The Single Most Important Factor in Making the Sale

By: Ago Cluytens

Think about the last sale you made. Now think about why you made that sale. Was it because of the superior quality of your service? Was it the technical wizardry of your engineers? The performance improvements you deliver to your clients? Or even your best-in-class after-sales support?

It wasn't any of those things.

How do I know? Because for most of my career, I've been in the buyer's seat—not that of the seller. I've signed off or influenced millions of dollars of corporate purchases. I've written RFPs and run beauty contests. And I've been pitched to (whether in an elevator or not) thousands of times.

And here is what I know: nine out of 10 buyers cannot really tell your offering apart from that of your nearest competitor (or two or three).

In spite of all of their apparent objectivity and transparency, RFP processes exist for one reason: to give buyers a plausible after-the-fact explanation of why they chose you over your competitor.

Note I didn't say they exist to give buyers a reason to choose you over someone else. The real reason they choose you and not your competitor is simple—it's you.

Selling Is Now a Dirty Word

In the research for his latest book To Sell Is Human, bestselling author Daniel Pink asked 9,057 survey respondents a simple question: When you think of sales or selling, what's the first word that comes to mind?

The three most commonly used words were (in descending order) pushy, yuck, and ugh. Out of the 25 most offered words, only five had a positive ring to them. Five.

When asked a slightly different variation of the same question (asking respondents to think in pictures rather than words), the most commonly used terms were car salesman, used car salesman, and suit.

I've talked about the "used car salesman" trauma before, but it is clear that the overwhelming majority of people continue to associate sales with untrustworthy behavior and trickery. Whether that is true or not is irrelevant. What matters in this case is perception, not reality. That means, perhaps paradoxically, the best way to make a sale is to stop selling.

80% of the Buying Happens When You Aren't in the Room

What's the first thing you do when considering a new purchase? According to Google's 2012 "Zero Moment Of Truth" study, 84% of all buyers gather information online before making a purchase.

Corporate executives are no different. Whether they first ask trusted peers and colleagues for a referral or not, the next stop is invariably your website. The quality of your online presence and thought leadership are a key determinant in deciding whether to invite you in.

You might be tempted to think this means the role of the seller in the purchasing process is greatly diminished. Not so.

Between 2010 and 2011, the number of sources buyers used to arrive at a decision doubled, from 5.27 to 10.4. It is well-known that beyond a certain point, "information" just becomes noise. What buyers need most is curation. They need a trusted ally who can help them create meaning out of the noise and help them make the decision that's right for them.

That's what happens in the last 20%. That's where you want to be. That's where you tip the scales to your advantage.

The 20% that Makes 80% of the Difference

In a recent conversation with a corporate executive who controls a budget of close to $20 million, I asked her a simple, straightforward question: "What is the first thing you look for when considering a new provider?" Her answer was telling: "a track record that indicates they have been able to achieve results and they can do so reliably again and again. That's it."

There was no mention of features and benefits, who referred whom, their brand, or their reputation. None of that. She simply stated the equivalent of a Freudian slip: "I need to know I can trust them to deliver."

In the How Clients Buy study, RAIN Group asked a group of 231 corporate buyers responsible for purchasing over $1.7 billion worth of professional services what they needed in order to feel comfortable with a service provider and engage their services. The most frequently cited answers were (in descending order): communication, experience, referrals/recommendations, and personal characteristics.

In other words, trust.

The Tipping Point: How to Win the Deal "80/20 style"

In a world where buyers conduct 80% of the purchasing process online, buyers use twice as many information sources as before, and the single most important factor that influences a buyer's ultimate decision is trust, what is the most important factor driving the sale?

You are. Advances in technology, information management, and marketing have not made sellers obsolete. They have made them more important than ever before. That's because none of them—by themselves—can inspire trust. Only you can.

Whether you are expected to generate new business fulltime or as part of your job, the #1 thing you can do to further the sale is to inspire trust within your buyer.

In a recent interview with fellow Contributing Editor Charles H. Green, a fundamental truth came to me. We used to say people buy from people they like. Not anymore.

Today, people buy from people they trust.

As RAIN Group's Practice Director for EMEA, Ago Cluytens is widely recognized as a thought leader on understanding the buyer's perspective in sales, as well as topics such as Insight Selling and selling to the C-suite and senior executives. You can learn more about Ago, read his blog, and watch him in action at and Or connect with Ago on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+.

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