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The Myth Of The “Single Decisionmaker”

by David Brock on January 22nd, 2018

How many people are involved in the customer buying decision?

If you are a fan of CEBs research, the answer is 6.8.  Other research says there is always a single dominant decision-maker.  Still other research suggests there is a dominant influencer (or mobilizer), that drives the decision-making.

Too often, when I talk to sales people, I get similar feedback, some will say it’s a group, but there is one dominant person in the group.  Some will say, it is the most senior executive in whatever buying group they are involved with.

100% of the time, sales people will say, “I’m dealing with the right person…..”  even though that person may just be the person we are in contact with.  In reality, too often, we aren’t dealing with the right person or people.

So what’s the right answer?  Is it a group/consensus decision, is it a single, dominant individuals.  The research is split.

As usual, the answer, at least from my point of view, is “It depends.”  One can find data to support whatever position one wants to espouse (that’s the problem with consultants and research organizations).  But I think there are things that are more true than not–at least for complex B2B buying:

  1. There is a greater trend to having more people involved in the buying decision.  Whether we call this a consensus decision-making process or something else, the reality is these buying decisions touch on so many different parts of the organization, that more people are involved in expressing their needs, priorities, requirements, etc.  For example, any technology based decision, while much of the drive for the buying may be focused in a functional group, IT is likely to be involved in some way, since they will have to support it.  Finance may be involved in these decisions, because they have to make sure the funding is available, and may want to look at how the solution is actually acquired/what the payment stream might look like.  Procurement/sourcing may be involved because they may have to manage the contract/vendor relationship.
  2. While multiple people are likely to be involved, what’s their level of involvement?  For many, perhaps the majority, it may be nominal.  The impact on them may not be great, so while they might be part of the decision-making group, they aren’t deeply involved in the process and have no need to be deeply involved in the process.  There may be just a few people that need to be deeply involved or who are so passionate about the issue, they are choosing to be deeply involved.  These people can be the influencers, the mobilizers, the opinion leaders.  It’s important to identify these people and work as closely with them as possible.
  3. In any group, power and influence come into play.  Not everyone is “equal.”  Some of this may be by personal choice–an individual may not have a great “vested interest” in the decision.  Others may have great “vested interests” in the decision.  These vested interests may be based on business reasons–for example, these people are directly impacted by the decision.  Alternatively, they may be driven by personal agendas.  Some power and influence may be “legitimate” because of the role/title a person in the buying group might have.  And we know there is always the political/social influence that certain individuals might have.  As sales people, it’s critical to identify these people and their vested interests.  As sales people, we want to leverage these individuals as much as we can, both getting them to select us and getting them to use their influence in the buying group.
  4. There is, probably, a “single decision-maker.”  That is the person that says, “This is what we will be doing,” or the person that makes the executive commitment.  Many sales people think, “All we have to do is focus on that individual, and we win our deals.”  The problem is, very seldom will that individual make a decision that is in conflict with what the “team” wants.  In fact most executives leverage the team to make a decision/recommendation, to build their case in support of it, and to have the team present it to the executive.  In my own experience, I’ve been the decision-maker for a number of large purchases.  In one case, I was buying several millions in laptops, in another, several millions of sales training.  In both cases, I had vendors focusing on me, since I was the decision-maker.  What they didn’t believe, in spite of everything I and my team told them, was I was relying on teams in my organization to make the recommendations for these.  There were a number of reasons:
    1. I didn’t want to take the time to do the detailed analysis, research, and work to come up with the decision.
    2. The people most impacted by the decision were the represented by the teams I had put together, so I wanted to make sure the decision I made was the best for the group, not the best for me.
    3. While I may have had a different view than the team, I wanted to support the team.  I may have pushed back on them, having them rethink some of the issues, but ultimately, it was critical to have the team completely engaged, and the majority supporting the decision.  Again, they would be the people that needed to make this happen.
    4. I could have “stuffed” a decision, but then there was a high probability the people I “stuffed” the decision on would have made it fail.
    5. So while there may “technically” be a single decision-maker, most execs will not make a decision that is sharply different from their teams and they will rely on their teams for doing the work and business analysis to enable the exec to make that decision.
  5. In every decision, as the level of perceived risk gets higher, every executive will want to get support from their peers and their teams.  Both, the pragmatic issue of getting everyone’s buy in to minimize implementation risk, and to share the risk exposure.
  6. Many lazy sales people, will say, “I’m working with the decision-maker….”  In my experience, they are working with their contact, though that individual may have very little influence in the decision that will be made.

In my experience, while there may be a small number of people that may be driving a decision, or while there may be, technically, a single decision-maker; in complex B2B decisions it generally is a consensus process, and we have to be engaged with the most influential people in that process.

Having said all this, in every decision, there is always a case where there is the potential for a single decision-maker.  Despite how important the initiative/decision, despite how powerful the business case, despite what the biggest influencers say, every decision can be stopped by a single Veto—or “No.”  Too often, we are so focused on getting the “Yes’s,” that we overlook the one person that will say no.  And very often, the person that can stop a project/decision, is not the most powerful or influential person involved.

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