How to sell change to a committee

How to sell change to a committee

When I ask ambitious changemakers about the biggest challenge they’re facing, their answer tends to be “lack of buy-in from leadership.”

Many transformation experts highlight the importance of securing buy-in, often in the form of an executive sponsor, or an internal champion. I was curious about techniques that other people found effective. Tips for not only finding and persuading that champion but also winning over an entire group of stakeholders.

Sometimes the best inspiration comes from looking at how other industries approach the issue. “The Challenger Customer” by Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, Pat Spenner, and Nick Toman was written for sales teams that are selling to enterprises. Yet the techniques are applicable to any organization that has more than one decision maker. Whether it’s a Fortune 500 or a mom-and-pop shop with two owners that don’t always see eye to eye.

The book includes case studies of sales teams selling software and hardware products. However, many of the insights are also helpful for those of us selling services, ideas, or processes. Here are just a few, but I encourage you to check out the book for more details and the data behind their argument.


Decision by committee is popular (and not likely to go away)

Decisions are increasingly being made by committees and consensus. The authors talk about a shift toward having on average 5.4 people involved in an enterprise purchasing decision. It’s no longer enough to go to the highest position on the org chart. With the trend toward flat organizations, even senior decision makers are now more likely to back an initiative if the rest of their team has already bought in.

These committees can be hard to sell to because they are multidisciplinary, and there’s often no clear leader or trump vote. While those dynamics can be helpful for including diverse viewpoints, it also causes them to have difficulty finding common ground. If they can’t agree on a shared perspective of the problem and vision, they tend to settle with what they can agree on. Which usually means the least common denominator or just sticking with the status quo.

Small changes or the status quo are the opposite of what changemakers selling large-scale transformation want. So what do we do?


Craft your message for Mobilizers

Sellers have tried tailoring their message to each of the 5.4 players individually. But finding all of the stakeholders is time-consuming. It also takes a lot of effort to craft and deliver personalized messages for each of them.

Another problem is if the narratives diverge from each other. When stakeholders get together and share notes, they might discover that the total scope was much larger than anyone had imagined. So they’ll scope down the project by themselves. Leading back to small changes and the status quo.

The authors found that tailoring the message for “Mobilizers” in the organization is more effective. Mobilizers are people who drive change and build consensus in the company. The authors outline three different Mobilizer archetypes and how to spot them: the Go-Getter, the Teacher, and the Skeptic. All three actively look for ways to make their organization better but apply their strengths in different ways. Go-Getters are great at taking action. Teachers can rally others around a compelling vision. Skeptics ask a lot of questions to fully understand why solutions work and how they could impact the organization. If you can get a Mobilizer’s attention, you’re on the path for eventually winning over the group.


Teach them about their business before talking about yours

Changemakers tend to be extreme Mobilizers. They already have a vision and a plan for making something happen. They saw the need awhile ago and they’re anxious to make progress. That leads them to pitch the value of the solution or a particular product or framework. And then get frustrated if it isn’t adopted. They lead with the value of their proposal, hoping the audience will connect the dots and back the effort.

The authors suggest that high-performing sellers flip that order. They lead with the customer’s priorities and current mental model of their business. Point out how and why that model is flawed or incomplete and doesn’t lead to the results the customer wants. Outline the cost of inaction or delay. Then they present an alternative model and the logic behind it. The new model should be supplier-agnostic but logically lead to your value-added (if you want to lead the initiative).

The authors say this approach works because you’re not just to teaching something new, you’re unteaching something old. If you shift how they think about their business before talking about yours, then stakeholders will be more likely to apply your solution. Otherwise, they might agree that you’re an expert and your solution is great but they won’t feel the same desire to take action.

“It’s not voice of customer- it’s mind of customer. It’s how they think- the logic they use when running their business.”

– The authors of “The Challenger Customer”

One way to think about your customer’s mental model is by making a cause and effect diagram. The ultimate effect is the goal they want to achieve or problem they want to avoid at an organizational level. The chain of causes are all of the factors they currently believe are causing that problem or contributing to the goal. Your job is to disrupt the mental model by showing evidence for (a) a new cause, (b) a new relationship, or (c) elevating the importance of an existing cause.

