The Vendor Problem: Managing Buy-In From the Outside

Updated: November 18, 2009

My internal champion - let's call him John - couldn't have been nicer. As the Learning and Development Manager, he became excited about bringing Buying Facilitation into his company after taking a public training with me, and recognized the strength of the material for use in sales, negotiating, presenting, and coaching. He was a dream prospect: loved my material, loved me, and agreed to work together as a team to get the necessary buy-in throughout the company. We knew it would be a long hard process to influence several layers of decision makers who were accustomed to more conventional thinking, but John had a vision to bring Buying Facilitation in as a baseline skill for the entire corporation. We were excited.


We decided to use the Buying Facilitation process itself as the route into management buy-in, assuming they'd notice that we were using the skills we were going to be teaching. They did, and they were impressed.

I worked right alongside John as a Trusted Advisor, Relationship Manager, Coach, and ultimately, friend. At each phone meeting (we were located in different countries) I carefully listened, questioned, and coached, in order to help us both understand the politics of each upcoming meeting, and then designed Facilitative Questions (which lead people through self-discovery) for him to use at each meeting. As part of pre-planning, I sent him ideas, plans, thought papers, and designed Power Points to assist the decision making, each step of the way. We encouraged cross-team discussions prior to meetings to garner excitement and curiosity.

Understanding systems as I do - the Buying Facilitation Method® is based on examining and shifting the underlying status quo in a way that makes systemic, sustainable change possible (equally effective for helping people change as it is for helping buyers make quick buying decisions) - I understood the underpinnings of each meeting, each comment, each doubt, each difficult conversation. Indeed, I'm uncannily accurate in my focus on the hidden, systemic issues that people need to address for change to happen.

In effect, I did the work of a high level coach as I translated the meanings behind, and designed interventions for, the meetings and the people issues John had to influence. I created the Buying Decision support; John did the implementation as an insider. We certainly were on the road to success.

When we got buy-in from top management, I was thrilled. "Not as happy as I am," John said. "This means even more to me - a way to bring my values into this company and have them make more money at the same time. I almost have tears in my eyes I'm so happy."

We continued plotting, planning, whispering, giggling, week after week, month after month. We knew what was going on with each person and meeting. Yes sir, I was in the loop, in control, and in line to not only close a big deal, but to have the opportunity to bring my visionary model into a corporation that would embrace it.


All was going well, until John decided to take the last leg of the journey on his own, believing that the ultimate decision maker was good to go: John assumed that the manager had bought in to the need to add new skills. But he hadn't led him through the Buying Decision Funnel. When John got a note from the manager telling him to go ahead, that he trusted John's capability to do a good job, John didn't question what seemed to be an obvious 'buy' signal. But it wasn't. The manager really didn't know what he was going to be 'buying', most probably assuming it was conventional 'sales' training.

We moved forward writing up contracts, assuming we were done (Do you notice all of the 'assumes' in here?). But then the manager canceled two conference calls with me, and wanted the program price. Because I have a rule to never mention price until people have made a buying decision (people have nothing to base decisions on if they have no buying criteria), price hadn't been mentioned. Now, I gave them the price of the pilot program as John and I had designed it.

You know the rest here: John was fine with the price. But as soon as the manager heard the price, he halved the proposed program, and halved the price. John began negotiating, still not eliciting the man's buy-in criteria. Unfortunately, he had to leave on holiday during the negotiations. By the time John returned, it was dead in the water.

That was it. End. Finish. Kaput. I got a brief, mournful, email saying ‘Sorry' and a note to feel badly for him because he was angry enough to consider quitting. The time and care and respect we shared was not mentioned. Nor did he thank me. How expendable I was!

I lost a job, income, a lot of time, and, most important, a friend. Dozens of hours of work, phone calls, and creativity, gone. Our relationship and time together wasn't even worthy of a phone call, or future planning, or further possibilities, or referrals to colleagues in other companies. And how stupid and angry and abused I felt.


In retrospect, I can see the problem - a few of them, actually.

To start with, it was naïve to think that we could have orchestrated this decision from so far outside the ultimate pilot group. John was in a different department, not part of the pilot group. I should have insisted he put together a small group of sales folks who bought in to the proposed program and help get agreement from the bottom up, just as he and I were doing from the top down.

