Our company's annual survey recently showed that gaining access to higher levels is still one of the top challenges salespeople face. And that's a problem because failure to get to the right levels often means that to get decisions made, sellers must rely upon internal people doing the buying.
That's never an optimal situation. However, there are two ways to initiate new opportunities that sellers can try:
- Be reactive by waiting to be contacted. Inbound “buyers” are usually located at a company's lower levels. They're doing product evaluations, have looked at multiple vendor websites and believe they have a good idea of what their company's requirements are (usually an aggregate of all offerings they’ve researched, rather than a single “Column A” vendor).
- Be proactive by trying to uncover the latent needs of buyers who weren’t looking. While this is a challenging task, sellers have the ability to, and should target, high levels, because not looking means there is likely no budget. Sellers will have to get to people who can reallocate the existing budget.
Competent top sellers can gain access to the people that will be involved in buying, funding and implementing offerings. If you are one of these sellers, I believe that yours is the only route to providing enterprise views of the value that your offerings can bring, and the various goals (business outcomes) that those offerings can help clients reach.
In my workshops, I try to have sellers understand the concept of something I call "qualifying champions." The vast majority of sellers erroneously assume that access to key players occurs by going first to lower levels; they believe that "access" means going to one person at a time.
Upward access, however, while difficult, is not impossible. The person being asked to grant access just has to be someone who can comfortably make introductions. It’s also important when and how the seller asks for access.
Here are some tips for handling the first one of these categories: reactive situations.
Reactive, inbound Inquiries
The first challenge is to get an understanding of what high-level requirements have already been established. Next, uncover the business outcomes that your organization is hoping to improve. This often has to be done “by proxy,” meaning that the inbound contact must speak on behalf of his or her organization as to areas of potential value, to offset whatever the cost of the offering being discussed will be.
My rule of thumb is that, when calling on key players, I as seller avoid asking questions buyers can’t answer, as they run the risk of being delegated to lower levels. That said, at non-key player level, sellers like me can and should ask questions that buyers can’t answer.
If this happens, sellers can then ask: Whom can we schedule a call with that could answer this/these questions? This is a logical request; note that you’ve softened the request from "Can I meet with the higher level," to, "Can we meet with that person?
Then, if/when a non-key player shares a desired business outcome, sellers should ask them what capabilities they’ve seen that would enable the goal to be achieved. At that point, sellers should do a thorough diagnosis to ask questions, to try to uncover new capabilities (to expand/enhance the buyer’s vision). By doing that, the seller has the opportunity to move to “Column A.” Failure will mean that that seller will merely be a vendor in the mix.
If a seller can bring the buyer to an expanded vision, the next step is to try to quantify the potential value. As stated earlier, this may require gaining access to several members of the buying committee. My suggestion is not to ask for access during the initial call. As an alternative, summarize the goals and capabilities your offering can answer; do this in an email that documents the buyer’s expanded vision.
In the email, also ask for access to the titles of key players who would be involved and may have unique goals that could add to the value.
Some words of caution
There are situations where the initial inbound contact will not have the ability to get you introductions to personnel on any of the buying committees. In such cases, sellers should try to qualify the buyer as a coach tin order to gain introductions to the next level in the organization chart (i.e., a manager). This person will be an interim contact pending an opportunity to meet the right person to serve as the seller's champion.
Pro tip: Often before granting access to a higher level, the coach or champion may ask sellers for proof (i.e., a demo, GoToMeeting, contact with a tech, etc.). If such a request is made, the seller should use a quid pro quo. That is to say, he or she can explain that time, effort or some resource is required; and if the buyer likes what he or she sees, an agreement should follow, to grant access to higher levels. A large part of gaining access is to make a shift from product evaluations to potential business decisions based upon potential value (cost vs. benefit).
Failure to gain access can mean a great amount of effort gets wasted, with the realization of any revenue. A common mistake I see is sellers running as far as they can with non-key players and issuing proposals for offerings. But what's missing is any idea of why the company's decision to move forward is a good one likely to provide adequate payback to justify the expenditure.
Few key players will take the time to read proposals that are mostly about products rather than business outcomes.
A few more things to remember about asking for access:
- It can be granted downward, laterally or upward (listed in ascending order of difficulty).
- It can involve a quid pro quo approach in which resources are given in return for access.
- It means sellers earning the right to access by establishing themselves with buyers as Column A players.
- It is easier for buyers to grant access if they participate in key player calls.
- Access is often necessary to provide the answer key players crave: Is buying an offering a good business decision based upon projected payback?
- An email summarizing the goals and capabilities can arm champions to articulate why key players should take the time to meet with sellers.