Subscribe to The Art & Science of Complex Sales

    Applying the lessons of mycorrhizal fungus to the problems of sellers and buyers

    New Call-to-action

    Ever since my son told me about how mycorrhizal fungi work with trees to exchange nutrients, I have been fascinated by the parallels between fungi and the sales profession. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniella Floss about her work understanding the relationships between plants and fungi, which you can read about here.

    This past week, I interviewed sales expert Dave Brock to get his insights into how sellers and buyers are like (and unlike) fungi and plants, and he had some pretty interesting things to say.

    Who is the plant, and who is the fungus?

    One of the first things Brock said in our conversation was: “Who is the plant and who is the fungus?”

    In the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi, the plant sends out a signal that they are in need of nutrients that they either can’t find or can’t produce for themselves. In the soil, there are spores of fungus that can produce those nutrients, but who need resources from the plants in order to grow and reproduce. When the plants send out their signal, the fungi receive the signal and come “knocking on the door” of the plant to offer their “services.”

    If this conversation goes well, the fungus sends hyphae - which are a sort of thread-like structure - that penetrate the roots of the plant, and the exchange of nutrients begins. The fungus can grow quite large and interconnect with other fungi that are connected to other plants, and massive networks form that help regulate the health of the ecosystem.

    You have to send out signals that entice buyers to think differently about their problems.
    Dave Brock

    In short - it’s a win-win situation. When I first started thinking about this relationship, I thought about the fungus as the seller and the plant as the buyer. The buyer needs something, and the fungus comes knocking on the door to offer it. But Brock challenged this idea, pointing out that buyers often don’t know that they need something, and so they don’t send out signals asking for it.

    On the other hand, sellers do know what they need - revenue. Thought of this way, the seller is sending out the signal and the buyer is deciding whether to knock on the door. In order for this to work, of course, the seller must send out a signal that the buyer is interested in. So, how do sellers send out messages that get buyers to knock on the door?

    Plants won’t ask for nutrients that they don’t need

    Flipping the analogy back for a moment and thinking of the buyer as the plant, recognize that buyers don’t go looking for products and services that they don’t need. They’ll only buy if it’s something they can’t obtain more effectively internally or from another seller.

    When thinking about the messages that you, as the plant, send out to the fungi (buyers), remember that buyers aren’t going to care about your messaging if they don’t need what you have, or if they can do it better or more effectively than you can.

    This returns us to a customer-centric approach, that begins with what the buyer is actually missing, and what will benefit them and help them grow. When we send out signals, are we sending it in an area where the fungi need what we’re offering? Are we sending our signals to the right places?

    Orchids don’t get a warm welcome

    The relationship between fungi and plants is a mutually beneficial one - but it’s not the only type of relationship in the plant world. In some parts of the world, there are specific orchids that extract nutrients from plants without giving anything back. This parasitic relationship is not healthy for the plants that are preyed on.

    Some salespeople are like orchids when they push products that don’t provide value, and manipulate customers into buying things they don’t need or that aren’t the right fit. The orchid approach might work in the short term, but it doesn’t lead to long-lasting beneficial relationships and it eventually depletes resources.

    Fungal networks warn plants about pests

    When beneficial fungi develop large networks among plants, they can provide an additional benefit to the plants - communications. Some have called it the Wood Wide Web because it operates much like the modern Internet - plants connected through fungi to other plants can communicate with any plants that are connected into the same network.

    For sellers, this can be good news or bad news. If you’re an orchid, or a bark burrowing beetle, for instance - the fungal networks operate to warn others in the network about your presence. Then other plants can protect themselves with a variety of chemicals and other defenses.

    The same thing happens in sales, when we employ manipulative or unethical practices. Our clients and prospects have networks, just like mycorrhizal fungi, and they do spread the word.

    How do you send the right signals?

    Brock teaches and trains his clients in helping customers to see things in a new way. Most of the time, sellers are invisible to buyers. And very often, the buyer doesn’t know that they need something - let alone, what they need.

    “You have to send out signals that entice them to think differently about their problems,” says Brock. “Get them to decide that they need what you have.”

    That begins by understanding the buyer’s business, and becoming true consultants that help them uncover problems and find new ways to think about them.

    Mutual interdependence is the key to long-lasting and productive relationships

    In the world of plants and fungus, a single successful connection between a fungus and a plant can lead to more connections. And as these connections grow, they can eventually span entire forests and even continents.

    This is the result of deep, mutual interdependence. In the buying and selling world, this is also how we grow strong and profitable relationships with our clients. In the world of account management, this can look like reaching out to additional stakeholders and members of the client organization, to spread out communication and look for more opportunities to help. It can look like expanding our partner networks for mutual interdependence.

    And then, just as the “plants” can warn each other about parasites and pests, so too these fungal networks can spread the word about these mutually beneficial relationships that we build.

    “When you establish the deep relationship where each is getting the nutrients they need,” says Brock, “those become very long term and profitable relationships. They become strategic partnerships.”

    You can listen to the rest of the interview here, and connect with Dave Brock on LinkedIn.

    To find out more about how Membrain can help your sales teams send out the right signals and consistently build mutually beneficial relationships, contact me for a demonstration.

    George Brontén
    Published September 15, 2021
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals and the host of the Stop Killing Deals webinar and podcast series.

    Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn