Should I Sell to a Group or an Individual?

Aiming at a Group for Business May Cause More Harm Than Good: why you should question the latest thinking

No one is arguing that teams are organized in business to look at problems.

Or that such teams participate in decision making.

Nor is anyone saying that within teams, there are multiple “selling” opportunities, or that you have to address team members as you work through a sales process.

That has always been the case.

However, only one person on any team will have the authority to eventually pull the trigger.

Only one person is tasked with making the final YES or NO. I have personally never seen a purchase order or proposal authorized or signed by a team.

Teams have always played an integral role in business decision making. But, trying to automate a process to contact every member or trying to convince people that the process of targeting the team instead of THE decision maker can in fact be automated is steering people down the wrong road in my opinion[1].

And it is a little self-serving.

But, that is exactly what the paper from Forrester Sirius Decisions[2] does. It makes a lot of sense UNTIL you get into the details, which is where the devil resides as we all know. The paper is really nothing more than a sales pitch for their consulting services integrated into a sales management system.

And while there’s nothing wrong with selling your services (we ALL do that), trying to tell people you can automate the lead process or create a demand for your product where none exists or that you must target “the team” instead of the decision maker, well, it’s just that: a sales pitch, not a consulting sell[3].

Paved with Good Intentions

The paper, entitled It Was Never About Leads: Why Adapting To Buying Groups Is A Must USE THE DEMAND UNIT WATERFALL™ TO WIN WITH TODAY’S B2B BUYERS, uses great sounding words: Demand Unit Waterfall™, The Goldilocks Zone, Demand Management Process, Revenue Development Rep and more. In “Pick a Word, Any Word,” I presented three columns of words and invited the reader to pick one from each column and read them out loud. The combination sounds great, but the combination means absolutely nothing (i.e., a 3,4,7 would be “parallel digital projection” whereas a 3, 9, 2 would be “parallel policy flexibility.”

My conclusion was this:

“Words are representations of things — or at least that’s the theory. A lot of the problem with business language is that there’s a belief that using words in combinations like those in the list sounds impressive because they capture something that seems profound.”

I mean, how can anyone argue with “The Goldilocks Zone?” But, what does it mean, really?


At a meeting once, the client was explaining something for 20 minutes. My associate and I kept looking at each other during the presentation with an expression that said, “What the heck is he talking about?” When he finished, we asked a couple of questions. His response became a classic as he looked at us, expressionless: “Your confusion stems from our confusion.”

It is hard – and sometimes dangerous – to argue with someone with the stature of a Forrester or to speak up in a meeting when things aren’t clear coming from management. But, unless you do – unless you challenge what you are hearing for clarity — you may navigate incorrectly. No one has time or money to do that these days – or any days.

The Value Proposition

One of the tells from their paper is what they are selling:

“The good news is that all major SFA [Sales Force Automation] systems have a standard entity — the opportunity object — within their architecture that is perfect for capturing and measuring demand units.”

A “demand unit” is their jargon for “buying group.” Their premise is that identifying “potential buying groups for qualification” is more important than “reaching out to each individual member of a buying group as if each were completely independent.”

They are doing what many organizations do: force fit a theory into a kind of pseudo practice. That is, their demand unit theory into a sales automation system. Where it the value in that?

Everyone in a decision loop is important. However, some are more important than others. The most important person is the one who ultimately makes the decision (pulls the trigger). Until you identify that person, everything else is prep work as I will point out. Prep work is great and necessary, but if you lose sight of the objective – the decision maker – you are wasting your time and money prepping for no reason.

For example, the paper argues: “One fundamental way in which the demand unit approach differs from traditional leads-based processes is that every interaction across all buying group members provides additional insight to drive the process forward.”

That is simply not true because not every interaction drives the process forward. Some interactions drive them backward. Some have no effect whatsoever. Sometimes, something outside your interactions will come out of nowhere and kill a deal.

Unless you aim at the decision maker first and PERSONALIZE your contact strategy (not automate it), you waste time.

Again, no one is arguing you should ignore the “team.” But, trying to automate contact points in an SFA system is a time waster. Just ask any salesperson using one of these systems: they often spend time updating the database instead of selling.

One man who knew the danger of selling automation many years ago was Elmer G. Leterman.

