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How Complex Buying Decisions are Made and What it Means for Sales

“Decision making is not an event. It’s a process, one that unfolds over weeks, months, or even years; one that’s fraught with power plays and politics and is replete with personal nuances and institutional history; one that’s rife with discussion and debate; and one that requires support at all levels of the organization when it comes time for execution.” David A. Garvin and Michael Roberto, What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions, Harvard Business Review Magazine September 2021

In our last post we described how Power Bases are built and what it takes for a sales person to become part of them to influence high-stake, complex buying decisions. Today we look at how executives approach this category of decisions in general and how a salesperson must play to this to become part of it.


Decision Making Approaches

In What You Don’t Know About Making Decisions David A. Garvin and Michael Roberto describe two approaches of decision making they came across in their research: Advocacy and Inquiry.

Source: HBR Magazine, September 2021

The advocacy approach to decision-making involves group members championing their preferred solutions. This can lead to several issues:


  1. Limited objectivity: People focus on supporting their ideas and may downplay opposing viewpoints.

  2. Selective information: Advocates may present only data that strengthens their case.

  3. Conflict and suppression: Disagreements can become personal, hindering open discussion and innovative solutions.


The inquiry-based approach to decision-making emphasizes open exchange of ideas and critical thinking. Here's a breakdown of the key aspects:


  1. Open exchange of ideas: Everyone feels comfortable sharing information and raising questions.

  2. Critical thinking: All proposals are rigorously questioned to ensure the best solution emerges.

  3. Focus on solutions, not positions: The goal is to find the best course of action, not to win an argument.


This can lead to constructive conflict as ideas are challenged, but ultimately decisions are based on reason and evidence.


Sales Scenarios

Whether an organization applies the advocacy or the inquiry-based approach to a decision process is deeply rooted in their culture and hence cannot be easily changed. Sales people either play to the rules of the decision making approach, or attempt to break them. In other words, they either get involved in a persuasion and lobbying process resulting in winners and losers, or they participate in a testing and evaluation process resulting in collective ownership. This results in the following four scenarios sales can get involved in:

Advocacy Game/Advocacy Process: Betting on the Champion

Here the salesperson adopts the patterns of behavior also at display on the customer side (striving to persuade, defending position, downplaying weakness of the offering). Sales will get aligned with players on the customer side buying into their offering, and into confrontation with players promoting competitors’ offerings. As a result, an "Us versus Them" mentality will emerge over the course of the decision making process with winners and losers once the decision was taken.


Advocacy Game/Inquiry Process: Product Seller

Here the salesperson displays patterns of behavior (striving to persuade, defending position, downplaying weakness of the offering) in stark contrast to the patterns shown on the customer’s side (presenting balanced arguments, remaining open to alternatives, accepting constructive criticism). As a result, they will not get aligned with players on the customer side. Their arguments will be perceived as biased, at the verge of over-selling. Decision makers will avoid appearing too aligned with them in order to not get blamed for lobbying.


Inquiry Game/Advocacy Process: Thought Leader

Here the salesperson attempts to take the middle ground between the contesting parties displaying the patterns of behavior we see in the inquiry approach (presenting balanced arguments, remaining open to alternatives, accepting constructive criticism). As a result, they will be perceived as a neutral thought leader with the chance to be chosen as the provider regardless of which party wins the advocacy game.


Inquiry Game/Inquiry Process: Co-Innovation Partner

Here the salesperson acts as a critical thinker, assisting the decision makers in navigating the complex process of testing and evaluation to collaboratively solve problems. As a result, they enjoy a high probability of being part of the solution, especially if their competition is playing the advocacy game.


Ramifications for Sales

In the first scenario the salesperson bets on winning the deal by being aligned with the decision influencers most powerful or with the best argumentation skills. Sales will provide arguments supporting the value of their own offering and minimizing the perceived value of their competitors’ offering. The probability to win relies completely on the political skills of their champions.


The second scenario is unsustainable. The salesperson will get no insights into the political dimension of the decision making process and their behavior will force customer contacts to maintain a healthy distance.


In the third scenario the salesperson depends less on which party is winning the power struggle, but is at risk of being disconnected from politics and as a result lacks insights competitors will get from their champions.


In the last scenario the salesperson has a chance to become part of the collaborative process from the very beginning allowing them to shape the decision in a way their offering perfectly supports. Any competitor joining the process later will initially have to take a backseat and as long as the salesperson sticks to their role as a critical thinker they enjoy competitive immunity.


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