Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Understand The Politics

Presidential campaigning is in full gear, the Congress is about to consider a spending bill with an $11 billion price tag, and I recently watched the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. All of this had me thinking about politics, the political process, and ultimately getting things done in a political environment. It also made me think about how little most sales professionals know about the politics that surround a deal.

Savvy sales professionals know that having the best product with strong references will not always win them the day if they are not also tapped into the internal politics at their prospect’s company. So, here are a few things that sales professionals might learn from politics and the political process to win more business.

Find The Power Base. In a political campaign, you will always find candidates tapping into key influencers who control a power base. By getting these influencers on board with an endorsement, the candidate also garners support from the people who have an association or beliefs that are in line with the influencer. Every company has influencers that control a power base, and there are multiple bases of power and influencers in every company – find the power bases relevant to your products and services at your prospects and gain their support. Power is not only derived from positions of authority, and often the key influencers in a company are not the senior managers but rather department managers or younger leaders who are up and coming in the company.

Reach Across The Aisle. Most legislative bodies are split between political parties in a way that one side cannot pass legislation without some support from the other party. In fact, it is very common for the minority party to grind the legislative process to a halt if they feel the majority party is steam rolling legislation through the process. Productive legislators reach across the aisle to develop common working objectives. This is a valid technique in a company as well because you will need prospects to reach across departments to achieve results. Almost every complex product or service requires that multiple departments work in concert to make buying decisions or implement a solution. How many times has a business leader made a purchasing decision for computer hardware or software only to find that the IT department would not cooperate to implement the solution? If the business leader had reached across the aisle to their counterpart in the IT department prior to making the purchase, cooperation and resources might have been more forthcoming.

Create Advocates. External influences – lobbyists, media outlets, bloggers, constituents, financial supporters, political action committees, interest groups, etc. – all have a voice in politics. You may argue that some of these are good influences and some are bad, but it would be hard to argue that they do not exist. Your prospective clients are also subject to external influencers and you should work to create advocates for you and your products in this group of influencers. Rather than lobbyists, your influencers might be analysts, industry thought leaders, happy clients (or unhappy clients), journalists, competitors, partners and alliance managers, etc. Neutralize the negative influencers and foster the positive advocates that interact with your key decision makers. Advocates are viewed as credible third party opinion leaders even when they are champions for your product and services.

Understand The Limits Of Power. In any well designed political system, there are limits on the power held by any individual or branch of government. The system is designed to require certain processes to be followed to make decisions, pass legislation, or make laws. No matter how powerful they might be, it would be impossible for a single legislator to change the Constitution by themselves – most people can understand this limitation of power exists. What might be more subtle are the limits of power based upon a political situation or individual circumstances. It may be impossible for a legislator to push a certain piece of legislation because of the way it will impact other legislation, legislators, their constituents, or their party’s overall agenda. Before you ask a business leader to push through a purchasing decision for your product or service, it would be good for you to know whether they have the authority AND political power to get the decision through the system. While they may have both the decision making power and the budget to make the purchase, they may have other critical initiatives which could get derailed if they go forward with your proposal. Understanding what people can and cannot do, before you ask them, will have a strong impact on your results.

Count Your Votes. Before any major legislation is brought to a vote on the floors of Congress, the sponsors know the results. They have counted the votes and know they have enough supporters to pass the legislation. How many times do you ask for a decision to be made for a purchase of your products or services without fully knowing how the decision makers will vote? Often sales professionals rely too heavily on the person with whom they have the best relationship, even if there are others that have equal authority, position, and power in the decision process. When you have multiple people involved in the decision process, you will also have multiple agendas, interests, and priorities – understand how they will vote on your proposal before you ask for a final decision.

Politics in an intriguing spectator sport to me. The manner in which people try to “sell” others on their ideas, agendas, and objectives has many similar qualities as to how professional sales people work to influence the opinions and decisions of potential buyers. Strong will and idealism will yield a certain level of results in both politics and sales, but great politicians and great sales professionals manage the process by acquiring and wielding power and influence in a manner that respects the subtleties of the system. Understanding the political situation within your prospects and clients will lead to an ability to manage the environment and ultimately greater success.

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