Meet a Master

Elmer G. Leterman wrote a book (now out of print) called, “The Sale Begins When the Customer Says No.” Translated into 70 languages and sold internationally, Leterman produced more than $58,000,000 in insurance coverage for his clients – in 1930 in the very depths of the depression. He is truly an American inspiration.

The title of the first chapter of his book sums up what all the verbiage of Forrester’s paper tries to convey: Warm Him Up. Elmer writes:

“Millions of people have a product to sell, something they know is needed and wanted, but they’ll never get to first base unless they’re ordered down there by the umpire after the pitcher throws four straight balls. These salesmen know their product, and they know that what they are selling is important. What’s wrong? Lots of things may be wrong, but I would venture to guess that above everything else, they have never learned how to create a favorable atmosphere for a sale before the act of selling has begun.”

In other words, response to demand, not generating demand. Demand has to exist first. You can talk all you want, but if the person doesn’t want or need what you’re selling…you waste your time.

At HighPoint Market during my first trip with super salesman Don Tickle, we walked into the showroom of a nine story building. If you’ve never been to HighPoint Market, you will not understand this story. Row after row, floor after floor of unbelievable furniture, fabrics, interior pieces. You drowned in the visuals. As we walked down the aisle, Don stopped suddenly, leaned over to me and whispered, “See anything you need?”

I immediately knew what he was saying: HighPoint isn’t about needing. It’s about wanting. And the salesman is creating a favorable atmosphere for a sale BEFORE the act of selling has begun creates the wanting.

Elmer’s sound advice is critical to understand in the age of disruption and with the swirl of information and mis-information around us. Why? Because of time. You can’t automate a “want.” Or a “need” for that matter. And if 70% of people today go to Google first and do their homework BEFORE they call you, you can see Elmer’s point of warming people up.

In Elmer’s day, warming up was almost always face-to-face selling, face-to-face preparation. Elmer was probably the first social media guy before social media was even invented. He would continually send notes to people…talk on the phone…write letters…communicate. In other words, he worked the room.

Elmer rightly asks, “When will people realize that selling is a relationship between two human begins who are in a position to help each other?”

It’s the sales person’s responsibility to guide the client to discover that their needs are mutual and complementary. But, that only happens when the client ASKS for information. And that only happens when you’ve created a favorable atmosphere for the sale!

Hence, in the chapter, “Warm Him Up,” Elmer called it the art of indirect selling. It is EXACTLY what this whole Forrester waterfall thing is all about. Unlike the waterfall thing, however, Elmer knew you can’t automate a relationship.

The Man Who Gave Up His Speech

One of the stories Elmer relates is of a man invited to give a speech, who was last up. The Chairman of the company spoke right before him and started telling everyone that the meeting was over when someone informed him there was one more guy. That guy came up and said, “Your Chairman is right. It’s a beautiful day, and I would like to move that this session be adjourned.” As Elmer tells it, that guy became the guy “who wasn’t allowed to make his speech” and consequently met everyone individually for years afterward because they recalled that incident.

What automated system could anticipate that? How do you plan for that?

The Equipment That Went Missing

In a meeting in Ohio, the equipment that was supposed to be there for me wasn’t there. One person in the audience went to her car and brought in her computer, but none of the cables fit. I said, “Well, if you still want to, I have handouts.” I quickly made copies in one of the offices of the host. I gave the presentation offering those handouts before my presentation. Afterwards, several of the audience members came up to me and said, “You didn’t need any slides.” I communicated with many from that association chapter for years afterward, and received several referrals for additional presentations WITH equipment. I know that part of your ability to “anticipate, react and adapt” is the key to indirect selling. Everything you do has to be related to the client, the prospect, the customer. It’s about them, not about you.

And most importantly, you can’t automate this process, making it VERY difficult to do. The lure of automation clouds our judgments. We believe what the dashboards are telling us, forgetting that behind numbers are people – real people with real needs. I’ve yet to see the dashboard that translates the need into an action.


Indirect selling is essential if you are going to be successful, which is paving the way for the sale. One of the ways paving happens is with engagement.