And with all of the successes that we had, I was so assured we were ‘done' that I stopped Facilitating. Much as a football coach sends in the third string when there are 2 minutes left on the clock with a 9 point lead, I left John do the last bit on his own - and we had never discussed the possibility that this manager might not understand, nor believe, he needed what he was being asked to buy.

Next, and even more obvious, was when the final manager cancelled two phone calls with me. How did I not realize that he couldn't give his approval for time, money, disruption, and change, without fully understanding the Model and implications behind what he was being asked to buy? No one had led him to his own unique decisions, which I had planned to do on the phone. Buying Facilitation is so rigorous: "Where are you, and what's missing" is the first phase of the decision. This man thought he was fine. Nothing was missing for him. Where Buying Facilitation would open up possibility - "I hear you are happy with your current results. How would you know that adding new skills might give you even better results?" - we did nothing. I was not there to do it, and John didn't challenge him.

In a company I was not a part of, with a group that I didn't belong to, offering a solution that I knew was different from their accustomed conventional thinking, my odds were bad, even though they had a real need, and I had a wonderful internal Coach, a wonderful product, and a wonderful Model to use to elicit buy-in.

The glaring problem was that it never occurred to me that I wouldn't close the deal. After all, I've done the same thing successfully (coaching an internal prospect through to purchase) many times before. I got lazy, is what happened. In the end, I left too much of the final leadership to John. And he was so thrilled in the beginning by the ‘ease' of getting agreement (the beauty of Buying Facilitation of course), that, in the end, he also got lazy. My bad.


The larger question this brings up is a universal one: If I was treated like this by someone who has known me and trained with me, respects me and trusts me, I'm assuming that all of us in the B2B market have this same issue over and over again.

One of the biggest problems with being a vendor is being outside the system, outside of the corporate politics - the rules, roles, relationships, politics, history, initiatives, and finances, which make up a Company. And in most purchasing decisions, vendors are dependent on an internal Coach's ability to:

  • read the people and internal politics accurately, with a minimum bias,
  • give us the type of data we need to design the best Facilitative Questions to lead them through the decisions the decision team will need to make;
  • be willing to lead, promote, influence buy-in and design a solution with us in it.

Buyers have to do this all anyway - with us or without us. And the time it takes them to do it is the length of the sales cycle.

The second problem is that we approach sales as if it were a problem-need-product-solution issue, rather than a decision-making/buy-in issue first. And before anything else happens, people must decide to buy-in to changing whatever they need to change - sometimes things that are originally unconscious.

We can either sit back and wait until they figure this out (or not), or get involved, right from the beginning, to lead them through their buy-in process. The biggest ego hurdle is to recognize that our beginning conversation must assist a prospect's discovery of their unique and systemic internal buy-in: without the ability to manage all decision factors, propsects will take no action no matter how great the need or appropriate the solution. And, as outsiders, we can't know all of the players, their relationships, their job responsibilities, or the subtle nuances that end up creating the way change happens and their decisions get made. We know our product as well as they know their internal decision issues. But we sometimes confuse the two.


All sellers get caught up in this problem. In order to help prospects make the appropriate set of internal decisions, we must learn to:

  • support their decision making while not part of their team or cognizant of the range of decisions to be made;
  • hear, and respond to, the issues they are dealing with without attempting to manipulate or push our product;
  • lead them to buy-in using their own internal politics, relationships, rules/roles, and personal biases, without being seen as merely a mouthpiece for our own organization.

But the problem is with 'sales'. Sellers have not been given the tools to lead prospects through their full range of decision issues. We know how to place a product, gather problem data and do needs analysis. But sales only recognizes a fraction of the idiosyncratic decision issues that buyers need to manage, and doesn't even acknowledge that there is a daily and must be addressed and managed in some way before the buyer can buy. As sellers, we tend to see the Identified Problem as if that were the only problem, and act as if that problem were an isolated event.

A good solution and a trustworthy vendor are merely the outcomes prospects seek once their internal decisions are made.

Buying Facilitation actually leads the buyer through their systems-based decision making issues separate from product decisions. But even using Buying Facilitation won't work if we let our egos get involved in attempting to control the buyer, or assume that because we're liked, have a good product, or are trustworthy/best/friendly - whatever - they will buy.

We actually have little to do with whether or not they end up in a position to buy, unless we can truly enter their environment as true decision facilitation supporters.

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