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Why Buyer Collaboration Is the Gold Standard of Sales

Recently, I was asked to join two Mutual Action Plan (MAP) building sessions with customers.

The first customer needed help customizing a MAP template for an $800K deal. The second call was with a rep working on a MAP worth $10M. That’s a big deal to anyone’s quota.

We spent about an hour together in each session, and I gave them homework to add detail to the outline we worked on together.

But it got me thinking: why were my customers spending time with me? Sure I’m fun, but why were they giving up 60 valuable minutes each, especially given they knew these big meetings were coming up?

Because they believed I could help them achieve a business outcome they wanted to achieve. There was a lot of money on the table, and anything they could do to stack the odds was worth the effort.

But in that exact same week, I must have heard the same old objection we hear from sales leaders five or six times when we talk with them about mutual action plans: “I’m not sure buyers will use it.”

What’s the disconnect?

Can it really be possible that a customer is totally disinterested in how you’d fix their problem together? A problem that they agree needs to be fixed? A problem that they believe your team could fix?

So why are reps reluctant to use Mutual Action Plans, and more importantly, how do we get customers to collaborate with us?

No one doubts the benefits that come with a collaborative customer. Deals close faster, and data shows the ACV of a deal with a MAP vs. one without jumps ~20% because customers working with a rep they trust are more likely to jump in with both feet instead of just dipping a toe in the water.

Just like with the two customers earlier, there’s a pattern here:

  • If the customer believes you can fix their problem, they will want to collaborate.
  • The hard part is getting the customer to believe in the first place.

When you look at the challenge of collaboration this way, you see instantly that the problem is not with the buyer at all. It’s a rep training issue.

Collaboration and credibility: a virtuous circle

There’s only one thing you need to do to get a buyer to collaborate: make them believe that you can solve a problem that’s costing them money, or that you can make them more money with less risk vs. sticking with the status quo and doing nothing.

If your buyer believes you can fix their problem, make them more money, or remove an obstacle to their success, then they’ll do whatever you ask of them to make it happen.

To achieve that state of belief, you need two things:

  1. A clearly expressed value proposition
  2. A credible story of how you’ll achieve it

1. A clear value proposition

A real value prop is specific to each deal. It includes an acknowledged pain and specific metrics that quantify the value you’re promising. It’s the “I” and “M” in MEDDPICC, the Future State in Gap Selling, and the Commercial Insight in Challenger.

You arrive at this value prop with good discovery, with insights about their industry, with experience fixing similar problems. Then, the customer has to validate that they’d want the outcome you’re promising, that it’s relevant and a priority.

So far, it has nothing to do with your product or service. That comes next.

2. A credible story to get there

Getting the customer to want a value prop is not enough to close a sale. The customer has to believe that you can and will deliver it at a price that makes it all worthwhile.

The first tool of establishing credibility is a case study. If you show that you’ve successfully delivered for other people, then the customer can believe you’ll do the same for them. Case studies are a seller’s best friend.

But if a case study is poetry, a detailed success plan is prose. And here’s where collaboration becomes a virtuous circle.

The rep says to the buyer: “You and I agree that you’d like to achieve this value prop / future state / commercial insight. I’ve shown that we succeeded with a similar company. Can I show you how we can get you there, too?”

By inviting the customer to collaborate, and breaking down the journey into digestible milestones, the rep is offering proof that they can deliver.

They’re demystifying the journey, de-risking the decision for the buyer. Showing that they’re focused on the customer’s ultimate success, not just doing whatever they can to hit quota. The offer of collaboration delivers the credibility buyers are searching for.

Even more virtuous, a good success plan will guide the rep through those early discussions, because the outcomes of the milestones are to determine if there’s a value prop.

So we use discovery to arrive at a value prop, we share case studies to show we’re not faking it, and finally, we offer to collaborate on a plan of action to demonstrate credibility and that we’re committed to the customer.

It’s worth saying the insight here is something that we say all the time; this is not a plan to sell your stuff. It’s a plan to fix their problem. The best MAP guides buyer and seller through discovery of pain and solution, through paper process, through implementation and all the way to time to value. If you stop at contract, you’re trashing the biggest single opportunity to demonstrate credibility in the entire sales cycle.

Reframe your reps’ habits and make it easy

If winning the deal depends on getting a customer to collaborate, and getting customers to collaborate depends on them believing the value prop, and getting a buyer to believe the value prop depends on the rep having a credible story for how it’s going to happen, then reps need to be able to tell that credible story.

To make a credible story, they need case studies, and they need to break down the journey of how it will happen so the buyer can dig into the details and satisfy themselves that there are no hidden gotchas.

And herein lies the next challenge: buyer collaboration and the MAPs that facilitate collaboration are impossible if reps don’t believe in them, because the buyer will be able to tell instantly that the rep thinks it’s a waste of time – and that’s assuming the rep even offers a MAP in the first place.

Reps have to believe and that’s up to RevOps and sales management. Successfully instilling any belief relies on reinforcement, appealing to reward centers, and a tiny bit of stick. We could go deep on belief systems, but instead, let’s talk about practical outcomes and jump into what you should do to make a change.

