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Finding The Decisionmaker

by David Brock on October 22nd, 2014

We want to focus our sales strategies on the Decision-maker.  Some have referred to that person as “VITO,”  the Very Important Top Officer.

Sales trainers tell us to call high, in the quest for finding the decision-maker.  We talk about gate keepers, influencers, recommenders, technical buyers, financial buyers, and any other label we can find.

Finding the decision-maker is tough!

Part of the problem, in complex B2B sales, there is seldom a decision-maker.  According to CEB, there are 5.4 decision-makers involved in today’s consensus sale.  Even then, they have a very difficult time coming to agreement.  CSO Insights reports only 45.9% of forecast deals actually close (in a win or loss).  That’s forecast deals, so pipeline deals look even worse.

There are a lot of things driving the consensus sale–some good, some….well.  Many of the decisions our customers are making are very difficult decisions.  They are trying to solve complex problems that span many parts of the organization.  More people are involved, more people need to be involved.  People are concerned with risk, they can’t afford to make a bad decision, organizationally or personally.

As my friend Donal Daly often points out–for us it’s only a win or loss of a deal.  For the customer, a bad decision could cost their job or have serious adverse impact on company performance.

More decisions are being pushed higher up the food chain for final approval–not so much regarding selection of a vendor, but for whether that’s a part of the business top management wants to invest in.  After all, they are trading investments across all functional groups and the whole organization.  Upgrading the company cafeteria may (and has) take priority over major manufacturing, engineering, software, systems investments.

So our challenge is no longer finding the decision-maker.  It’s become finding the decision-makers, as well as the extended network of people they rely on to advise them in making a decision (some may be outside the company).

Our challenge is even greater.  Once we have found those decision-makers, we have to help them buy.  Each one has different priorities, goals, agendas.  As they work as in a group, power and influence will ebb and flow depending on the dynamics of that group.  So facilitating their decision making process is critical—helping them decide how to decide–then helping facilitate the decision itself.

I’ll pause here, I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but I want to shift a little.

If we reflect on the complexity of decision making, and the increasing trend of “consensus buying,” then contrast that with many of the deals we see, something’s off.

In too many deal reviews, I see sales people focusing on too few people.  Usually, it’s our buddies and sponsors, even though they may not even be part of the decision-making group.  I challenge sales people, “For a decision like this, why aren’t there more people involved?”  The response is usually a frustrated, “Trust me Dave, She’s our guy!  We just need to focus on her, she will make the decision.”

Often, those are the deals that I later lead the loss reviews for.  We know it can’t be one person.  It may not be 5.4, but a number of people will be involved, and it’s our job to find those people and work with them.

Sometimes, I talk to a sales person who has had too heavy a dose of “Vito.”  That person will say, “He’s the top exec.  He’ll stuff the decision on the organization.  We don’t need to worry about anyone else.”  I’m sure sometimes that happens, but I think it’s rare.  I’ve been VITO in a lot of very big decisions.  I’d never stuff a decision–my people have to live with it, they have to buy into it, they have to make it work.  If I don’t involve them in the decision, if they aren’t totally engaged and aligned, we fail–I fail as a leader and business person.  So smart VITO’s never stuff a decision.  They may exercise a lot of influence, but they recognize it’s their teams that have to make it successful, so they push the teams to be deeply engaged.

So if you have a deal, and you think you are dealing with the one person–the decision-maker, know that you are likely to be wrong–even if the customer tells you, “I’m the decision-maker.”  Keep searching, there are more, it’s your job to find them, work with them.

If you are a manager, reviewing deals and your team has identified the decision-maker.  Suspect they haven’t looked hard enough, coach them on who else might be involved, challenge them to look for the real decision-makers.

We no longer can focus on finding the decision-maker.  We have to find and work with the decision-makers.

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  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    Nicely observed Dave.

    The challenge for the sales person, and the driver of likely pushback on your post, is bandwidth…

    Many sales people will perhaps have some empathy with your observation, but be thinking ‘cr@p! where am I going to find the time to research and connect with perhaps 2x-3x as many people as I usually engage with?

    It’s incumbent on sales leaders to enable sales reps to do this, as well as ‘merely’ encouraging them…

    …which connects back to an earlier post of yours, about the true role of sales leaders – which is to develop their teams, rather than be the ‘super sales rep’ that comes in at the last moment to ‘save the day’…

    • Martin: Great point, great pushback. Here’s how I think it works.

      By identifying and working with all the deicsionmakers, we drive our win rates (and no decision made avoidance) up. That means we have to chase fewer deals to make our numbers. Of course we create a problem for people like Mitch, that says, we need to chase all the deals, but now we have the business/economic rationale for adding sales people– a problem I know he’d love to have.

      Stated differently, isn’t it better to all on 2-3 times as many people in one deal–dramatically increasing our ability to win, rather than find/qualify 2-3 times more deals, just calling on the people we normally call on? I think there are huge time/effectiveness multipliers here.

      But the most important point is the role of managers–going beyond encouraging them, but coaching them. Helping them identify all the stakeholders, helping them access the stakeholders, helping them know what to talk about and how to engage them. It’s not easy stuff, and we can’t demand “Call on them,” we have to coach, develop, and support them.

      Thanks for the great comment. I feel another post coming on 😉

  2. Dave, we had this exact conversation last night and I’m forwarding your excellent post to the person I met with. One of the challenges in sales process design and individual sales opportunity management is pre-identifying all of the decision makers as that is different for each buying organization, changes within the same organization in future sales and may change during a sale. Training salespeople how to discover everyone in the buyer’s organization whose fingerprints are on the deal and reviewing that through the opportunity is a critical.

    Something I learned the hard way was finding out who the hidden deal killers are. In many cases, low-level employees can kill a deal the primary decision makers want to make. In manufacturing, the equipment operators often had that power. Disapproval of the ergonomics, the user interface, or even the color of the equipment was enough to kill the sale. Maintenance personnel’s dislike for the PM methods and protocol could kill a sale.

    Winning user buy-in rather than depending on VITO and the rest of the decision making team to do that for you can propel a sale. I think too many people rely on top-level decision makers and their champions to manage or even dictate that side of the sale.

    Many sales are lost behind closed doors. Opening those doors and becoming part of those secret meetings takes detective work, time and effort. But that’s the stuff that greased the wheels and helped us whip our competition.

    BTW, I forgot to reduce my comment to bullet points!

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