Sales & Social Impact

An oft lamented challenge in the social impact space is the procurement process. “How am I to sell into such complex organizations with such byzantine buying processes?” Yep, this certainly does suck. But guess what – selling is hard! The problem isn’t the procurement process. The problem is entrepreneurs don’t know how to sell. While their buyers may not know how to buy, the fact that your buyers don’t know how to buy is the result of you not knowing how to sell to them.

I’m painfully familiar with this reality from a few different perspectives: as a seller, as a buyer, as an entrepreneur, and as a facilitator.

One of the biggest frustrations in the social impact industry is a persistent inability to scale through sales. Product-market fit can be complicated by the frequent challenge of not having a clearly defined buyer for your product. Examples of this abound in under-developed markets where entrepreneurs are providing a service to buyers who are simply too poor to afford, well, anything. Such sales processes usually involves attempting to sell to intermediaries – i.e. purchasers who may not be the end users of your solution. Examples abound, for example non-profit distributors such as an NGO or, closer to home, selling to school districts.

But product-market fit is a solvable problem. As is selling your product to this market. Scaling through sales is a challenge that *every* business faces. It’s a challenge that I work to solve every day. Hell, it’s a challenge that thousands of individuals and organizations work to overcome every day. It can be done…if you are capable of realizing your selling challenges.

Social impact organizations, for the most part, seem not to realize that it is their sales processes that are broken. Take, for example, this report from a national non-profit. In it they reviewed the procurement processes in the education marketplace: how providers sell and how districts buy.

We asked both educators and providers about their experiences with purchasing practices, their pain points, and their ideas for improvement. Their answers indicate inefficiencies in the process and a disconnect between schools and providers. For example, 6 percent of providers report satisfaction with current procurement processes, compared to 68 percent of district stakeholders.

The sellers think the buying process is broken, but the overwhelming majority of buyers believe it is just fine. In other words, sellers think selling is hard. And, the study goes on to say, the sellers want the marketplace to make it easier on them. Waiting for the market to be more accommodating is a great strategy for dying a slow death. You’re better off spending your time researching hospices for your business. The solution isn’t’ to lament the procurement process. Get out there and engage is specific sales strategies and tactics. Find and sell to qualified buyer. Or go invest your time selling to other, better-qualified prospects.

Pretty easy to say, I know. So what does this look like? If you’re new to selling into larger or complex organizations, if you don’t have a sales org, where do you start?

Find and then qualify your buyer. If there is a pain that exists in a market, and you have a solution that addresses that pain, the first key is to find the person who is having the most sleepless nights as a result of this pain. If your solution can solver her problems, this person will become your internal buying champion. She will help you navigate the internal politics. You must coach them as much as they must coach you. But this is the first step. If you can’t find that person, and if their sleepless nights cannot be solved by your solution, therein rests the first sign of trouble with your sales process.

Fast forwarding from your business development activities, let’s assume you have identified and qualified a prospect (i.e. deduced through various means that they have the problem your solution can solve, AND they are potentially in a buy cycle for such a solution). From this point, two of the biggest challenges can be uncovering the Decision Criteria and the Decision Process. So much is wrapped up into a prospect’s criteria and their process. You will need to uncover answers to such questions as What are the technical specifications? Who are the stakeholders? Are they from different departments? Who’s running the process? What are the problems they’re seeking to solve for? Do they have a deadline? Are there dependencies? Who owns the project over the long-term? What’s the initiative driving this purchase? Do they have existing systems? Are they complimentary? Competing? Who are the end-users? How are they impacted?

Having this Curious George approach to selling is important. Why? Because you need to sell the value of your solution in such a way that it fits their unique challenges. Having a coach or a champion who can answer such questions is even more so. And putting your coach and champion through such inquisitions is important because you need to understand the full landscape.

One illustration of why this is so: In the world of SaaS sales we rarely sell to a prospect who has only one decision maker. Yes, there is, ultimately, a single person who must sign the check (aka the “economic buyer”), but there will be multiple stakeholders in disparate departments influencing the outcome. In fact, according to a leading sales research firm, “In a survey of over 3,000 stakeholders involved in a typical B2B purchase, we found that customers themselves report an average of 5.4 different people formally involved in a typical purchase decision” (Challenger Customer, p. 7). Even more troubling – and hence the importance of the Curious George mentality – is that your potential customers often themselves do not know who these 5.4 people are!

To my social impact soldiers: know that you are not alone in having to navigate tough and complex selling environments. Also know that you need to invest more in becoming better salespeople.

By engaging in a sales inquisition (i.e. discovery) with your coach and buyer will help you uncover – and sometimes even influence (if you’re good enough and early enough in the buying process) – the Decision Criteria and Decision Process.

There will be more on this later. But this has been a topic of several recent conversations with social impact entrepreneurs.

Give me a holler if you would like to bounce any ideas around.
Happy selling!


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