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Why and When Disruptors Must Play the Inquiry Game



In our last post we described Advocacy and Inquiry as the two types of buying decision processes salespeople can be confronted with resulting in four scenarios:

The scenario giving a vendor maximum control over the decision-making process is Inquiry Game/Inquiry Process in which they act as an innovation partner assisting the decision makers in navigating the complex process of testing and evaluating to collaboratively solve problems.


Unfortunately, salespeople are mostly confronted with an Advocacy Process where competing groups in the customer organization align with a vendor to pursue their political agendas. Also most classic sales methodologies focus on the Advocacy Process and, as a result, most salespeople are either unaware of the Inquiry Process or inexperienced in participating in it.


The Inquiry Process requires a vendor to be willing to embark on a journey whose final destination is yet to be defined. Of course we already know the criteria the final destination must meet: It must deliver a future state with a risk/reward ratio superior to the current state, otherwise there won’t be funding provided for getting there.


Leading the Inquiry Game

In order to gain control over the decision-making process (not the decision!) sales must behave as a leader actively driving the process together with leaders on the customer side. This requires them to assist in:


  • Creating a safe space for open discussion and active listening;

  • Establishing expectations for respectful behavior and avoid accusatory language;

  • Identifying underlying reasons for conflict, not just the surface-level disagreements;

  • Working collaboratively on solutions, focusing on shared goals; and

  • Gathering information to ensure everyone has a clear understanding of the situation.


Disruption Selling achieves this by collaboratively developing narratives incorporating all input from all stakeholders to provide an unbiased picture of the valid solution alternatives. For this they must contain:


  • The Current State: A comprehensive description of the current situation, its challenges and limitations;

  • The Desired State: The description of the future state and its improvements over the current state constituting the expected reward from the decision;

  • The Solution Proposal: The recommended solution delivering the desired state;

  • The Engagement Model: The way the various internal and external parties involved in realizing the future state will work together;

  • Tenets: The fundamental principles all parties will adhere to in executing the decision;

  • Team Resources: The roles and their required competencies to deliver the project

  • Risks and Obstacles: The critical, yet unstable assumptions underlying the projection of time and material required to get to the desired state; and

  • Asks: Contributions required from outside the delivery team.


The emerging narrative functions as the driver for establishing consensus between all relevant stakeholders. Ideally the entire team can agree on every single item. However, voicing disagreement must not only be accepted, but even encouraged! At the end of the process team members are still allowed to disagree, but nevertheless must commit to the proposed solution.


Benefits of the Inquiry Game

Compared to Advocacy Game the Inquiry Game process provides sales with much deeper insights into the customer’s organization, their political structure, and their decision making criteria as a result of:


  • Shared exploration: Everyone considers various options and works together to find the best solution;

  • Critical thinking and open communication: People share information openly and critically evaluate different viewpoints;

  • Constructive conflict: Disagreement is encouraged to ensure all ideas are examined thoroughly; and

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


The open and extensive discussions with customer stakeholders result in a higher level of customer intimacy and provide the base for a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. The intensive collaboration ensures the vendor’s full value proposition is recognized by the customer resulting in increased sales poeductivity (faster adoption, higher retention, and better margins.


Challenges of the Inquiry Game

Playing the Inquiry Game comes along with a number of challenges:


  • Forecasting: At the beginning of the game its final outcome is completely open so sales cannot commit deliverables, revenue size, and decision timing.

  • Ambiguity: In developing the narrative the customer will involve more and more stakeholders as their buy-in becomes relevant, resulting in a growing list of decision criteria looking like a moving target for quite some time before the desired state stabilizes.

  • Scope Creep: As the customer develops their understanding of the organizational and technical changes, getting to the desired state will result in the list of solution components becoming bigger all the time.

  • Engagement Complexity: The customer will bring more and more internal and external parties into the process leading to an ever expanding Engagement Model.

  • Executive Support: As the reward of getting to the desired state becomes more visible higher levels of the customer organization get involved and expect equivalent commitment from the vendor’s management. 


Implications of the Inquiry Game

The challenges described above can only be mastered by sales with complete commitment from their management. Sales management must accept the high level of ambiguity during the first half of the game and commit resources to it despite the unclear return that can be expected. This goes straight against hardwired sales cycle management and their metrics, including:


  • Funnel Management: The inquiry game is highly customer-specific and collides with highly structured, hard-wired sales processes.

  • Resource Allocation: The inquiry game is highly dynamic, it can accelerate and decelerate multiple times during the decision process. Accordingly, sales resource allocation must be extremely agile, e.g., delivering a proof-of-concept with short lead time to prevent the momentum from breaking.

  • Horizontal Alignment: As the game unfolds, more and more internal stakeholders must be involved, e.g., partner management, development, delivery and sales management must orchestrate alignment across department boundaries.

  • Vertical Alignment: As higher levels on the customer side get more engaged in the process equivalent higher-level involvement on the vendor side is required and sales management must ensure the line of command is proactively informed.


When Disruptors Must Play the Inquiry Game

In Where Most Disruptors Ultimately Fall Short: Scaling Out Their Value Proposition we describe how a disruptor must scale their offering over the Technology Adoption Lifecycle to fully capture the mainstream market. At the highest level this requires the vendor to enter into Strategic Alliances with a limited number of highly visible and influential customers.


Strategic Alliances are customer-specific, symbiotic relationships driving two or more parties’ strategic objectives, e.g., market share gain, revenue growth, margin improvement. They can only be defined and agreed via an Inquiry Process.


A vendor unwilling or incapable of entering into Strategic Alliances with strong regional and/or industry visibility will not be able to achieve and maintain a market leadership position in the longer-term.


In other words: Playing the Inquiry Game is required to complete the disruption of a market.

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