Executive buyer survey reveals hug gap with sellers

Each year, over four years between 2010 and 2014, my team at Forrester Research studied executive buyers.   We designed a study following the assumption that while buyers ultimately vote with their money, they really are in control of the whole sales process by how they choose to spend their time.   If an executive won’t engage with your company or disengages from a sales process, you’ve lost the deal before even presenting a proposal to them.

We created a questionnaire with a mix of multiple choice and open-field questions and submitted the same survey to global executives.   We defined an executive as being anyone from a director to a c-level position.  The audience was equally split between IT and Business executives and had a global focus.   After we collected the survey data, each year, I personally interviewed 100 people from our sample about the data to get their reactions and feedback (as you know, numbers only tell part of the story – you need to also capture the context surrounding it to get the full insight).

As you can imagine, the insights were (and are still) incredibly illuminating.   For example, only 11% of executives found sellers valuable when trying to engagement.   One of my favorite quotes was by a executive in the energy industry.

When asked about the difference in perspective of what a “solution” meant between him and the sellers he said, “their squirrel is just a rat in pretty clothes.”

The point he was making was that all of the products more or less do the same thing and are more or less at the same price point.  For him, vendors just don’t have an idea about what a real solution really means because they fundamentally do not understand his world and challenges.   This is a recurring theme with all executives I speak with to this day.

Just because you say you provide outcomes, doesn’t mean you do

That quote led to about a year of discovery questions both to supplier companies (heavily weighted to the technology industry but I had some representation from manufacturing, media, and financial services) and buying executive they want to sell to.   Sales and marketing leaders for those suppliers tend to be so adamant they provided outcomes to their customers that most were borderline insulted when I asked and uninterested to hearing what buyers had to say.

What I would get as “evidence” were:  data points, the number of customers they had, benchmarks about their product performance,  or quotes from people on why they bought the products.  Not one time did I get before and after examples for the results a customer achieved from working with them.   I don’t get stories of how they made a specific executive success or what the impact was for that organization (I only get this information from client facing people normally in stop sales people or especially savvy professional services leaders).

When I share what my experiences are from the suppliers, executive buyers always snap back, :”but they don’t at all.”   From the buyers, no one said any of their suppliers did a good job of helping them achieve an outcome.    My observation from these interviews was that suppliers think the “outcome” event is when the client signs the contract where that is the starting point for the buyer.   The problem is that the goals of the buying executive, the definitions of success, what decisions they are trying to make, what questions they are trying to answer, and what pitfalls they are trying to overcome is so dramatically different – they might as well be speaking an entirely different language that the suppliers.   This is only getting worse, not better.

Executive buyers cannot articulate for you what an outcome is exactly

After enough data points to see a pattern of different initiation points of when an outcome begins,  I asked buying executives – “Can you help me define what an outcome is from your perspective so I have something more concrete to share with your suppliers so perhaps they can better service you?”   Everyone struggled to articulate it.    I’ve worked on conceptualizing this idea – how can I create criteria for an outcome so that we can make that concrete for vendors.  Through a lot of trial and error – testing it with sales teams, and then buyer, buyers and sales teams, etc – I’ve codified this understanding into a model that I call “the outcome wheel.”    I’ve had a lot of success using it as reference point to help my clients create intellectually honest criteria to model the informational requirements of their customers.   Armed with that model, we can then map their value propositions, messages, so they are coordinated and focused on driving an outcome.

This article helps define the core attributes.   The point being – in order to give executive buyers what they are looking for – we need way to organize information that is not based on what the vendor wants to do (talk about their products and services) but frame it more from what the executive-buyer wants to achieve (tell me what outcomes are possible working with you and help me understand it).

outcome 1 - wheel

Attribute one:  clear vision of an achieved end-state

In order for an executive to reach an outcome that have to define their existing problem concretely enough, determine the criteria for success, assess their current state against that criteria and have a clear vision for what the world will look like when they are done.   This is how they can determine if your vision matches to what they want to accomplish.

I am often asked, “isn’t this the same thing as a “commercial insight?”  The analysis of “achieved end state” and comparing it to the Challenger method are a great topic for a different paper.  What I can comment is on what I normally see in practice.   Executive buyers are extremely savvy.  When the various people involved with a client are inconsistent with what the communicate or how they behave – these inconsistencies create risk flags.  Too many of these inconsistencies make the buyers think your company is not authentic and then they begin to back out of deals.

The more the end state vision is based on actual real world customer successes, and its painted pragmatically, factoring in the variables they are going to run into being successful – the more likely those executive are going to cut your teams slack in inconsistencies.   My experience with most companies is they begin with the products and services as the inspiration of the “insight” and not the early adopter clients or innovative clients for whom the vision should extracted.


outcome 1 - achieved end state

Attribute two:  Through the lens of the executive owner

Most visions that companies promote are abstract like “the internet of things,” “big data, ” or “artificial intelligence” –  they can apply to so many things or relate to so many different people they can become meaningless in conversation.   It’s extremely important to know exactly who is the executive or decision-making group that will benefit most from the achieved end state  in order to: frame the discussion correctly, determine where the money is going to come from, create executive-level sponsorship, and make sure all of the messages associated with the vision are targeted correctly.

