Once you’ve identified and mapped the right customer stakeholders, how do you accurately assess the strength of your relationships?
This wasn’t a problem when you were dealing with one or two people in the buying center. But relationship management for a group of four, five or ten people is a different animal altogether.
Effective stakeholder management comes down to tracking a handful of key indicators, which reflect how invested each stakeholder is in the relationship as well the influence they have within their buying group.
Access. Face it: You can say you have a great relationship with a stakeholder, but the truth is in how responsive they are. When you have a question, request a meeting or need an introduction to someone inside the customer organization, are they responsive or do they go dark?
Cadence. You can’t leverage stakeholder value without having regular, meaningful conversations. Are they happening? How often?
Support. The true test of stakeholder support is whether or not a stakeholder is promoting your solution when you’re not around.
What is their personal commitment to championing your solution and the change it will bring about?
Power. What kind of influence does the stakeholder have on the purchase?
Are they driving the group towards a common direction?
So now you have a good overview of where you stand with your customer — where your relationships are strong and where they need to improve.
Now it’s time to make yourself useful.
First, some figures:
70%. That’s the percentage of B2B buyers who fully define their needs BEFORE engaging with suppliers. (Not much time for you to exert influence.)
23%. That’s the number of B2B buyers who consider their suppliers a go-to resource for solving their business problems. (This is a problem, guys.)
And yet! As I wrote above, 90% of buyers are open to engaging with their suppliers earlier in the buying process for complex sales.
So how do we square this circle?
By giving buyers what they want from us. Which is relevant, personalized facts and insights that help them create internal consensus and check every box on the buying journey. “OK,” you’re thinking. “But what, specifically, do my strategic customers want from me?”
First and foremost, they want suppliers who understand their business front, back and sideways. What drives their business, how they make money, where their industry is headed. Without this grounding, you cannot be business relevant — which is the only way to persuade stakeholders higher up the ladder to engage.
Secondly, they want new ideas and fresh perspectives. These can be solutions oriented around delivery, processes or support. They can be insights into where their sector is moving, the downstream implications on your customer’s customer or the markets they serve.
The point is offering your customer something he or she can’t get anywhere else. Thirdly, they want exceptional communication. Whether it’s a phone call, an email, a presentation or an infographic delivered over social, every interaction should be crisp, to the point and worth the buyer’s time. Customer decision makers have to filter out enough noise without their strategic suppliers adding to the cacophony.
And lastly, buyers need to know that you’re tailoring your offerings around what’s good for them — not what’s good for you.
What it boils down to is helping your customer navigate their own internal buying process — which is increasingly chaotic, byzantine and non-linear. Every customer is different, but here’s a helpful framework for understanding what Harvard Business Review refers to as the buying group’s “jobs to be done.” Gartner has broken these jobs down into six discrete steps, which you can see here.
The best strategic account managers are those that provide information, insights and tools that enable the buyer to progress through these buying tasks. This can take an infinite number of forms, but here are a few of the best tactics I’ve seen for engaging customers and helping them move through their decision-making process.
1: Data-based insights. If you’re working with an existing strategic account, then you have access to data that nobody else has. In many cases, you have data your own customer doesn’t even know about. Or doesn’t know what to do with. Use this to your advantage by offering data-based insights that shed light on a particular challenge or opportunity.
2: Benchmarking. You have other customers — both in the same sector and in others. Use the power of this outside-in perspective to shed light on how others are tackling challenges your customer may be experiencing.
3: Thought leadership. Don’t underestimate the knowledge and expertise residing inside your own organization. If your customer is struggling with digital transformation, share what your organization has learned from its own digital transformation journey. Even if it doesn’t directly relate to the product or service you want to sell, offering no-stringsattached thought leadership activates the universal “power of reciprocity” — by offering something of value, your customer will feel inclined to do the same.
4: Networking. Chances are, you (or others within your company) know people who your customer would also benefit from knowing. There is undoubtedly untapped power in your ecosystem of partners, suppliers, customers and even competitors. If you can convene and orchestrate a consortium of players whose whole is more powerful than its individual parts, you have suddenly made yourself extremely valuable to your strategic customer.
5. Business assessments. This is one of the most powerful levers for creating customer alignment and accelerating decision making. In these assessments, the customer brings the data, and you bring in-house tools, capabilities and industry best practices to help assess your customer’s processes, identify areas for improvement and then co-develop potential solutions. You can read a powerful example here.
As you can see, building relationship maps and using them to engage stakeholders with valuable information doesn’t have to be a painful, rip-and-replace endeavor. It requires the adoption of simple tools and processes and a little bit of effort around understanding and influencing your customer’s decision making process. This has to happen at all levels of the sales organization – from the CEO down to the feet on the street.
The hardest part is getting started.
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