Sell to Accountable NOT Responsible

In every sales opportunity, buyers can be divided into two distinctly different roles.

Some individuals are accountable for making decisions while others are merely responsible for making decisions.

What’s the difference?

Accountable Buyers are those that can articulate specific and measurable outcomes they are committed to delivering to specific people within the organization over a given period of time.

Responsible Buyers are those that cannot articulate specific and measurable outcomes they are committed to delivering to specific people within the organization over a given period of time.

Have you heard the riddle?

There is a riddle I use to explain this concept.

In a ham and cheese omelet, what is the difference between the cow, the chicken, and the pig? The cow and the chicken have responsibility… the pig is accountable!

In case this requires some explaining, consider the cow and chicken contribute ingredients while the pig forfeits its life.

The distinction between Accountable Buyers and Responsible Buyers:

Every title or function within any company can be classified as one or the other.

Accountable Buyers may not even exist if the company culture as a whole eschews accountability

A Responsible Buyer may be the result of an individual not knowing what they are held accountable for OR may be the result of others failing to set and communicate accountabilities for them.

Examples of Accountable Buyers:
  • A VP of Customer Care tasked with building and presenting a plan to increase customer retention by 4% over the next 12 months. This plan is due to their CEO by November 30th.
  • An HR Director who has committed to reducing cost per hire from $20,000 to $15,000 within six months. Attainment of this objective represents 75% of their annual performance bonus (15% of their base salary.)
  • A VP of Sales who has promised the CEO they will reduce losses to their biggest competitor. Currently, two out of every three deals are lost to competition. The VP if sales has committed to reducing this number to one out of three deals within one year.
Examples of Responsible Buyers
  • A VP of Customer Care who believes improving customer retention is a top priority for the company and ‘top-of-mind’ for her boss the CEO.
  • An HR Director believes their current cost per hire is high. While unsure of the exact number he knows this is a top priority for the CEO.
  • A VP of Sales is looking to bring in a best of breed training program so sales reps can effectively deal with the urgent problem of losing to competitors. The current loss rate is unacceptably high and she needs to fix this immediately.
How Accountable Buyers and Responsible Buyers impact the sales process

First and foremost, you need to know which type of buyer you are speaking with.

Information gathered from Responsible Buyers lacks context within the rest of the organization. As such, information from Responsible Buyers represents their opinion rather than a fact.

It is possible to win an opportunity without interacting directly with a Responsible Buyer but only if there is an Accountable Buyer involved higher up the chain of command.

That said, selling through a Responsible Buyer significantly limits our leverage to drive urgency, influence preference over a competitor, or command a price premium.

Accountable Buyers on the other hand can be influenced based on the degree to which our solution is aligned to the specific, measurable, and time-bound objectives they are committed to achieving.

How to tell which kind of buyer you are talking with

Distinguishing between the two types of buyers is straightforward yet it requires the willingness to ask hard questions in a respectful way.

As stated previously, Accountable Buyers can articulate specific and measurable outcomes they must deliver to specific people within the organization over a given period of time.

Specific questions you can ask
  • What specific results have you been tasked with delivering between now and the end of the year? To whom are you accountable for these results?
  • What specific initiatives would the software/hardware/services we are discussing be tied to? What specific outcomes or results have been created as part of that initiative?
  • What metrics are used to measure your progress along the way and ultimately your success or failure?
  • To whom are you accountable for results? How and when do you meet with them to share progress?
  • How will you be rewarded for success? What happens if you do not achieve the desired result?


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