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Selling in a Non-objective Environment (Part 1): Introduction

Posted on Sunday, Apr 19th 2009

By Guest Author James T. Healy

[Earlier in the month, Clara Shih discussed how social networks such as Facebook have changed the relationship between buyers and sellers. Today, James T. Healy begins a series of articles that examines the buyer’s environment and suggests strategies sellers may need to adopt in tough situations.]

Whether we like it or not, most of us are selling something. We are all sales people. We sometimes think of a sales person as someone selling a product. But college professors are in sales! Professors must sell their students on their ideas and philosophy or some benefactor on providing a research grant. A CEO sells the board on his operating plan. An entrepreneur sells venture capitalists to raise money. A father or mother may be selling their kids on not doing drugs. The fact is we are all in sales.

Unfortunately, we sometimes view sales people as hucksters or snake-oil artists. At some universities sales is just a footnote in the MBA curriculum. But sales is the lifeblood of a company. For many companies the biggest challenge is not developing the technology, but selling it. We all know the best product does not always win; the company with the best selling strategy often does.

Strategy involves combining the art of selling with a selling process that presents irrevocable value from the customer’s perspective. There also must be a relationship component. This is the tricky part of the process. When developing the relationship strategy of engagement and confidence building, one of the first questions you have to ask yourself is whether the customer’s environment is objective or non-objective. The buyer is often driven by motivation outside of the customer/product standard relationship. This results in a non-objective selling environment.

The Selling Environment

In an objective environment, facts or conditions are perceived without major distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations. Organizations with a history of healthy internal competition and team playing tend to be more objective and less vulnerable to political situations. Organizations with a social history of unhealthy internal competition or power plays set in motion debilitating internal politics. If departments operate as isolated silos, it exacerbates the situation fostering the non-objective environment.

Organizations which are on a fast but stable growth track tend to be more objective in their decision-making process by adhering to specific criteria. On the other hand, organizations on a fast growth track can also be unstable, allowing people who promote a non-objective environment to have more influence.

Recent examples of the objective and non-objective environments are Google and Yahoo!. Google has a much more open, objective environment that fosters teamwork. Yahoo! is known for its notorious silos complicating how things get done. This non-objective environment results in an insular “me first” culture, something the new CEO, Carol Bartz, is committed to changing.

The Managers

In an objective environment, managers tend to be competent and conscientious. They care about and are involved in the decision-making process. Although they stand up for their personal beliefs, they will counter the biased decision maker.

Complacent or impotent bureaucratic managers are found in non-objective environments. These managers do not care what buying decision is made, or they will not stand up for their own beliefs let alone counter a biased decision maker. The status quo is their mantra. They allow behavior not related to selling to block colleagues’ efforts to close the deal. In some cases they may seem afraid of losing a certain individual’s expertise, so they allow them free reign. They are often risk-averse and need to feel safe. They will defer the decision-making process or totally delegate it. As they like consensus, their employees or peers can strongly influence them and in essence make decisions for them.

Even if such people want an objective decision, they are unable to make one since their tendency is not to confront internally. They typically have a short history in their current position and their career paths show a number of changes. However, they may have a long history, especially in a large company, where bureaucracy or a “friend” has provided them with a place to hide. They may even have a highly visible social or mentoring relationship with the “real” decision maker.

Winning over these bureaucrats will take a lot personal selling time. It requires building a trusting relationship. One way to deal with them is to work around them and even make decisions for them by developing a close relationship of trust with them, their manager or peers. This is not an easy task but is critical in a relationship-focused selling situation.

Even competent and conscientious managers, with whom you have a trusting relationship, may not be in a position to make the decision and instead rely on their staff. They may not be inclined to overrule the decision maker. The only ways to insure success in this environment are either win over the decision maker or expose him for what he really is: non-objective.

The Non-objective Decision Makers

Over the years I have identified four categories of non-objective decision makers who thrive in the non-objective environment. These are stereotypical composites of traits they generally exhibit. When selling, it is important not to get hung up on psychoanalyzing someone but rather use the information you garner to guide you in building a relationship based on a person’s primary motivation. If that is not workable, then you must find ways to either work around their non-objectivity or expose them.

The first type I call the territorial terrorist who considers the buying decision his “territory”. He is not a team player nor does he attempt to make the best objective decision for the company. The territorial terrorist exhibits a neurotic obsession with a particular technology, product or vendor to the exclusion of all logic. He will not take inputs from his peers or managers, even to the detriment of his career. As long as he has the power, he will thrive in the non-objective environment.

The second, the fatal attractionist, enjoys misleading vendors by manipulating their feelings. She will attract you with nice words and buying signals until that day when she makes a predetermined choice. Instead of honestly working with you to help you understand what is needed so she can purchase the best product for the task, she misleads you. This way you have no chance to win or derail her predetermined choice. Her choice may have been made for various non-objective reasons, including situational control.

The misguided technologist is the true nerd enamored with technology either new or different. He wants a chance to play with it. Instead of matching available technology with the goals and objectives of the project, he puts his perceptions of the technology first. He often buys technology for its own sake. This approach can be costly for the company.

Last is the egotistical careerist, who puts her personal needs and career goals first instead of aligning them with the company’s goals and objectives. Her decisions often have nothing to do with what is best for the company. This generally results in power plays to the detriment of the company or project. Her only objective is to get promoted or gain power. If she sees a way to do this with your product, you win. If not, you lose.

The key to managing a successful sale is to control the non-objective decision maker when they extend beyond their assigned role in the sales process. Keep shared goals between your sales objective and the customer’s needs on the table. This will not be an easy task.

In subsequent articles I will provide you with some ways to identify non-objective decision makers so that you can deal more effectively with them in an objective environment or in the much more challenging non-objective environment.

This segment is part 1 in the series : Selling in a Non-objective Environment
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In India we have a strange category in both public sector as well as corporates to which majority managers seem to belong. These managers generally spend hours gathering information and do nothing with it. The decision making forces are fuzzy. When finally a decision is required to be made – it is done more by the “System” and less by the individual – where pinning accountability to any one team/individual is impossible. Needless to say the process is totally inefficient.

Sum Monday, April 20, 2009 at 7:27 AM PT

To your comment:

This is where your sales ability is really put to the test. You do not want to be the complacent salesperson with the agenda to control failure at any cost. You do not want to just wait and massage the account until an order pops out since it may pop to your competitor.
You must understand, characterize and cultivate the power base within the company and execute a “political” sales strategy. It is important to understand the political structure and use it to your advantage. It is essential you cultivate a person or persons who cares or are looking for ways to achieve their own personal agenda. This could be anything from doing what is right and needed by the company to enhancing their own power or winning recognition for a promotion. By aligning yourself, your product or your service with the personal agenda of a person who has the power to decide you can beat or at least control the “system”.

Jim Healy Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 1:19 PM PT

Thanks Jim for taking the time to reply to my comment. I am aware of the political sales strategy – but unfortunately for an entrepreneur to sustain this he/she needs really deep pockets. Frequently a sale lead is pursued and suddenly dropped due to the obvious reason that it has exceeded investment. Selling a partnership rather than product creates a diversion especially when the idea is to create an innovative solution for the customer.

Sum Tuesday, April 21, 2009 at 9:15 PM PT