Hold a MAPs kickoff

It’s best to be explicit about your collaboration strategy and host a team training specifically on Mutual Action Plans. Introduce the team to the concept of MAPs, have some of your in-house senior sellers who’ve seen success with MAPs give testimonials with specific data to back them up; dispel the myth that MAPs will be a ton of extra work; and walk through each of the below actions during the training to demonstrate your organizations’ commitment to MAPs.

Resource: Here’s a deck you can use for a Lunch & Learn.

Create MAP templates for your team

Starting with a blank spreadsheet or doc is asking too much of most reps. They require a ton of original thinking and no routine to fall back into. It’s stressful and much much easier to just not bother.

To get your team started, introduce just two or three templates. The easiest way to split them is by deal size (ENT vs. MM) and New Logo vs. Expansion. Some teams have different templates based on the value prop or different industries, but for the first ones keep it simple.

Don’t make too many templates, don’t make them too complex, and don’t end on contracts – even if your team hands off the deal to someone else.

Design an “easy go, low no” intro flow

Sellers will avoid any situation that could cause the buyer to say no. It’s not a great habit since some of the best (dis)qualifying questions in the world end in no. Regardless, reps don’t like hearing it.

This fear is one of the reasons reps are reluctant to share a MAP, but if you arm your reps with a low-pressure soft intro that won’t trigger a no, then they’re more likely to ask if they can share a MAP.

The easiest way to do this is in a slide deck. In the second or third meeting after they’ve validated the value prop, have your rep insert a visual timeline of what their path to success looks like. Again, that last milestone should be their value being achieved.

The key here is never refer to this as the Mutual Action Plan. It’s literally not mutual at this point. But in sharing that image, it’s a smooth transition to offering to collaborate on a personalized version for the customer’s unique situation.

Use MAPs whenever you inspect a deal

One common complaint from individual contributors is that their managers require them to build MAPs, but that no one in management actually looks at them. It’s demoralizing and makes the rep feel like they’re wasting their time.

You can fix this by using the MAP as the controlling document for deal inspections. This creates a habit feedback loop and the opportunity for some easy rewards.

Introduce this idea by reminding reps how much it sucks to prepare for a QBR the night before, and how good it will feel when all they need to do is turn up and look at their MAPs, every next step and every risk clearly marked, no mental gymnastics or creative storytelling required.

Your reps are used to filling in the CRM; they understand some data has to be captured and probably don’t care where they fill in the info. The key here is don’t ask reps to do repeat work in the MAP and the CRM. Replacing is good, automating is better, double-entry is deadly.

Know when you’re done

Every time you’re introducing MAPs to your team, emphasize the peace of mind and security that comes with knowing that either everything that needs to get done has been done – or at least there’s a plan to get everything done.

Running through their open MAPs, reps can see what’s left to do this week and can head off for the weekend knowing there are no unknown unknowns. One potential friction point is having too many MAPs, and getting lost in separate spreadsheets.

They said no

There are only two possibilities where you’ve presented a good value prop and the customer doesn’t want to collaborate.

The first and most likely is that actually you didn’t deliver a good value prop. You spat out a summary of your feature set and a vague promise of 25% lift. It’s either irrelevant, you’re talking to the wrong person, or the customer felt it wasn’t important enough to pursue. Regardless, it’s a qualification failure.

Go back and check your value prop and double check that the customer actually validated you were hitting the mark and that their priorities haven’t changed. Then get back to work remaking that the value prop into something truly mission critical or disqualify them and start prospecting for the next deal.

The second possibility is they love the value prop in principle, but don’t believe you can make it happen. This is a much more positive situation, because if they like the value prop, they want to believe. Go through the MAP with them again and drill into exactly which milestones are causing concern.

Remember that with multiple people on the buying committee, you might need more than one person to go through the above.

So…when?

All this is well and good, but when do you train your reps to introduce a MAP?

The best moment to introduce your MAP – or at least, the rough, single-sided sketch that will become your MAP after some collaboration – is one nanosecond after the customer believes your value prop.

It might be worth a side note here about expanded MAPs. A decade ago, a MAP was only for the paper process of big enterprise deals. You’d present it after the verbal yes, and it was just a checklist of procurement, contract, legal steps to work through.

But over the past five years, as customers have come to demand more collaborative, consultative service from their vendors, MAPs have been starting earlier and ending later.

You know what steps need to be taken for effective discovery, proof of concept, value analysis, contract, implementation, time to value. You know which roles need to be engaged for a successful outcome, you know typical timelines. But your customer doesn’t. So show what you know, make their lives easier, and demonstrate that working with you is going to be a case-study in “no surprises”.

The wheel keeps turning

If I had to say which came first – rep or customer belief – I’d put my money on a rep way back in the depths of time who went all-in on collaboration because they had faith in a manager who challenged them to take a risk and try a new way of selling.

The rep’s belief that collaboration is the surest path to fixing the customer’s problem rubbed off on the customer, the customer collaborated, and thus the rep was able to fix the problem.

Instead of doubting that buyers will use your MAP, ask yourself this: is my customer really totally disinterested in how we can fix a problem that they agree wants to be fixed or did I just not give my reps the belief set and tools to make it happen?

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      Profile picture of Stephanie O
      @stephanieo
      ( 170 POINTS )
      1 year, 1 month ago

      Excellent article! We are going to be trying MAPs in Q3. I think this article will address some of the concerns the team has had about buyer participation. Thanks so much!

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