“Isn’t this just sales messaging?”   Again, it depend.   The key to communicating through the lens of any important stakeholder is to have empathy.  Let’s assume that you are trying to build messaging for a CFO.   It’s really hard to develop emphatic messaging if the person creating the content has never had a challenging conversion with one CFO, let alone the several that would be required to make it legitimate.  In addition, executive-level messaging should always be role played, field tested, and ever greened if is going to be authentic.  How sales people deliver that information should be factored in as well as more of the message is communicated non-verbally.

outcome 1 - executive owner

Attribute three:  Framed as an initiative

Companies create budgets to manage expenses and there are two drivers of a budget.   Ongoing costs (like headcount and people) and initiatives to meet business objectives.   In order to help define the budget and align to how your customers will rally around making the end state a success, you need to frame out your idea in the form of an initiative.   Remember, they are not likely to know what to do because they have never successfully tackled the problem you are helping them with.   There are many different levels of initiatives (each of these levels has different patterns, involve different people, and have different funding models) and most suppliers are just unaware about how complex of an endeavor it is for the customers to drive a business result.   Organizing the information in a frame of an initiative the customer would tackle; rather than describing which products and services they need to buy from you is so much more helpful will leads to bigger sales and shorter cycles.

“Isn’t this just our engagement approach”?   No.  Not even close.  The simplest way to think about this would be to imaging yourself as the project or program owner for the client – open up a book highlighting the PMI approach and them comparing the two.  You are going to see huge differences in the approaches.

outcome 1 - framed and an initiative

Attribute four:  Articulate measurable results

What the executive owner is looking for is some proof points that map to the achieved end state.   Current state our performance was X with total costs of Y, End state performance is X + some improvement and costs of Y-improvement.   The complexity is not is the numbers, its building the connections to show linkages between the effort, the investment, the people and the results.

“Isn’t this just ROI calculators?”  Absolutely not.  The higher you go inside an organization – the value analysis is different, and it get’s simpler.   Providing a C-level executive with tons of ROI type analysis doesn’t match to how they make evaluations and thinking that a vendor provided business case is credible with financial analysts is a huge oversight.   What a supplier should factor in is that depending on the level of authority the ultimate decision will come from will be a different analysis.  Your sales teams will need to figure this out case by case (or you will develop your own value engineering team to do this).  The point here is a high level quantification to help the the executive connect the dots and a high level – make it elegant.

outcome 1- measureable result

Attribute five:   Factoring in impacted stakeholders 

No executive is actually going to do the work – those responsibilities will be delegated. Depending on how complex the initiative is – the responsibility may span across many different functional teams and maybe even across departments.   Executive owners are savvy and know a huge risk to any effort is the whether or not their team is bought into the vision and are capable of making it work.   Many deals die when executive owners perceive too risk in their ability to execute on the vision and direct their attention and budgets elsewhere.  The number of stakeholders sales people have to navigate in order to make a sale in increasing because the nature of problems the buyers are trying to tackle are more sophisticated.  To help scale this understanding. I’ve developed a construct I call an “agreement network” that maps to the different initiative patterns I’ve researched.

“Isn’t this just building personas?”   Definitely note.  Let’s assume that persona work factors in specific scope and responsibilities of actual job titles or common roles (which is extremely rare); the real challenge is helping to expose the cross-function friction and groups likely to provide resistance.   It’s 100% knowable the the new idea you are promoting to the customers is going to expose: 1) friction between functions and and also 2) pockets of people who will resist the change.   Helping the executive (and your sales teams) identify and then navigate these situations is critical to achieving success.

outcome 1 - impacted stakeholders

Attribute 6:  Communicated over a life cycle 

While the details and program plans associated with the high-level initiative are extremely important to provide concreteness to what’s being proposed – its just too difficult to manage expectations and communicate progress to everyone.   Therefore, its imperative that in addition to having the program plan and management office to define details and tasks, its equally important to craft the effort into a story that emotively communicates a journey.  This is important to help remind everyone involved of the vision, help manage the expectations of the people who invested in the effort, and provides the core foundation in the change management plan.

“Isn’t this just the buyers journey?”  This is harder for me to answer categorically because there is so much variation with how companies are actually creating “buyer journey’s” that I cannot answer absolutely.   However, in the overwhelming majority of cases – the answer is no.  For starters – this life cycle is not about the customer buying anything.  It’s about having a road map for benefit realization overtime.  Another difference here is this life cycle should be focused on all of the things the client needs to accomplish (their road map) to get greater and greater returns as the scale the vision and work consistently towards achieving that end state and measurable results.   It includes factors outside of what you provide (culture, adoption, possible future organizational changes) to help them stay focused on being successful.

outcome 1 - over a lifecycle


So what?

Yes, on the surface, this model is abstract but there are a few important attributes to its design.

  1. It is structured enough that it is repeatable but designed to be highly adapted to your environment.  Each attribute has a series of templates to help you modify this model for your customers.
  2. It is more of a Rosetta stone than a form.  The whole purpose of the wheel it to provide the underlying structure for the requirements needed to coordinate a value communications process over time and across different departments.
  3. It is uniquely designed to be salable from an individual client pursuit (and can be embedded into an account planning process, or taught as part of sales skill) all the way to corporate campaigns.

Having a model that is designed outside in helps radically simplify all of the information orchestration required to communicate more value at higher levels within your customers.   The salable design of the outcome wheel allows you the ability to start anywhere – (account planning modernization, sales training, messaging development, playbook creation, corporate campaigns, account-based marketing efforts, etc) and know that work can be extended to other areas for additive benefit.