Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon, authors of the bestselling book The Challenger Sale, are joined by Pat Spenner and Nick Toman for The Challenger Customer: Selling to the Hidden Influencer Who Can Multiply Your Results. In this blog post they define Collective Learning, why it’s so critical in the current climate of B2B selling, and outline the five major behaviours that indicate that it’s happening.
In a world where some 5.4 stakeholders shape the average B2B sale, CEB research reveals something surprising: the statistically significant drivers of winning a “high-quality sale” show a minimal impact from greater access and an unexpectedly negative impact from better individual positioning.
With an emerging focus on consensus, a valuable insight shows how suppliers might think very differently about driving commercial success. It turns out, there is a statistically significant driver of deal quality that has a measurably meaningful impact: Collective Learning.
In fact, this one finding dramatically dwarfed everything else in our analysis of high-quality deals outlined in The Challenger Customer (Portfolio, Sept. 2015). We found that if the customer goes from below-average performance to above-average performance on Collective Learning, the likelihood of a supplier closing a high-quality deal goes up by 20 percent. It is by far the single biggest driver of deal quality found in CEB’s research.
Collective Learning can be defined, at a high level, as: the ability of a group of customer stakeholders to overcome their natural disconnects and learn together. To identify, debate, and decide on a common course of collective action. The primary challenge suppliers must address in winning quality deals isn’t so much overcoming each stakeholder’s limited understanding of them, it’s helping those stakeholders bridge the gap in their limited understanding of each other. Their lack of any real common connection other than a collective desire to avoid unnecessary risk and reduce organizational expense. That’s why Collective Learning is such a powerful driver of deal quality, because it dramatically drives down group dysfunction. The data tells us that when customer stakeholders learn together, overall dysfunction goes down by nearly a third.
Why? Because of the types of activities customers demonstrate while engaged in Collective Learning. If we were to build a list of behaviors that would serve as a good indication that Collective Learning is happening, that list would look something like this:
1. Exploring Stakeholder Concerns and Uncertainties
Customer stakeholders are asking themselves things like “What are we worried about?”, “What do we not know but should?”, “What are we missing?”, “What haven’t we discussed thus far?”
2. Surfacing Disconnects, Competing Ideas
Here, rather than running away from points of disagreement or generally avoiding debate as “too hard” or “too stressful” or “unhelpful,” customers run directly at potential problems and disagreements, purposefully putting them on the table and actively discussing them.
3. Willingness to Explore Problems, Consider Alternate Views
This one is more about “posture” than behavior, but either way, stakeholders actively seek out alternate viewpoints, examining options from multiple angles until they’ve thoroughly considered alternate views. Rather than impatiently hurrying to “get things done,” group participants are deliberatively looking to “get things right.”
4. Probing Potentially Overlooked Interdependencies
Stakeholders cast a wide net in exploring alternate courses of action, seeking to uncover and understand the more subtle or unexpected implications of their decisions on various parts of the organization.
5. Establishing Joint Resolution
Like any good deliberative body, stakeholders ensure that objections and concerns aren’t left hanging, but are thoroughly addressed in a way that all participants stand by and publicly support the output of the group’s deliberative process.
These five characteristic behaviors of effective Collective Learning aren’t simply hallmarks of an effective purchase process; they’re indicative of effective group-based decision making more broadly. In that respect, one might argue there’s no real surprise here. That said, let’s not lose sight of the underlying purpose of this analysis. The question we’re asking here is not “What kind of behavior makes for effective decision making?” Rather, we’re asking “What kind of behavior is most predictive of a supplier winning a high-quality sale?” That’s a hugely important distinction, because it raises a tough question that suppliers are going to have to address if they hope to get paid.
If we look through the list of “optimal” Collective Learning behaviors one more time, we’d likely all agree that every single one of those behaviors—while absolutely admirable—isn’t particularly easy. While that list may indeed represent the most desirable customer buying behaviors, for many customers it simultaneously represents the list of behaviors least likely to actually occur. After all, there’s no guarantee that customers will do any of this on their own—or, for that matter, even want to do any of this on their own.
So if suppliers need to make Collective Learning happen to drive deal quality, and customers may or may not be either willing or able to do it on their own, then that means suppliers are going to have to do everything in their power to help them get this done. To be sure, Collective Learning is much less about the supplier than it is about the customer. But if suppliers don’t find a way to intervene and own this process, there’s absolutely no guarantee that their customers will either. Bottom line, if suppliers hope to close high-quality deals in a 5.4 world, they’re going to have to make functional buying groups, not just find them, by taking control of the purchase process and ensuring Collective Learning happens.