Customer Decisionmaking, Like Herding Cats

I’m the proud “father” of Sammy and Harley. Trying to get the cats, individually, to do what I want them to do really hit and miss—but getting them both to do something is……….. Well, anyone who has been around cats knows this is Mission Impossible! (Funny, how they always get me to do what they want).

Working with customers is a lot like herding cats. We meet with each person one on one. We talk to them about their concerns, what they are trying to achieve, how we can help them. We work with them, eventually we win them over.

But then something happens, they get together in a group and everything changes. In the group things are different, behaviors change.

If you get to watch some of these meetings, you see all sorts of behaviors. You see passive aggressive postures between certain individuals, differing agendas and priorities, some are jockeying for power. Some shut down, arms crossed, not participating, not trusting others in the group. All of a sudden, it starts looking a lot like herding cats—the customers are going in all sorts of different directions. The more people involved, the more difficult—and the more likely they may not be able to reach a decision.

The group dynamic changes the buying process. What we’ve done with each individual takes a back seat to the group dynamic. Just the process of people working together in a group changes how things get done. So much of it has little to do with the decision, but it’s about the dynamic of working, or not working together.

If the same group has been involved in making lots of purchasing decisions before, it may be easier. They know how to work together. Consciously or unconsciously, they know how to reach a decision, but there is still some challenge.

If they haven’t worked together on a purchasing decision before, or they do it very infrequently, they don’t know how to work together to make a decision. And that’s the situation we find ourselves in with many complex B2B decisions.

The process is less about which vendor to choose. It is about aligning interests, priorities, dealing with divergent agendas and objectives, dealing with power and influence, dealing with conflict. They must organize and align around a buying process, deciding what they want to do, why they want to do it, how they will make a decision, before they even consider the alternatives.

Let’s look at the complexity of the group interactions.

If two people in the customer are involved in making a decision, there is a dynamic or interaction between the two of them. Add another, and we have three interactions. Add a fourth and all of a sudden we have 6 interactions between the 4 participants. Now it starts getting pretty complex. Each customer is interacting with the other, k=jockeying for influence, each has their own agenda, their own priorities, there may be a small power struggle between the 4. We have to be sensitive to the 4 interactions that are going on between these customers.

Let’s go further. We know in today’s buying world, more people are getting involved in the decision-making process. Customers want more people in the boat with them making the decision. So the number of people involved gets bigger.

Customer Decisionmaking, Like Herding Cats image Mesh Network 300x79Customer Decisionmaking, Like Herding Cats

The group may grow to 5 people, all of a sudden there are 10 possible individual interactions between members of the group. 10 different places for this decision to fall apart. Grow the group to 6 and we have 15 possible interactions. For the math geeks who are reading this, the number of interactions is determined by the following equation, where n is the number of participants: Interactions = [n x (n-1)/2]

So now we start seeing, as customers are more conservative, as they get more people involved, the number of interactions, the number of possibilities for a decision to be derailed starts to sky-rocket.

As if that’s not complicated enough–throw one competitor into the mix, along with yourself. So the number of interactions between the customer, the competitor, and us grow even further. In a 5 person decision-making group, with one competitor, and us; the number of interactions going on is 20! (For those of you checking my math, clearly we aren’t interacting with the competitor.)

But it gets worse. So far I’ve just focused on the dynamic between individuals in the buying group working with other individuals. The interactions they have with each other, one on one. Now imagine the dynamic that goes on when they are all together in a meeting, trying to make a buying decision. Coalitions form, power and influence is exercised,

So it’s clear, there are a huge number of things that can derail our customers in making a decision–and they can have little to do who they are selecting, and everything to do with the group dynamic! It’s no wonder the number of “no decisions made” is skyrocketing.

So what does this mean to us?

First, too often, we are dealing with too few people. We focus on one person, our coach or buddy. But there are lots of people involved in the decision-making process. Focusing on too few people means we are missing many interactions. We need to make sure we are dealing with as many people who are involved in the decision as possible.

Second, if we focus our discussions about our product or solution, we are probably addressing the smallest part of the “problem” the group is working with. It turns out, possibly, our most important role is helping the customer manage the group dynamic of the decision-making process.

It’s important we work with our customers one on one, making sure we understand their issues and how we can help them. But we also can provide a huge amount of leadership to the customer. Helping them organize to buy, helping them align around objectives and a process, helping them bridge conflicts and misunderstanding.

Third, the if the customer doesn’t make these types of buying decisions frequently, the buying process is even more difficult, the potential of getting derailed is much higher. It becomes more critical to work with the customer, focusing on their buying process, not what we are selling.

You’ve spent a lot of time providing insight, creating a sense of urgency with your customer to change. Don’t let the complexity of the buying process derail your efforts. Continue to build value by helping to facilitate their ability to reach a decision.

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