Forget the Decision Maker

April 14, 2015
Author: Kevin Doddrell
Forget the Decision Maker

Those of us who’ve been in business-to-business sales for a long time can easily recall being asked by our manager or coach about the ever-elusive decision maker. 

“Are you the decision maker?” We were even trained to ask our potential clients. Invariably, the answer we got back affirmed that they were and, if we were really fortunate, we’d be told there was no need to talk to anyone else. Coaching was focused on the premise that getting to the decision maker would result in winning the deal.

It’s amazing to me how prevalent this form of coaching is—even today—in major, complex sales situations. Unfortunately, the concept of a single decision maker causes more deals to be lost than won. 

In large, complex sales there are multiple individuals that have a part to play in the buying decision. Whenever there are multiple people involved in any form of decision-making, there are different levels of influence and politics at play. Ultimately though, how we identify the political landscape and how it’s leveraged is the key to sales success. If you want to win, forget the idea of a single decision maker and focus on these three steps instead:

  1. Identify all the individuals influencing the decision: 
    The formal decision-making process is usually more closely aligned to the organizational structure and the authority that individuals hold. However, there are also individuals that will have an informal influence on the decision from an external perspective. They don’t necessarily form part of the formal process but exert influence from the outside. They may be consultants, external experts, previous mentors, or even a regular golfing partner. 
  2. Identify the influence connections between these individuals:
    Some people have more influence than others. While a person might feel as though they need the complete buy-in from one individual, they may go out of their way to ignore or even go against the counsel from another person. These influence connections are created by a reasonably small number of observable patterns. For example, when a senior executive leaves one company to join another, they often rebuild their leadership team with previous allies who they’ve worked with in the past. When a person is drafted to follow another into a new organization, a very powerful influence is now in play. 
  3. Understand the way that we, as human beings, make decisions: 
    Leaders typically have a small number of critical business goals on which their performance is judged. Yet, every one of us in our professional role has a compelling desire to achieve something for our own sense of fulfillment. It’s the desire to be something, to achieve something, or to be recognized by someone that matters. This emotional driver is our personal agenda. Studies show that we tend to make decisions first on emotion and then retrospectively support the emotional decision with a stream of logical reasoning. Therefore, if we, as salespeople, only focus on the logical reasons to persuade in our direction, then we miss out on the primary driver for change—the emotional one. 

The importance of sales teams doing in-depth research on the personal agendas of the most powerful people in a sales cycle cannot be overstated, and yet it is one of the most common elements missing when deals are lost. So stop focusing on a single decision maker. The way to succeed is to understand all the individuals that are going to formally and informally influence the decision and then understand how to research and create business and emotional momentum through leveraging the political influences and personal agendas that are present in every sales situation.

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