I found this prompt that they offered in the book to be helpful for thinking about shifting mental models:

  • “Customers care most about…”
  • “But, customers don’t realize….”
  • “Therefore, customers should…”



Embed this message into all of your marketing and sales content

If you wait for people to come to you when they’re searching for your product, it’s already too late. By the time people know to look for your solution, they are already in the solution comparison phase. Which means they will often base their decision on price and decide for themselves what a minimum acceptable solution is. When they interact with your sales process, they already have a strong picture of what they need and want, which as we talked about before, is probably different from what you think they need.

The key is to reach customers during the marketing phase, while they are still researching and figuring out what to change in their organization. The people most likely to be researching are also the ones most likely to take action and move the group forward: the Mobilizers. So take your customer business-centric insights from before and embed them throughout your marketing and sales process.

That means case studies, articles, and hallway conversations relate to changing how the audience thinks about their current business. You lower barriers to adoption by providing the information Mobilizers need at the time to answer their own questions and educate others.

If your Mobilizers or decision makers come from different disciplines, observe the language they use and consume. Use the phrasing that overlaps the disciplines of your Mobilizers and your key insight about their business.


Don’t sell, help the group buy

For anyone less excited about needing to “pitch” or “sell” their solution, I found this reframing to be helpful. Your goal as a “seller” is to guide the group through the purchasing decision from the beginning to end. Starting long before your particular solution becomes relevant. You’re helping them collectively make the right decision for their business. Which means focusing on helping your customers connect with each other, instead of with you.

The first step is to catch the attention of Mobilizers. Then help the Mobilizer get the rest of the team on the same page about the problem and solution. The authors recommend facilitating the discussion yourself if you can. Otherwise, provide the Mobilizer with the information they’ll need to help others share concerns, create a shared mental model, and overcome objections. Lower the effort required for them to guide the conversation by creating graphics, sample presentations, charts, and case studies about the problem and solution space. The authors call this Collective Learning, when a group is able to discuss underlying concerns and debate issues together. That interaction helps the group define the problem they all aim to solve and identify a solution that favors your offering.


Nurture leads differently

Customers typically go through these phases when making a purchase:

  1. Recognize need
  2. Explore options
  3. Define purchase criteria and process
  4. Evaluate options
  5. Validate options and select a supplier
  6. Negotiate the purchase
  7. Implement the solution
  8. Evaluate impact


When you’re selling to a committee, the engagement you get from one person doesn’t necessarily tell you how close the group is to buying-in. Look for signals that the Mobilizer is moving through each phase and that the group as a whole is moving as well. Tracking customer actions can also tell you where they are in the purchasing cycle, and therefore how you can best help them transition to the next phase.

For example, if there are signs that the entire group isn’t agreeing on the problem to solve, then don’t rush to discussing the solutions. Focus more energy on highlighting the cost of maintaining the status quo. Showcase how the problem impacts metrics that matter to both the individuals and the organization. Share a diagnostic tool that customers can work through together. Coaching customers through this difficult problem identification stage sets you up for a higher likelihood of them buying into a larger solution.

Tailor your actions and sales materials to the personality of the Mobilizer. A Go-Getter likes action steps, a Teacher gets pulled in by the big picture vision, and the Skeptic will question the logic. In addition, complement their personal style by filling in the gaps. Provide a vision for Go-Getters, a clear project plan and timeline for Teachers, and both to the Skeptic.


Final thoughts for changemakers

As a changemaker, you’re selling change to a group. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or intrapreneur, you see problems and have ideas of how to fix them. Many people lead with the features of their solution, which, (a) assumes people have already decided to buy that type of solution and (b) won’t inspire action unless the pain of change is lower than the pain of sticking with the status quo.

The model in “The Challenger Customer” suggests deferring conversations about the specifics of your solution. Instead, find the Mobilizers. Understand and reshape their worldview. Then help them rally the larger group around a shared picture of the problem and solution, that naturally leads to a course of action you’re equipped to support.

The authors assert that a good marketer is a business analyst, understanding the customer’s business better than the customer does. How do you sell change? Does your “sales” process focus on your business or theirs?

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