Engagement – all engagement with all people on or off the team – is a form of pre-selling that makes the selling itself a simpler job. Elmer talked about selling insurance in his book, but whether it is insurance or anything else, the rules are the same: engagement.

Engagement is raising your hand that you are interested…not a click or a hit. Or serving up a digital nugget because you’ve been tracking my IP address. Automation NEVER works over the long term.

Other important points in his chapter that refer to engagement included:

  • Prospecting for clients is like prospecting for gold. It can be haphazard or scientific, frustrating or lucrative.”
  • “It is entirely unnecessary ever to have to resort to cold and unprepared selling.”
  • “There is always a way to reach someone. There is always a letter that can be sent that is more personal because it shows a knowledge of the business or of the industry. But if you can’t uncover a superior method than just calling up and giving your name, then you must learn to master cold canvassing.”
  • “All of new business is traceable to the groundwork that is laid through contacts, preliminary public relations, good will.”
  • “Before the sale, one needs prestige. Everything that is done as a prestige builder is eventually an aid as a sales builder.”
  • “The difference between success and failure lay in the preliminary arrangements that results in a favorable atmosphere in which the story would be heard.”

When I started my research business in 1990, I selected ten companies I wanted to have as clients. I wrote one, five page letter to each company. Three of those companies became my clients for several years. For my marketing services company, I targeted one major privately owned company. I wrote ten letters to the advertising manager and mailed the letters three days apart. I called him after the seventh letter and asked for the meeting. He said, “I’ll tell you what. If you promise to stop writing me letters, I’ll even hire you.” He did. We worked for that company for over 20 years – completely unheard of in the agency business at that time and during this time.

While you may view these tactics as obsolete in this day and age, the principle will never be obsolete: creating a favorable atmosphere for the sale to take place.

There is no substitute for preparation. Perhaps Vince Lombardi put it best when he said, “You’ve got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you’ve got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you’re lucky enough to find someone with a lot of head and a lot of heart, that person will never come in second off the field.” He was talking, of course, about football. But, he was really talking about life – and about sales.


[1] A recent white paper from eGain stated: “Our clients have been able to deflect up to 70% of the requests for agent-assisted service with this approach.” While they were talking about customer service, stopping human interaction at any transaction point kills any chance of upsell or cross sell. People don’t relate to robots.

[2] At, Who We Are is really about Forrester,  One large organization, creating sometimes great information, but nevertheless, selling. Who can blame them? We should always be selling. The point is, WHAT are they selling?

[3] The inherent mistake in the logic is “generating demand.” Surprisingly, for an organization that prides itself on being one of the first to recognize the “age of the customer,” what’s overlooked in this paper is that you do not “create” demand. You respond to demand.

For more insights follow interlinejim@twitter

4 thoughts on “Should I Sell to a Group or an Individual?

  1. Jim,

    Thanks for including me in this message. I sense the “old fashioned” and experienced salesman in your writings. And why should I be surprised? Dealing with what Tucker Carlson calls, “Group think” produces nothing but nothing. Perhaps finger pointing, alibis, and the confidence of consensus. Blah! You address the organization based on the leadership qualities of the “decision maker.” Differences of opinion are great and very useful, but not a replacement for the person who knows what has to be done and is not fearful of consequences based on his or her decision.
    Take care Jim, and thanks again for sending this to me.

    1. Gary, always great to hear from you, and as always, appreciate your point of view. Take care as well!

  2. As a former fisherman who wrote articles on catching big bass, I’ve never went in for the ten-pole strategy you described, Pete. What a great analogy, and thanks for reading and commenting! I’ll take a strike over a nibble anyday. 🙂

  3. A stroll through my Junk email on any given day reveals the dreary monotony of current marketing ‘best practice’: one email after another, all telling me how this or that product or service will absolutely rock my world. All from people who’ve never met me and know nothing about what my day is like. Worse, of course, because these emails don’t come from ‘people’ at all, but from automated systems masquerading as people.

    It’s like the little kid who props up a whole row of fishing poles along the riverbank, then sits and waits. He doesn’t care which one wiggles as long as he gets a bite.

    Well, if this is ‘best practice’, endlessly eblasting bored and frustrated individuals drowning in seas of trite marketing messages, hoping for a nibble, count me out. I’ve never cared for the taste of worms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *