in the way I did or in a reasonable facsimile of that, what you end up doing is if you’re my buyer and I’m sharing with you a document, you look at this and say, “Wow, this is pretty comprehensive. This has got a lot of milestones I hadn’t thought about.” You know, a lot of sub-activities, and so it starts to generate interest, and they say, “I need to get John involved, I need to get Jim involved.” You start saying, “Well, what departments are they in, right?” And then you start to ask yourself, you know, because you’ve done this so many times with so many clients and so many industries, now I can sit there and say, “So, Chan, what about getting engineering? Would engineering be important in this? Should they be involved? Should IT be involved?” So maybe I prompt you a little bit to bring in other people that I know from experience are going to be involved, you know? Or do you wait until the very end and say, “Well, I hope that they don’t surface?” Like procurement, for example. Many people don’t want to include procurement, you know, when they’ve been taught by their sales driver, “Don’t include procurement unless we absolutely have to. Let’s sell it to the champion and let them give it to procurement.” Well, procurement’s going to come in at some point, and why make them an enemy, right? Bring them in early, right? Identify that. So that’s the advantage of trying to do this whole process in a collaborative way. And when you’re doing that, you’re selling totally different. You’re not focused on a product. You’re not focused, you know, on your needs. Everything is around the buyer and what do they need in order to make an informed intelligent decision. And the beauty of the plan, because I think, I hope I mentioned it, is the plan works even if you don’t buy from me. In other words, you might say to me at a certain point in the plan, “I don’t think you’re a good fit. I don’t think we’re a good fit.” The plan is still there for you to use with whichever vendor you want to use with. That’s going to keep you in the back of that buyer’s mind. “I want to do business with Tom in the future.”
Absolutely, I totally agree, and I have some ideas which I’ll circle back and discuss with you on this, but slightly different. But I have some thoughts I want to pick your brains on, Tom. You know so much. This was lovely.
Yeah, you know, I always enjoy our conversation, so any time.
Yes, sir, absolutely. So thanks a lot, and thanks a lot for coming on. I know we did struggle a bit with our back and forth, but we managed somehow, right?
We did. We did. It was my pleasure. Thank you for the invitation.
Subhanjan Sarkar Thank you. Thank you. The last session is coming up with Todd Caponi. It will be a recorded session, but it’s coming up in a bit.
Thomas J. Williams co-authored “The Seller’s Challenge” and “Buyer Centered Selling” to tackle real challenges salespeople face in selling complex products. While most books talk about topics such as prospecting or cold-calling, no books specifically discussed challenges such as presenting to buying committees, RFPs and other such specific challenges. These books aim to fill that void. The first book, “The Seller’s Challenge”, specifically deals with challenges that salespeople face, such as presenting to a buying committee, handling an RFP, or even negotiating deals. The second book, “Buyer Centered Selling” focuses on the buyer mentality and helps the seller to understand what problem the buyer is trying to solve. By understanding buyer psychology, the seller is able to make better value propositions.