By Eric Gombrich
My wife and I just returned from seeing To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway in New York. I can’t rave enough about Aaron Sorkin’s interpretation of the Pulitzer Prize winning Harper Lee classic. Required reading for most US teenagers (and made into a movie staring Gregory Peck in 1962), if you’ve not read it the original book was published in 1960 and centers on a fictional (but likely based on someone real) 1930 race-relations story and criminal trial occurring in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.
The play stays true to the central story with the same characters, including its protagonist, Atticus Finch, played by Jeff Daniels. Atticus is the public defender for a black man errantly accused of raping a white woman in town, struggling with his moral views and desires for truth. The play spins the perspective slightly relative to the book. But the messages remain the same, and its incredible how true they still ring today.
But this isn’t a review of the play.
Sorkin’s adaptation includes some additional and nuanced script relative to the book. In it, Atticus when challenged on his ability to accept reality claims “A person is smart; people are dumb.” He goes on with a narrative to explain that an individual, when confronted with responsibility and accountability, tends to be more specific and considered in their actions, and thus tend to be more thoughtful and ‘smart’ (I’m paraphrasing). He also points out that when in a group, anonymity exists, accountability disappears, “mob-mentality” ensues, and people – the plural – become ‘dumb.’
While comments after the play amongst those around my wife & I made it very clear how pertinent this is in today’s world of the internet, social media, group protests, etc., after a discussion with a client it occurred to me how this applies to enterprise purchasing decisions as well.
If selling to an individual, as is typically the case in retail sales, that individual is responsible for the purchasing decision. If the purchased solution fails, it’s that purchaser’s fault. If it surpasses expectations, that purchaser looks like a hero. This is the essence of caveat emptor; buyer beware.
However, as the magnitude of the purchase increases in terms of price and/or risk, families and enterprises tend to purchase by committee, often-times managed by the procurement or purchasing department. This imposes a substantial set of challenges for purchasers and sellers alike, and I contend adds risk to the project’s success, despite intending to mitigate it.
Much like the “group mentality” alluded to by Atticus, the Committee becomes an amorphous entity, often-times with limited real individual responsibility & accountability. When the group is responsible for the decision, no one is responsible for it. As such, it’s not uncommon for each individual on the committee to focus less attention on getting to the truth of what is important and best for the organization – and themselves – in terms of their personal responsibilities to the organization, and more on being seen by their colleagues as ‘going along’ with the group decision. It takes a special person to be willing to ‘go against the mob’ and try to influence their thinking.
This is why ‘enterprise sales’ takes a special skill-set, a special personality, and time. It takes a lot of work to meet with, listen to, and present to sometimes upwards of a dozen or more individuals one-on-one, and to try to coalesce the group-think to a cohesive decision in favor of ‘our solution.’ But that’s what it takes if you are truly going to inform the customer of how your solution will move them personally closer to their KPIs, as well as their organization to its goals.
Ironically, most procurement processes are designed to prevent this 1:1 interaction, and prevent the salesperson from influencing any one or more individual(s) on the committee. Isn’t this counter to what the purchasing organization should want? Shouldn’t they want each individual to be as informed as possible, considering the needs of the organization and themselves through a lens of personal accountability? But by imposing anonymity, this is removed.
When an individual is caused to engage based on their personal responsibilities and accountabilities, things change. They tend to realize their actions – even if as part of a group – matter. And if the solution you are offering can help them personally achieve their goals & objectives, the likelihood they will push-back on the group increases significantly.
This is something Scout, Atticus’ daughter, experiences when she recognizes the voice of a hooded group member, and exposes him as the client Atticus has helped in the past. With his anonymity removed, he immediately becomes accountable for his actions, and he begins going against the group based on a personal set of morals and ethics.
My point is not to eviscerate current procurement methods, and I’m by no means an expert on best practices there. My point is to take pause and consider how to be effective in selling to such a committee or group. Simply put, it takes hard work and requires ‘selling to’ each individual on the committee, focused on that individual’s personal goals, objectives, and accountabilities. And if the procurement process will prevent this, find other ways to do it anyway; they exist.
I am in no way suggesting a purchasing committee is a fringe group with nefarious intentions. But ‘group think’ does set in amongst purchasing teams & committees, and often times compromises are required that may go too far to benefit the organization as a whole. This is where the old adage “No one ever got fired buying from [the incumbent]” was conceived.
To be successful in selling in such a situation, be prepared to get to know each individual, and address their personal motivations and needs. Or if you’re the incumbent, hope your competition never read or saw To Kill a Mockingbird.
Happy selling Atticus!