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Key skills to political selling
By Dave Stein, CEO, ES Research Group

Most people who have been selling for even a short period of time understand that some level of corporate politics is present in every organization into which they sell.

Most people who have been selling for even a short period of time understand that some level of corporate politics is present in every organization into which they sell. As sales professionals' experience and political savvy increases, so does what they observe in their accounts. If you aren't aware of political activity in your accounts, it doesn't mean that it isn't there. It just means you can't see it and certainly can't leverage it. If your competitor is politically savvy, you are at a distinct disadvantage.

What is politics? According to Merriam-Webster one definition is, "competition between competing interest groups or individuals for power and leadership." Winners have developed a set of skills that enables them to consistently succeed because of, or in spite of, politics. They've learned to select the right competing interest groups and then ride the power and leadership wave to success by devising and executing political strategies for each key influencer and decision-maker.

Being adept politically will rarely lead to a win by itself. There are many other components to winning. But to not understand and take advantage of the interpersonal forces within an account is to leave assets unleveraged.

Here are some of the key skills required to elevate yourself into the realm of political selling:

Skill: A basic understanding of how corporate politics works

For our purposes, politics and influence are synonymous. People need the help of other people to achieve certain business goals (i.e., my department's project gets funded) as well as business-driven personal goals (i.e., if it is successful, I get a raise--I can afford that new house).

Within a company, it works something like this: "If you report to me I can just tell you to do something and you will do it." That's SAY-SO influence. You'll do it because I say so. But if you don't work for me--let's say - you work in another department - it becomes more difficult. I then have to influence you to help me. I'll use POLITICAL influence. That requires a combination of skills and artistry and it takes time and strategy.

Here is an example: Let's say that we both work for the same company, but for different departments. If I need your help for my department to achieve its quarterly objectives, I might look for ways in which I can help you achieve your objectives (ideally, business and personal objectives) and subtly advertise those to you as benefits of helping me. In that way we are aligned with a set of common interdependent purposes. Win-win.

When you are selling into a company, you have absolutely no SAY-SO over the buyer. You can't tell anyone in your customer's company what to do. You can only influence them to give you information, insights, coaching and preference so that they influence others to look at you and your offering favorably. The best way to influence someone is to clearly communicate how and by how much you will contribute to the advancement of their business and (business-related) personal goals.

In the diagram below, you'll see that when you can help a buyer or influencer meet their personal and business goals (Quadrant 1), you're much more likely to gain commitment from them in helping you win.

In Quadrant 2, there is no personal win, so their commitment, although altruistic so far as a contribution to their company, will not be supported as strongly.

Stay away from people in Quadrant 3. In those cases, the person you are selling to is "in it for themselves," acting counter to what is in the best interests of their company. You run the risk of not only losing the deal, but being associated with "dirty politics," which could affect your personal and your company's reputation.

Quadrant 4 reminds you that if you find you can't contribute to the person achieving their business or personal goals, your likelihood of gaining their support is minimal. Don't turn these people into enemies, but focus your efforts on finding and selling to influencers in the first quadrant.

Skill: The ability to see what's invisible

As I suggested earlier, not everyone is skilled enough to observe sophisticated corporate politicians being influential. Savvy politicians do their thing privately. It's not unlike the backroom deals done by government politicians.

How do you know that there is influence being wielded? First, assume it is. Then begin to look at results and work backward. We can extract a good example from everyday government politics: If there is "pork" - say $650.3 million in corporate tax benefits for igloo manufacturers in Alaska - embedded in a House of Representatives education bill, you can quickly figure out who lent a hand getting it through committee.

Ask your contacts within your customer's company or government department about prior purchases, projects and initiatives. Find out who sponsored them, whose budgets paid for them, who were the ultimate decision-makers and who benefited in some more personal ways. The names you come up with will likely be people of influence, either through their command of an organization, or through astute politicking. They are the ones for whose influence you will be positioning during your sales campaign.

Skill: Connecting the dots

You've done some discovery and have begun to make associations. When you asked about recent projects, several people referenced Carrie Miehome, who works in the IT organization. She deftly led the steering committee with the CRM project last year. Funny thing though, that project was put ahead of others that already had funding. Why would that be, you might ask? Who benefits from a CRM implementation? The VP of Sales? The VP of Customer Service? Perhaps the CFO who wants more visibility into the revenue stream ... It's perfectly reasonable to expect that she was influenced by a higher power. The challenge will be finding out whom, what was in it for them and what was in it for her if you are selling IT solutions to that company.

Skill: Knowing how to map out the organization

You'll need to start with an organization chart. If they won't give you one, you can build one by getting answers to pointed questions about reporting structure, by reading information on the web and, if your customer is a public company, from corporate SEC filings.

Next, get out a color marker. Draw black circles around isolated executives with no clout, orange lines between people with known connections, and blue circles around groups of people who serve on committees that are known to get funding and get things done. The most influential of the influencers get their names encircled in green. Draw red circles around people who are in Quadrant 3 above - those who are in it for themselves. You'll begin to see your customer's organization in a whole new light.

Skill: Targeting the right influencers

Now that you have a map of the political/influence environment, you've got to begin targeting the influencers. It's a mini-version of the same four-part plan I discuss in my book, "How Winners Sell" and in the e-Learning Edition.

Situation Assessment: What is their background, how do they make decisions, who do they depend upon, what are their successes, failures, with whom do they align, how do they influence others, what's in it for them on a personal and business goals basis ... You get the idea.

Goal: Your goal is straightforward. You want them to support you at a minimum, but ideally to sell internally on your behalf. (At a higher level, your goal for the deal is to win it.) What's important here is to focus on their goal. If they achieve theirs, you have a much greater opportunity to achieve yours.

Strategy: Remember my strategy statement format: They are going to buy from me because ____. In this case, they are going to influence a decision in my favor because ______. Remember that the strategy is the means to an end - the goal.

Tactics: Every phone call, sales call, visit, lunch, dinner, presentation, discussion by the water cooler, e-mail message, and snail-mail letter has to advance your strategy. Some of your tactics will be to prove that you can advance their business goals and some (more discretely handled) will indicate that you understand and will work toward them achieving their personal goals.

I've covered the basics of "political" selling. Be aware, there are risks involved: getting in over your head, taking the wrong side, over-focusing on politics, not spending time on the competitive side, overlooking people who can sabotage your deal. And the list goes on. If you don't have any experience with this aspect of selling, I strongly suggest finding a mentor to coach you through.

Dave Stein, after 25 years in sales leadership positions and delivering his own sales training and consulting worldwide, founded ES Research Inc. ESR offers independent, authoritative advice on Sales Training and Consulting and the Companies that provide it through weekly briefs, in-depth reports, online seminars and advisory services. For more information go to or call 508.313.9585

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