Many enterprise software startups at some point have faced the invisible wall. For months, your sales team has done everything right. They’ve met with a prospect several times, provided them with demos, free trials, documentation, and references, and perhaps even signed a provisional contract. The stars are all aligned and then, suddenly, the deal falls apart. Someone has put the kibosh on the entire project. Who is this deal-blocker and what can software companies do to identify, support, and convince this person to move forward with a contract?
I call this person the Chief Objection Officer. Most software companies spend a lot of time and effort identifying their potential buyers and champions within an organization. They build personas and do targeted marketing to these individuals and then fine-tune their products to meet their needs. These targets may be VPs of engineering, data leaders, CTOs, CISOs, CMOs, or anyone else with decision-making authority. But what most software companies neglect to do during this exploratory phase is to identify the person who may block the entire deal. This person is the anti-champion with the power to scuttle a potential partnership. Like your potential deal-makers, these deal-breakers can have any title with decision-making power. Chief Objection Officers aren’t simply potential buyers who end up deciding your product is not the right fit, but are instead blockers-in-chief who can make department-wide or company-wide decisions. Thus, it’s critical for software companies to identify the Chief Objection Officers that might block deals and, then, address their concerns.
So how do you identify the Chief Objection Officer? The trick is to figure out the main pain points that arise for companies when considering deploying your solution, and then walk backwards to figure out which person these challenges impact the most. Here are four common paint points that your potential customers may face when considering your product.
Change is hard. Never underestimate the power of the status quo. Does implementing your product in one part of an organization, such as IT, force another department, such as HR, to change how they do their daily jobs? Think about which leaders will be most reluctant to make changes; these will likely not be your buyers, but instead the heads of departments most impacted by the implementation of your software. For example, a marketing team may love the ad targeting platform they use and thus a CMO will balk at new database software that would limit or change the way customer segment data is collected. Or field sales would object to new security infrastructure software that makes it harder for them to access the company network from their phones. The head of the department that will bear the brunt of change will often be a Chief Objection Officer.
My job is on the line. Another common pain point in deploying a new software solution is that one or more people’s jobs may become obsolete once it’s up and running. Perhaps your software streamlines and outsources most of a company’s accounts payable processes. Maybe your SaaS solution will replace an on-premise homegrown one that a team of developers has built and nurtured for years. Alternatively, think of a data extraction tool that is useful to the business user, but could very well impact the importance of the data team. Whenever a software product could result in an entire team feeling suddenly under threat, the person managing that team could be a Chief Objection Officer. Sometimes, your Chief Objection Officer is worried they or their team members will lose their jobs because they don’t have the skills needed to successfully operate your product. They worry that launching your cutting-edge application will expose their lack of tech skills in a certain area and make them obsolete, so they block the deployment.
Friction is not fun. Often, adding a new software application to a company’s stack can create friction. For example, a new marketing tool may need to collect sensitive customer data to do retargeting, so while the marketing department wants your product, the legal department has big reservations. Or maybe your new development tool would introduce vulnerabilities to a company’s engineering stack. Wherever your product could create some sort of legal, security, technical, or compliance friction, there will be a Chief Objection Officer who wants to block this purchase.
My workload will increase. Sometimes, the Chief Objection Officer blocking your deal is mostly just afraid that deploying your product will massively increase their workload. Similar to the person afraid of change, this person is afraid of being inundated with new work to support and maintain your solution. They may well have a point, as deploying new technology takes time and effort and usually one person or small team is in charge of the transition. This roadblock especially appears when the new software does not directly benefit a technology department, such as IT, DevOps, or engineering. Tech teams may well be willing to put in extra work to deploy a tool that will eventually help them do their jobs better, but they potentially don't want to work extra hours to integrate a marketing, HR, or sales tool that doesn’t directly benefit them.
How to win over Chief Objection Officers
The first step toward winning over Chief Objection Officers, so that they’ll go ahead and approve a deal, is to identify exactly who they are. To find them, software companies should carefully assess any of the potential pain points above, but also collect and analyze quantitative data. Carefully review when you won and lost deals; what reasons did the companies give for bowing out of a deal? If they didn’t give a reason, compare lost deals to closed deals to see how they differed in terms of company size, budgets, existing tech infrastructure, etc. Create a detailed data analysis of all of these factors to spot common denominators, which should help you pinpoint the most common Chief Objection Officers you encounter in the sales cycle.
Once you’ve identified one or more Chief Objection Officers, create a detailed persona for each one and list out all of their main objections. This will enable your sales team to engage in a more proactive, problem-solving approach to winning deals. Instead of handling objections as they arise, sales teams can proactively address them before they come up.
Addressing key concerns may take some heavy lifting on your company’s part, involving changing product features, onboarding practices, or support structures, or it may be as simple as improving how sales teams communicate about your product. You may have to improve reliability and scalability—and build an “uptime page” on your website to prove it—or you may have to improve usability or security. You will undoubtedly need to improve product documentation to address the key concerns of your main Chief Objection Officers, as well as foster lively community forums where potential users can get answers to common concerns and share excitement about your products.
Whatever changes to your product or communication methods are needed, it’s important to think strategically about how to address potential objections so they do not become deal-killers. Chief Objection Officers may seem like your sales teams’ foes, but they really aren’t. Instead, they are valuable personas who can help you improve your product and eventually close more deals with more companies. Their objections are simply areas you can improve in product development, marketing, communications, and support. Instead of writing off Chief Objection Officers as people who “don’t get it,” train your sales teams to value their feedback and win their trust. The best way to overcome objectors is to be proactive: make your product objection proof; arm your sales team with sales enablement strategies that reassure the main Chief Objection Officers you’ve identified; and improve communication, documentation, and support to head off objections before they occur.
Written by Oren Yunger an investor at GGV Capital