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Finding The Decision Maker

Note: This blog post is from one of our featured guest bloggers, David Brock.  The post can also be found on Dave’s blog here.

As sales people, we are trained to ruthlessly seek out the decision maker and focus all our efforts on that individual.  Whether it’s to understand their needs, provide insight, pitch a solution, our focus is on finding the decision maker and locking in on that individual.

We’re trained to ask pointed questions like, “Are you the decision maker?”  There’s only one answer that a customer will give to that question–it’s “Yes,”  or the variant, “Yes, I’m involved in making the decision.”  As a side note, do we ever expect the customer to say, “No, I just had idle time on my hands and thought it would be interesting to spend it with a sales person on something I have no interest in.”

But as I review many sales situations, finding the decisionmaker (s) is a critical issue.  Too often, we can’t find the decisionmaker (s) or we can’t get access to them.  Here are some challenges I see sales people facing:

We focus our efforts through our friends/buddies (Read — the wrong people):  This is one of the biggest sales errors I encounter.  We tend to focus our sales efforts through the people we have always worked with, the people that have been our friends, and sponsors in the past.  While these are great relationships to nurture, and they may give some insights on the sales situation, if they aren’t important in the decision making process, we may be wasting our time.

We try to find “the” decisionmaker:  In larger organizations, more people may be involved in the decision and even more people can stop a decision.  We need to make sure we’ve determined who is involved in each decision, the nature of their involvement, what the personal win for them is, their attitudes toward us and the alternatives, and how they exercise power and influence.  We also need to understand who influences them.  In truth, we are dealing with a network of people having varying stakes in the decision, but all of whom are involved and who we must engage.  Ignoring them, focusing on the person who seem most senior or has the biggest title puts us at great risk to fail.

The customer doesn’t know how they will make a decision:  Unless you sell products and services that customers buy frequently, there’s a high probability they may not know how to buy.  They may not have the right people involved in the decision making process, the decision may be beyond their capabilities, responsibilities, or authority.  Often, sales people can provide great value in helping the customer organize to address an opportunity, make a decision, and buy.

Decision making is being pushed higher in the organization.  More an more, final decisions are being pushed higher in the organization.  Sometimes, unbelievably high.  As an example, not long ago, I had a conversation with the frustrated CMO of a Fortune 100 organization—he was the very top marketing guy in the company and managed a very large team of marketing and product managers.  His “signature authority” was limited to $50,000.  Despite his very senior level, he had to take many decisions to the CFO, the CEO, or even the board.

This poses a number of challenges to sales people.  We may simply (even with all our cleverest techniques) may not have access to the top decision makers.  We may “win” the decision at lower levels, but now we have to train the customer on how to sell up the food chain.  Many of our customers might be very uncomfortable with this.  They may lack the confidence, they may feel as though they are putting themselves at risk, or they may just do a bad job.  If we are to get a decision, we need to prepare our customers to be able to “sell” their decision to their executive teams.

Another thing may happen, the people we are working with may just run out of steam.  Going back to my friend, the CMO, he was very frustrated and was sharing his frustrations with me.  He had an outstanding proposal for some marketing programs from an agency.  They would cost several hundred thousand, but he was convinced they would produce great return.  He had the money in his budget to make the investment.  However, to get the decision approved, he would have to spend time with the CFO, the CEO, and 3 members of the board.  Rich told me, “I just don’t have the time or energy to get this thing done.  While I think the program will produce great results, the hassle of getting a decision made it just too big.  This is a tough position—we may have little recourse, but we have to convince them to take action, then work with them to prepare them to sell the decision.  Often, that requires us understanding what is important to the people they have to convince and shaping the arguments to address those issues.

There are lots of vetoer’s:  This is an unfortunate reality—there may be more people empowered with stopping something than making a decision and taking action.  We may not be able to identify all of them, but it’s dangerous to ignore them.  We may not have to convince them, we may just need to have them not exercise their veto rights.

So what’s a sales person to do?  Finding and engaging all the people involved in the decision making process is critical to moving business opportunities further.  It’s probably not as simple as “calling higher.”  As my CMO friend would point out, he reported to the CEO and was virtually as high up the food chain as he could get, but he still had constraints that he had to operate within.

There are many people involved in the decision making process, we need to engage many of them, we need to understand how power and influence will be exercised and invest more time (though not exclusively) in those with great power and influence for the specific decision we want made.

We have to prepare our customers to “sell” within the organization.  There will be decision-makers we simply will not be able to reach, so we have to prepare our customers to sell within their organization.

It’s no use ignoring this or trying to deny this.  Getting decisions made is getting more difficult.  It’s our job to navigate the process and help the customer with their decision-making process.

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