Purchasing a large project is rarely decided by one person. The evaluation and decision making process is almost always the effort of a team of representatives from different disciplines within the customer’s organization; e.g. finance, IT, engineering, and manufacturing. As a salesperson to a new company, it’s difficult to know which discipline has more vendor or product selection power than others. And, it may appear that your main contact has the organizational power to decide the outcome of a vendor selection, but most likely they do not hold sole power.
Each organizational discipline has powerful advisors behind the scenes: the whisperers. Whisperers have many names. Some people call them stakeholders, or influencers. Whisperers covertly lean on perceived decision makers, and can affect the outcome of a purchase without anyone outside the company even knowing they are part of the decision making process.
Whisperers choose to not make it known that they have a significant say in the purchasing decision. Therefore, the salesperson must always be aware of the folks residing on the outskirts of the buying process. Most times they will not see or meet the whisperer, and if they do, the whisperer certainly doesn’t come right out and say, “Hi, my name is Joe, and I am a whisperer on this project.” On the contrary, they may slip into a meeting or product presentation casually late enough to miss the introductions, sit in the back row, and leave so quickly afterwards that the salesperson never really gets a chance to shake their hand.
Sometimes a whisperer is easy to identify. When they talk, no one in the customer’s organization disagrees with their opinion. However, some whisperers are not so easy to pinpoint. Maybe it’s the quiet one; the one not looking for vendor respect or recognition. Or, they can be someone you didn’t even think about.
Let’s say a trucking company is looking to purchase new vehicles. A walk around their lot confirms that the company owns 35 Big Brand trucks. Due to a lack of resources, the maintenance department works a lot of overtime keeping the fleet in good condition. The maintenance supervisor may lean heavily on the project team to persuade them to buy only Big Brand. His reasoning is that the mechanics already know how to service Big Brand trucks and won’t need additional training. They also keep an inventory of spare parts for Big Brand. Buying a new brand means buying and stocking additional spare parts, and probably training. “Whose budget will pay for it?” he asks, “Not mine.”
In this situation, the maintenance supervisor wields influence over the perceived decision makers with the fear of recurring unknown future costs (additional labor, training, and spare parts) versus a fixed one-time truck purchase cost. If you are selling a different brand vehicle, you need to know this so you can effectively address these issues in your bid. Otherwise, you may find yourself back at your desk wondering how on earth you lost the sale.
It’s all about positive cash flow, and cash flow is affected by many variables. In the case above, a few things can happen.
- You don’t know about the maintenance whisperer, and head into the bidding process with the lowest price and the best service, and still lose the sale.
- You probe the customer organization, ask the right questions, and find out about the maintenance supervisor’s objections to buying your product. Since you know about him, you are able to respond appropriately before you lose the sale. Maybe your company will offer spare parts on consignment, or establish a spare parts inventory close by, or take a one-time hit on training the customer’s maintenance personnel. (Remember, there’s probably a finance or purchasing whisperer whose main priority is cost. If you can offer a fantastic deal including service and training and still come in under the competitor’s price you have a good chance of turning this whisperer in your favor.) I once visited a large European truck manufacturing unit where we were quoting a highly automated production line. We had three brand name robots in stock, and our installation personnel had already been trained. Our quote reflected this, and I had a good feeling we could win the project based on price. Later, I was walking through the customer’s plant and discovered that they were using the same brand of robot throughout the plant, and it was different than the brand we had quoted. A conversation with the head of production did, indeed, confirm that they only used one kind. “And,” he added, “we will not buy anything else.” He went on to tell me how the robot supplier was integrated into their plant and had been contracted to provide onsite maintenance services, and I realized that I had found one of the biggest whisperers on this project. Luckily, it wasn’t too late to change the robot manufacturer in our quote, and we did land the sale.
A salesperson should try to identify as many whisperers as early on as possible. Map out the customer organization. One of your first questions should be, “Which departments will be involved in the product selection?” Then, do your homework and find out who the powers behind the curtain are. Ask a lot of well-placed questions so you know which features or components of the sale are important to each one – delivery is probably important to the manufacturing whisperer and price may be the main motivator for a finance or purchasing whisperer. Make sure your quote answers those needs. Finally, find out their position on each supplier, and do your best to influence them to not be against your product or company.
Every time a salesperson works with a customer, it’s a safe bet to assume there are whisperers. The bigger and more significant a project, the more whisperers there are, and not all of them are motivated by the same issues.