Sales models for effective organizational influence
In a prior post, I talked about why we all need to know sales (even if we don’t work in sales). Further, I outlined why this holds especially true for software engineers — I covered three not-so-theoretical examples of where we could use some influence to improve process. I say, “not-so-theoretical” because I’ve been in all three, and I bet many of you have been in most.
The post also covered the Levels of Awareness model, which helps identify at what level the buyer of your idea (product, service, etc.) is at, thus allowing you to adapt and optimize your message for the targeted level.
As Levels of Awareness is primarily a marketing model, it does not account for the nuances around how individuals make decisions. This post explores a complementary model that does so effectively.
The concept of “Response Modes” originates from the book Strategic Selling. This book was initially published in 1985, and a revised edition (The New Strategic Selling) was published a decade later. Despite its age, it continues to be one of the most recommended B2B sales books.
Response modes identify an individual buyer’s desired results against their perceived reality. A positive discrepancy is a necessary but insufficient condition for a sale to happen. Response modes go further than simply pointing this out, however. They help highlight how open the seller is to what the buyer is selling and why. In turn, they advise the seller on how they should sell to each response mode, if at all.
Let’s go through the four response modes in detail.
In growth mode, a buyer’s perceived reality falls short from their desired results in that they see untapped opportunity or potential. In other words, the buyer perceives and believes that their organization could be doing more. More customers, more revenue, more profit, and so on. Mapping to Levels of Awareness, the “growth mode” buyer is at level 3 (solution aware). They recognize that there is both a problem (falling short of potential), and a solution. However, they are not yet at level 4 or 5 — they are not convinced of the product that they buyer’s selling, or that your company’s version is the right one for them.
Nonetheless, this is one of the response modes where the seller is selling from a position of strength, and is therefore one that Strategic Selling encourages the seller to focus on.
How does this relate to influence in an organization? Consider a product team identifying an opportunity that requires more software engineering capacity or team expertise. Most product teams cannot decide to expand headcount on their own. They need buy-in from one or more stakeholders outside of the team. In other words, they need to inform and persuade individuals in the wider organization of their need. Now, everyone on the product team may all be aligned in “growth mode”. Beyond the team, however, only some people may share the same response mode.
This is where the Strategic Selling model is useful. The model advises us to find individuals in our respective organizations that share our response modes, because these are the decision-makers (“buyers”) who will be sincerely receptive to our ideas and suggestions. To use the model’s terminology, “buyers” in growth mode allow us to “sell” from a position of strength. Fortunately, there is one other response mode that meets this criteria: the “trouble” response mode.
Similar to growth mode, trouble mode means that there is a discrepancy between perceived reality and desired results — “where we are” is lower than “where we should be”. However, trouble mode implies just what the term suggests. There is a serious problem or threat that the buyer needs to deal with urgently. To quote the book:
The buyer in growth mode welcomes incremental change as a way of improving an already good situation; the buyer in trouble mode is begging for immediate change as a way of reversing or preventing a defeat. Things had been going along well, but then came a crisis that created the discrepancy. [… The] basic plea — whether it's spoken or unspoken - is the business equivalent of, “Get me off these rocks and back on course.”
This can happen when a startup grows too quickly to handle its capacity. For example, one company I worked at had server timeouts occurring when customers attempted to use the web app (used by both paid and free trial users). The demand was there, but the product wasn’t — the infrastructure was buckling under the load. There was no time for a thorough internal assessment of the problem. Instead, the CEO scrambled together a conference call with the managed hosting provider and pleaded for a quick fix. In the near-term, the fix worked — the timeouts stopped occurring. In the long term, we ended up with a bloated infrastructure.
This was eventually slimmed down, but the subsequent “sell” to do this was incredibly hard, and took years. The recurring revenue reliably came in while the servers hummed along. No one wanted to rock the boat. This attitude is characterized by the third response mode.
This is when a buying individual perceives no gap between their perceived reality and the desired results. A seller engaging with such a buyer is coming from a position of weakness; to put it simply, the buyer sees no need for change. This would correspond to the lowest level of awareness: “problem unaware”.
It is important to note that these response modes are individual-based. Whether it’s on an email thread, in a meeting, or even on the same team, you can find people with different response modes. The book has this to say on these situations:
One of the most serious errors you can make in a complex sale is to ignore or abandon a key buying influence because that person's perception of current reality doesn't match yours, You don't have to see eye-to-eye with your buyers in order to sell to them. You do have to respect each one's perception, since it's to that perception, ultimately, that you're selling,
In other words, avoid the temptation to ignore people in response modes where you can’t sell from a position of strength. Don’t ignore those who fail to see the value in what you’re pitching, especially when they are decision makers. This is especially true for the next response mode.
We’ve all seen it. A deal years in the making, involving multiple departments and many hours to get finalized. Then, in the 11th hour, someone mysteriously pulls the plug. Why would they do this? Someone in “overconfident” mode believes that your product or service is likely to only bring harm to the organization. To state it plainly: they are very satisfied with the status quo, and see you as a threat to it.
If we seek to improve a situation or process at our company, it’s not hard to imagine how this response mode can work against us.
I’ve been in this situation before. One startup I worked at lacked certain agile practices that were crucial for long-term team sustainability. For example: instead of running retros as independent meetings, we’d spend the first 15 minutes of sprint planning to review and discuss the past sprint. I immediately took it upon myself to organize and facilitate retros for the next few sprints.
While management allowed this to occur and even provided tacit support, any problems surfaced at retro that needed meaningful change outside of the product team went nowhere. In my assessment, part of the reason was that the managers outside of the product team were in the “overconfident” response mode. Essentially, they saw experimental changes being proposed at retro as ultimately detrimental to the company’s success.
In hindsight, instead of sinking time into perfecting how retros were facilitated, I should have devoted more time to the “strategic selling” of my idea. Namely, that we needed better retros if we were to scale product teams effectively.
My biggest takeaway from the Strategic Selling model is the overconfident response mode. This is something that the Levels of Awareness model lacks. That model would suggest that all is needed is effort; even at the lowest level, it’s still possible to move up to the highest if enough of an effort is made. On the other hand, Strategic Selling calls out a response mode that suggests the best course of action can sometimes be inaction. Effort here can backfire. Instead, bide your time. Speak to someone else. Don’t sell to someone who thinks that you’ll make things worse.
Even if you have no interest in pursuing sales as a profession (I know I don’t), I hope that you find these models useful when considering how to influence and change your organization for the better.