In even the smallest of churches, the decision to purchase complex solutions is handled by a small group. In some denominations, this is a leadership staff, in others, a volunteer committee. Aware of this truth, vendors often try to bring consensus to these groups through price, benefits or a crisp value proposition. But time and time again, the sale stalls or falls through because the vendor was not able to guide the group towards consensus. That’s the typical sales process and it seems inevitable. But what if it’s not?
It’s no secret that vendors try to identify the friendliest contact as the point person for the sale because having a champion on the inside is thought to be the best way to ensure the sale is won. But what happens frequently is that this friendly point person fails to have the ability or sway to represent the vendor’s offering in a way that brings about group consensus.
The sale, it would seem, is less about the value or completeness of the solution offered, but about this inability of a vendor to win on much more than the lowest price. Research on this, however, has shown surprising insights that can turn complex sales on their head.
Group Consensus and the Missing Sale
Having started my career in sales, I’ve experienced the above scenarios countless times. Winning, it seemed, was simply a game of numbers where I simply needed to play the percentages and stack the deck with a large enough pipeline to overcome the lost opportunities. Frankly, this is the unspoken maxim inside every sales organization I was a part of: You never know which ones you’ll win, so do whatever it takes to get the sale and quickly brush off the ones you’ve lost.
Selling complex technology solutions meant that I had limited influence on the purchasing group, so I provided deep expertise, a fair price point and key benefits aligned with the key drivers of the church. This more or less worked. While never a stellar salesperson, I was quick on my feet, glib and a good conversationalist — and relied on these strengths to help me tip the favor my way.
It wasn’t until many years into my sales career that I was made aware of the number of times I lost the very opportunity for a project without ever being made aware that a project was on the table.
Churches and corporations alike, it seemed, would often try to research the solution prior to involving vendors directly in the hopes that they could identify their own solution and simply invite vendors to the table with a Request For Proposal (RFP). Later, I shifted to consulting, where I was brought in earlier and helped specify systems for vendors, and still saw situations where churches would end up not purchasing because they couldn’t get group consensus even with a consultant and completed design!
The 5.4 Person Group
Many years later, I have found that the best way to increase the odds and help gain group consensus was actually researched and documented by a firm called CEB, who first came up with a statistically better way to sell in a book called The Challenger Sale and then did further research on the buyers themselves. It was this book — The Challenger Customer — that showed me the ‘ah-ha’ moment of why group consensus is so very hard to achieve.
Their research across thousands of businesses and buyers revealed that the average purchasing group is made up of, on average, 5.4 people. The Challenger Customer describes the challenges and solutions for selling to a group of buyers with different goals and priorities. This is what I had discovered anecdotally through years of sales. It turns out that sooner or later, the 5.4 colleagues in the customer organization must come together and arrive at a consensus on whether or not to buy. Each arrives with their tailored perspective on the purchase, then discovers that there are 4.4 other different tailored perspectives on the same sale. Discord breaks out and the sale often falls through.
By communicating a commercial insight — an innovative insight that will help the customer company succeed — vendors tailor their proposition to a persona called the Mobilizer. The vendor then coaches the mobilizer to tailor the proposition to his or her colleagues to take control of the sale. This kind of intentionality isn’t about the vendor solution; it’s all about helping the customer define and understand their actual needs.
Stop Leading With Your Product or Solution
Seemingly counterintuitive, the best way to win a complex sale to a group is to not lead with your product or solution, but to your product or solution. By helping the church properly define the problem they are trying to solve with a complex technology solution, you will often need to show them what they think is probably incorrect (or at least incorrectly defined) and that the solution isn’t merely about solving the problem they think they know, but to bring them to a place where they’re addressing root cause issues.
Big, complex deals increasingly require consensus among a wide range of players across the organization. The limiting factor is rarely the salesperson’s inability to get an individual stakeholder to agree to a solution. More often, it’s that the stakeholders inside the company who can’t even agree with one another about what the problem really is. In the context of churches, I’d often see this played out when a church point person would contact me about helping them ‘upgrade’ or solve a problem. The vast majority of the time, the church assumes one or even a few pieces of gear would remedy the pain point; in reality, the physics present in the venue often revealed that no one piece of technology can solve the pain for audio, video or lighting issues.
The challenge is to tactfully help the church see their idea about the problem as being incomplete or incorrect and then solving the issue by first identifying why the issue exists and what is possible with a complete solution that both addresses the issue and creates a new way to operate with greater effectiveness and/or efficiency in the venue. In this way, you’re not starting with your vendor push for a technology, but you’re starting with the customer understanding their own pain point and building consensus to agree upon a way to move forward, ideally with your solution.
Complex church systems shouldn’t be boiled down to a single winning technology, but a winning technology should point to solving a complex problem.
Selling complex solutions to church pastors, volunteer committees, or any other type of decision-making group has shifted. While I’ve recommended The Challenger Customer above, my hope is more than applying a particular set of researched methods; seeing the church sale differently should be a game-changer for vendors interested in selling integrated solutions to this multi-billion dollar vertical market.
Are you leading with your technology or to your solutions? Share your views and opinions in the comments below.