Reading the Mind of a Whale How to Take Care of Your Biggest Accounts

When I was growing up, The Amazing Kreskin was a regular feature on talk shows. He demonstrated mind-reading abilities that always left me astounded and envious. If only I could figure out how to do that, I would be unstoppable! But after reading his book and a half-dozen others on the topic, I gave up on learning how to read minds. Yet, I have never given up on trying to figure out how other people think, so that I can be more effective in communicating with them.

Over time, most people in sales develop mind-reading skills with varying degrees of success. In a one-to-one relationship, some are amazingly good at anticipating the thoughts and understanding the responses of another person. But anticipating and understanding a whale is completely different.

Because a whale (a very large account) is actually a group of people, it is exponentially more challenging to understand the thought process. Decisions made by groups inside of a whale confound the most experienced of salespeople. Over time, I have learned some guiding principles to understanding the “mind of a whale.”

  • Safety first. The decision makers and influencers in a whale are most concerned with making certain that whatever they do does not cause problems.
  • No ripples, no waves. Whales are more interested in avoiding business interruption than in maximizing profits.
  • Reliable before remarkable. No matter how bad a current provider is, that provider is a known commodity. Any choice to do something other than what they are currently doing is inherently risky.
  • Incremental and Slow. This need for safety causes whales to move slowly. When they do move, they make changes incrementally — one facility, one production line, one store at a time. They will try to take the smallest step that they can be convinced is safe.
  • Consensus before excellence. Whenever whales make decisions of any real significance, many people from their organization sit at the table and participate in the outcome.
  • Herd mentality. Safety in numbers is a whale mantra. The thinking goes, “If we all agree to a course of action, then no one person has to take accountability if it doesn’t work out.”
  • Polar bears, caribou and eels. In a large, complex sale, the people who can say “no” have more power than the person who can say “yes.” It is the nature of whale organizations to give trump cards to groups that control enterprise systems, such as IT, logistics, supply chain management, accounting, etc.
  • Weakest link. Even if you convince the most knowledgeable people and those most affected by the change, other impacted groups in the whale still have enormous sway on a buying decision. Whoever has the lowest level of confidence at the whale table will control whether the deal is won or lost.
  • Low friction. Whales seek the path of least resistance in every area of decision-making. Buying groups look for low cost, minimal internal resource requirement, and little outside department involvement. In other words, low friction.
  • One thing at a time. Members of the whale invariably have some major project that will impede their consideration of anything else until they have completed it.
  • Anywhere but here. Everyone wants to get to heaven, but no one wants to die. This adage goes double for whales. Everyone wants the benefits that you can bring, but each member wants the other departments to do the work and take the risks of initial implementation.
  • Who makes it fit? Any significant solution has to work with some pre-existing systems, processes, business rules or policies. Converting from the present provider to you will mean re-working one or more of those to make it fit.What To DoTo overcome these whale obstacles:
  • Follow the Hippocratic oath — listen, do no harm, help. Whales need you to repeatedly demonstrate your understanding of their issues and obstacles. Small companies selling to whales too often focus on the benefits of their products and solutions, rather than focusing on the issues of implementation and consensus inside of the whale. Their inaccurate belief is that the “best solution” will win the day. The challenge is that your best solution is aimed only at solving the problem for which it was designed, and may not address the problems of executing it in the whale.
  • Emulate before you differentiate. Successful whale hunters focus first on demonstrating all of the ways in which their solution is like the current solution. This may sound counterintuitive, but the fact is that there are many ways in which the current solution is working for members of the whale culture, who are motivated to keep the status quo. Show how little will change for those members before showing the whale how things will be better. Budget, workflow, system integration, staffing, vendor relationships, customer relationships, training, paperwork and capital expenditures are all good places to start looking for things that will not change substantially when the whale chooses you.
  • Take on more than 50 percent of the responsibility. Too often, small companies selling to larger companies assume that the larger company will have the resources to implement and integrate whatever they deliver. This is not the case. When selling to a whale, demonstrate ease of implementation and maintenance early and often. Take as much responsibility for implementation as you can.Whales will buy amazing, innovative and unique products and solutions from you, so don’t despair if that is what you sell. However, whales do not start their thinking from the same place that you do. While you are full of excitement about your offering, they are full of suspicion about the trouble it could cause them. Practice the principles of safety, consensus, and low friction and you will begin to read the minds of your whales.                                                                                                                                                                                                         Vistage speaker Tom Searcy is founder of Whale Hunters, a sales process and business development company based in Indianapolis.

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