This month’s topic comes from our CEO Allison Shapira’s latest article in the Harvard Business Review

How can you persuade a client or senior executive to spend money when budgets are tight? 

Perhaps you are an audit director persuading a business head to take a costly step to avoid the wrath of regulators; an HR executive lobbying your internal client to invest in training while they are going through layoffs; or an engineer trying to convince your VP to prioritize your project over others. 

No matter your title or job function, each of us is in a sales role. As Daniel Pink describes in To Sell Is Human, at some point we will need to sell our ideas, projects, or recommendations to others. Each of us can develop the ability to influence, often without having formal authority. It requires a delicate balance of relationship-building, negotiating, and persuasive communication skills. Over the past 20 years of teaching these topics, here is what I’ve found to be most effective.

1) Start with stakeholder analysis.

In the HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations, Ken Haemer says, “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it ‘to whom it may concern.’” 

Start by talking to the people you seek to influence before making your case. Ask questions to understand what’s going on in their organization, what challenges they’re facing in their industry, and what their individual goals are for their role. Asking someone to spend money can be tough, and they might be worried about their own jobs; try to understand what they’re going through before you ask them to take action.

2) Get crystal clear about the benefits of your offering.

While it may be obvious to us why an organization should take a particular action, it’s not always clear to the decision-makers. After your stakeholder analysis, crystallize what you have learned about the audience you need to convince. 

What are the benefits to them or the organization if they make this investment? For instance, if your service will save a client money, be prepared to show how much they can expect to save. If it will reduce turnover, quantify by how much. Demonstrating a cost-reducing impact is critically important when budgets are lean. The arguments have to be persuasive to your client and those they report to, not just to you.

3) Connect with a sense of timeliness or urgency.

When we teach persuasion, we teach people to answer the question, “Why now?” when convincing others to take action. The scarcity principle of influence by Robert Cialdini suggests using loss language to demonstrate why it’s important to take immediate action. What costs will your audience incur by failing to take action? 

For example, if you’re convincing a client to buy your product or service, how is their indecision costing them money? How can you demonstrate to them that they can’t afford not to take advantage of your service? This demo video created by professional speaker Traci Brown makes a compelling case for why companies should hire her.

4) Look for social proof.

We are influenced by others who are in similar situations. What other organizations are already taking action, and how can you demonstrate that your product or recommended project is benefiting them? 

For instance, if you’d like to make the case for training amidst layoffs, and one of your main competitors is investing in training, you could explain that your competitor is going to retain more of their top talent through this offering as opposed to going into complete austerity measures. You could suggest training to bring teams together and foster a sense of trust and connection, even amidst the uncertainty of layoffs.

5) Anticipate their objections.

One of my favorite persuasive tools is the “I know what you’re thinking” strategy. Use your knowledge of your client or industry to relate to what may be holding them back. 

You could use the “Feel, felt, found” technique to say something like, “I can imagine it must be tough to get approval for a program like this. We’ve seen other organizations struggle with this as well, and we’ve found that by framing the program through the lens of retention and succession planning, they were able to get approval.” When you demonstrate that you can understand what’s on their mind, you will build trust.

6) Provide a clear next step.

So often, the hardest part of the persuasive process is making the ask. When we teach persuasive presentations, we recommend a clear call to action that outlines next steps. How can you anticipate the client’s next steps and provide a clear path that removes potential barriers?

Say something like, “When we decide to move forward, our next steps will be the following.” This helps the decision-maker see themselves in the process and makes it easier to say yes.

Putting It All Together

For an example of these six steps in action, I turned to my colleague Orit Rozenblum, an experienced sales executive. 

Orit practices consultative selling, when a sales professional acts more like an adviser than a salesperson: instead of pushing a specific product, they will first seek to understand their potential customers’ pain points before recommending a variety of solutions based on their customers’ needs.

In her previous role, Orit worked for a company that sold an innovative technology solution to sales professionals. She told me about a new client she was targeting within an SAP 100 technology company that was already a customer. Rather than the normal offering her company had provided, Orit wanted to suggest a more complex and expensive solution. The new client was having a hard time getting approval for it — it was a big expense and their sales numbers weren’t looking great.

Let’s look at how Orit applied the steps we suggest above:

Stakeholder analysis: Orit started the conversation by putting aside budgets and focusing on value, in an effort to understand the client’s underlying pain point. When she explained it to me, Orit said, “You can’t just call a customer and say, ‘Tell me about your pain.’ It takes a few calls, conversations, to get deeper and deeper in the consultative selling process.”

Crystal-clear benefits: With that information, Orit prepared for a new conversation that addressed her client’s pain point and how her company’s solution could help solve it. This made it easier for her client to talk to their manager. 

Urgency: The client’s biggest customer event of the year was coming up, and the company wanted to make a powerful impression. Orit positioned her solution to show the client’s customers the value they provided in the industry. 

Social proof: Orit included information on how her solution was helping other sales organizations: identifying what their problem was, what value her company provided, and the ultimate outcome. 

Clear next steps: Orit put together a plan for the entire team, including for her client and his manager who had control of the budget. She also anticipated their objections by including how they could work with different departments on implementation, so that when they were ready, they knew exactly how to proceed.

So what was the outcome?

Orit said, “It didn’t happen overnight — it took three months — but the client succeeded in getting the money. Two months into the project, the client said to me, ‘Orit, it was hard to get the money as an expense. But because we used your software in the quarter and saw the ROI and the value, we don’t see it as an expense anymore, we see it as an investment. Our sales people are using it and it’s working. We get more warm leads, and it shortens the sales cycle because our customers are already engaged and come prepared with questions.’”

Orit’s final words during our conversation were, “If you can solve a real problem for someone, even when budgets are tight, they will find the budget for it.”

Persuasion is not a speech, it’s a process — a process of learning about your audience, earning their trust, and building a case that takes into account their interests. These skills are important in any situation, and essential in times of limited resources.