Organizational decision-making has changed significantly in the COVID era. Buyers are stressed, and anxiety has never been higher. Uncertainty over how to move forward with nearly every corporate agenda item increases daily. After several months, mental fatigue has set in.
In this new dynamic, decision-makers are focused on things they can control. They’re searching for a sense of safety and security. For sellers, this means more points of resistance:
- 'In the weeds' questions and requests
- Involvement of more people, even in relatively lower-cost or seemingly transactional deals
- More scrutiny of you, your solutions, and near-term ROI
- Continuously changing business requirements
These buying behaviors are often situational – companies and industries are in different places. But despite the differences, there are patterns. For sales and enablement leaders, a major priority right now is helping your teams recognize these patterns. More important is equipping reps with the right strategies to navigate deals in these situations.
Different Decision-Making Modes, Different Strategies
As we move from immediate crisis to a new reality, four decision-making patterns – or decision modes – are dominating. Let’s break down each and discuss how reps should respond.
Mode 1: Ready, Fire, Aim! – At the start of the pandemic, many companies acted rapidly to deal with threats. Others moved to take advantage of new opportunities. Speed is generally good but can lead to bad decisions. This ready-fire-aim decision-making continues as many companies struggle to sort through their current reality. There are a lot of personal dynamics at play as well. Desperate to look relevant or to demonstrate leadership, some executives are moving fast: just do something, anything!
What to look for:
- Little patience to understand root causes of issues
- No interest in reviewing options or exploring alternatives
- More autocratic process and emotional language
- Strong top-down directives vs. collaboration
Your Actions: With this decision mode, a major risk for sellers is slowing down the process. Forcing these buyers through a traditional discovery process to accurately diagnose needs won’t work. This comes across as cumbersome and too time consuming. Don’t attempt to stop a speeding train in your (commendable) desire to help buyers make the 'right' decision.
Instead, lean into the strong bias for action right now. Match your buyers’ tone, pace, and overall sense of urgency. Communicate that you’re easy and flexible to do business with. Try to attach your solution to the driving narrative or business issue. leverage the momentum to push your deal forward.
Mode 2: Defer – A common response during times of disruption is to delay decisions – and not just with large initiatives. We’re seeing even smaller, late-stage opportunities being pushed out for ‘committee reviews’ and other decision points. Complicating things further, there’s little clarity in many organizations on what’s being prioritized.
What to look for:
- Excuses for not moving forward: “This just isn’t a priority”
- Overloaded and distracted executives
- Decisions tabled for review later
Your Actions: Accept the reality of tighter budgets and longer deal cycles. But make sure you understand the reasoning behind the defer. The buyer may not be clear on the issues, priorities, or value themselves.
Doing your homework here helps you identify opportunities for changing your approach – timing, scope, fee arrangements, etc. If this doesn’t work, explore alternative solutions positioned around more near-term benefits. Continue to focus on building incremental commitments or set a date to revisit (as a last resort).
Warning: A common selling strategy is to engage higher-ups in the organization (to go above or around your contact). This can be an effective action in normal times. It’s what we call a “nuclear option” – high-risk, but potentially high reward. Current buyers are feeling especially vulnerable and threatened. Going above their head only amplifies these feelings (and will backfire).
Mode 3: Analysis Paralysis – In periods of uncertainty, making firm (or long-term) commitments is hard. Falling into a cycle of overthinking and reconsideration is common. Right now, buyers are struggling to execute. Organizations in this mode are deliberating more and more over external vendors. There’s much more internal debate around alternatives and options. This comes to life for you in the form of many new “asks” that slow the momentum of the pursuit: additional meetings, detailed project plans, more analysis, more proof points of implementation success.
What to look for:
- Moving goalposts
- Additional requirements, requests (more references, demos, etc.)
- Introduction of new influencers
- More procurement-requested analyses
Your Actions: When dealing with 'Analysis Paralysis', the basics are critical: Have you set a clear decision deadline? Can you define baby-step commitments to keep things in motion? Are there ways to simplify decisions or the range of solution options?
Build urgency by communicating potential risks of a delay. Be transparent about your concerns with buyers. The risk of continued indecision and debate might include impending price increases, supply chain or future availability issues, or even reputational risks to your buyer (do they really want to look indecisive in times like this?).
Warning: Don’t continue playing ‘the game’ without a promise from the buyer to do something. What minor action can they do to demonstrate progress and firm up a mutual commitment. Your time is a valuable resource right now. Over-invest in higher-probability deals.
Mode 4: Steady State – Some companies are trying their best to continue business-as-usual. Or at least, the want to preserve those optics. When it comes to purchase decisions, they’re attempting to maintain a 'steady state' approach. Reps are seeing this decision mode primarily with lower-level buyers – folks who may not be privy to more senior executive conversations. Of course, sellers hope their in-flight opportunities are continuing to move forward, but skepticism is warranted.
What to look for:
- Appearance of normality
- Buyers who naturally avoid friction
- Lack of questioning or push-back on your proposed approach, timeline, cost
Your Actions: During this time, exercise caution when you see this decision pattern in play. There are major red flags everywhere! Consider the accuracy of your contact’s take on things – are they being naïve? Do they really understand what’s going on the organization?
Protect yourself by being “multi-threaded”: partnering with other influencers and seeking views from different functions. Shore up and fortify your position by emphasizing multiple areas of positive impact of your solution.
Adapting to the New Decision-Making Modes
Buyers don’t typically stay in only one mode for the entire length of a complex sale. Throughout the decision journey, they probably demonstrate more than one pattern, and different influencers may operate in different modes at the same time.
Navigating this new sign-off landscape requires hyper-sensitivity and situational awareness. What a rep knew 10 days ago is now 9 days too old. This holds true for relatively new relationships as well as long-standing clients. The key is understanding what’s really going on in the buyer’s world today. How has decision-making and budgeting processes changed? Who needs to be involved now? How are priorities changing?
Today’s selling environment is unprecedented, but new opportunities for growth are emerging. As we've shared before, disruption is driving innovation across sales strategy, sales enablement, sales training, and sales operations. Contact us to learn about how other companies are taking advantage of market shifts to retool for long-term success.
About The Author
Researcher, consultant, and sales leader, Brian uses a data-driven approach to drive sales effectiveness. His clients include leading sales organizations in financial services, technology, healthcare, and professional services. Using insight from academics and change management, Brian helps senior leaders and sales enablement teams understand and succeed in today’s more demanding market. His research has been published in Harvard Business Review and other outlets.