Salvaging the sale when a stakeholder leaves

My friend Jill was about to close a big sale. It had taken significant time to develop the proposal and a relationship with her customer, and today was the day. At last she could move past the sale and get on with delivery.

Bad news, her customer told her, he was off to another job so it didn’t feel right to sign off on what they’d agreed. He’d pass the project on to his replacement.

Project purgatory

The disappearing stakeholder is a frustratingly common scenario. You have reached a point to close the sale but your stakeholder has pulled the rug from beneath you and moved on.

Suddenly you find yourself in project purgatory – that awkward position between winning and losing.

It doesn’t just happen in a sales environment either. You may have worked on a project within your company only to see your key internal stakeholder vamoose.

When this happens it can feel worse than going back to square one because you’ve already sunk so much time and effort into the relationship. Where your motivation to get the business was peaking at the start of relationship, now it’s likely to be flattened.

Baton change

Your stakeholder may promise they will hand over the project, and may actually do so, but do not rely on their assurances. A smooth baton change is a rarity.

As with any relay, the baton change is the clumsiest part of the race and even if successful, slows things down. Your current stakeholder has to want to pass the baton and the new stakeholder has to want to take it.

1. Getting your current stakeholder to sign before they go

When your stakeholder tells you they are leaving, their mind is already on other matters. Even the most disciplined of people will start to remove themselves from a situation once they’ve made the decision to leave. Call it a shift in perspective, but their energy simply will not be focused on your project with the same intensity.

In my behavioural model I call this apathy – they are no longer engaged in the project. Where previously their professional stocks within the organisation would have risen for getting the project underway, now they have cashed in their chips and are less motivated to bother.

To address apathy in this scenario we need to make it seem easier to sign than hand it off to the new stakeholder. How?

  • Talk to them about how their team will be affected if the project is stalled. Will their staff lose work? Be under more pressure? Most people have good relationships with their colleagues and don’t want to be seen to leave them in the lurch.
  • Reference their legacy and how it would nice that all their hard work in conceptualising this project can be secured
  • Help them feel they have passed the baton by signing the contract and having you brief their successor
  • Take them to a farewell lunch which will encourage your good deed to be reciprocated

If you can’t get our current stakeholder to sign, let’s look at how to deal with the newbie.

2. Getting your new stakeholder to proceed

Your new stakeholder’s mind is awash with a thousand issues. If they are new to the business then they will be trying to establish who’s who in the zoo and where the best coffee is. If they are from within the business they will be grappling with their old role as well as this new one.

All three behavioural factors are at work in this scenario; apathy, paralysis and anxiety.

Apathy signals a lack of engagement in the project. When people are not personally invested in an idea, they tend to dismiss it. Known as the Toothbrush Principle (while everyone has an idea, no one wants to use someone else’s), it means new stakeholders will distance themselves from the project that their predecessor conceptualised.

Your efforts need therefore to be directed to getting them to ‘own’ the project, and this means talking with them about their objectives first, before outlining how your project can support them. Let them change elements of the project so it becomes their baby (choose the name, choose the timings etc.), and (if the mood is right) canvass misgivings you had about what their predecessor had defined for the project so they have license to ‘improve’ it.

Paralysis kicks in when people are confronted by too many decisions without clear parameters for making a choice. Your new stakeholder will tend to want lots of information from you and this can end up backfiring because they get overwhelmed. Put down the keyboard and pause the email! Instead set-up an initial briefing meeting where you can talk them through the project. Be sure to outline how your project fits into the tapestry of strategic initiatives and reference any similar projects that have been given the green light so the decision looks like a no-brainer.

Anxiety is part and parcel of a new role. Your stakeholder will be nervous about committing to a project they know little about. It is high reputational risk for them if it goes wrong.

Pointing to other similar projects the business has invested in is one way to mitigate anxiety because the decision becomes normalised.

Another way is to minimise the upfront commitment. Instead of signing up for the full contract, consider including go/no-go decision points where they can choose to proceed or not. This will help them trust you and feel in control of the project.

It seems simple, but don’t let small administrative anxieties cripple your project. Your newbie may be unsure of the internal process of engaging a supplier like you. If you can, help them by outlining who they need to talk to get the ball rolling (For example, “your predecessor mentioned we need to get the purchase order from Barry in accounts…”).

Importantly, give them something to fear if they do not proceed with the project. Reference the project’s strategic value, senior management support, competitive pressures – anything that makes them nervous about pulling out or delaying.

You can also consider holding back from doing any more work on the proposal. Once you’ve engaged them in the idea, let them have to work a bit for you. Make them a little nervous about mucking you around – take the proposal off the table or limit your availability.

You’ve already burnt a lot of time with this customer so don’t over invest.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.


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