On many occasions, I’ve found myself vigorously defending my side of an argument. I’m sure you have too. But have you ever surprised yourself by the vigor of your argument when moments earlier you didn’t even realise you had a side in this particular debate?
I remember when a friend wrongly assumed a had a soft spot for the Welsh rugby team (I don’t, I support England). I started defending the Welsh team as if I did support them, merely because the other person in the conversation had put me in one group, himself in the opposite. Without consciously doing so, I started defending this position as if I were a Welsh rugby supporter.
This is a Granfalloon, described by Anthony Pratkanis in Age of Propaganda as ‘proud and meaningless associations of human beings.’ This certainly was meaningless as I had no real reason to shift into the Welsh Rugby camp when discussing their merits against the English team.
Us and Them
This meaningless division is part of human nature. We divide ourselves up into groups, and when we identify ourselves as a member of a group, we exaggerate the differences of people outside the group and use the membership within the group as a social status. Us versus Them.
In extreme cases, division manifests itself through racist or nationalist organisations. But, it’s not exclusive to the extremes. It happens in sports, business and fashion. When someone chooses to buy the latest iPhone, a pair of Jimmy Choo or a Tesla, they’re part of a granfalloon and using the symbolism of wearing the shoes or displaying the phone to enhance their social status.
Not only do we defend that granfalloon and attempt to move our group up the pecking order, but we also try to climb the ladder within the group, just as apes jostle for alpha status within their own group.
Does this happen in B2B service?
I remember listening to a Brian Koppelman podcast where he discussed how the movie business worked and the challenges screenwriters faced selling their work. On one occasion, he wrote a script which was getting great feedback in every pitch he had, but nobody was taking it. The film was different to everything out there and didn’t easily fit into a category. That made it very risky for any executive at a production company to take on. “I love you’re script, but it’s not for us”.
Why isn’t it for us? What the executive meant to say is “it’s not for me”. “You see, our company hasn’t produced any films like yours before. It’s new, exciting and different. If I push this movie, I risk ostracising myself within the cohort. If it flops at the box office, it’s all on me. My social status would be shred to bits, it’s too risky for me personally to put my name on this.”
“Give me something that my Granfalloon has done before. A superhero movie. We’ve done ten in the past three years, let’s do another. Because, if it fails, it’s not my fault. Our company make superhero movies, that’s what we do. So, if this one doesn’t work out, it’s not my fault, my social status doesn’t derail. Anyone could have made that mistake within our company.”
Social status is just as important in B2B sales as it is with consumers. In fact, maybe even more so, because the status is written for all to see in ink on our business cards. Your line manager is above you, his line manager above him, her manager above her, and so on. Most people want to ‘climb the ladder’, so every decision they make is focused, whether consciously or subconsciously, on climbing the social ladder.
When people in an organisation make decisions about buying a product, they first consider, will people within the business acknowledge this as a good decision, or even better a great one? Does this seller work with companies similar to my own? Do they look and feel like the type of company that we would work with? Would it be a massive coup to bring your consulting business into my own? What will my boss think, and her boss? Because ultimately, they hold the keys to me climbing the social ladder.
Two different social models in play
There are two social status models to consider in B2B. The first is the social status of the business within it’s environment, the second is that of the person who makes the decision whether to buy what you have to sell.
The business has a position in the market, or a position that they aspire to fill. The agency that wants to be ‘high-end’ surrounds itself with signals that point to a high end agency. Apple products are the obvious symbol. The office is another. There’s no practical reason for an agency to have a fancy office in a cool and really expensive part of London. Transport links are great in most parts of Greater London, but rent and rates vary wildly from postcode to postcode. But, a ‘high-end’ agency, the type that we want to be on the ladder, has a fancy office and we want to tell our employees and clients that we’re high end.
So, if you’re selling to an agency that wants to be high end, you need to look and feel like the type of business that reflects this image.
Obviously a ‘business’ doesn’t make a decision, the people within it do. The person decides based on whether you fit the status of where her company wants to be. If she thinks that you don’t, or she thinks that what you sell won’t help them move towards that status, she’ll either be ignore, reject or treat you as a commodity.
This links to the social status of the person making the decision. She needs to make decisions that help her move up in social status. She won’t risk their status on your company.
Sales software into a large organisation
I once had a client who sold sales software to large enterprise. Their primary target was banks. As an early stage start-up, after months of hard work, they got a meeting with a large international bank, one of the largest in fact. The bank pulled the software apart, said it had good features but it wasn’t suitable for their business.
The software company asked, “what would this software need to do for you to take it into your bank?” The bank listed some features, the software company then asked “if we offered you a product that did all of those things today, would you take it?”. There was some back and forth, but eventually the software company were left with a blueprint of the sales software that they needed to build to sell to this bank.
Over the course of the next year they built the new features in, approached the bank again, and sold their software. With this large international bank as a client, they could go to the other banks with a clear message. We’re a sales software for large international banks like your own. This product is designed for your business, and we have another business, slightly higher up the social ladder than your own that uses our product.
The sales or marketing executive responsible for making the decision on behalf of the bank could now go to their boss and say “guess what, I’ve found a great piece of new software, it does everything we need to solve our sales problems and it’s being used by a competitor that is more famous than our bank.” It’s not risky for this sales executive to recommend the software to their boss, because if it fails, they don’t have the accountability and it doesn’t effect their social status. After all, the bank that we aspire to be took on the software, and if they made the wrong decision, it’s no wonder we did.
Are you helping people climb the ladder?
We know that the next time you pitch your business, the person at the other side of the table is weighing up whether you help them climb the ladder. Your job is to understand what signals help them make a risk free decision, from a social perspective, and create those signals around your business to make that happen.