IN A PERFECT WORLD, just one person representing the client would decide whether to buy your product or service. That individual would identify business needs, sift through the facts and be responsible for weighing up the options.
Your life would be much easier since you would know who had the power to decide, and you could focus on making a convincing case about your strengths and advantages. Unfortunately, most major prospective clients do not operate like this – and for good reason.
Think about how decisions are made in your own company. Usually, a group made up of individuals from different departments has the job of handling a significant purchase, and each person is expected to speak for specific interests or technical perspectives.
A shortlist of potential suppliers is drawn up, and discussions are held to assess the perceived benefits. One person may have the final say, but in most cases, the outcome is based largely on group consensus.
Reaching that consensus is all part of the buying process and, to an outsider, can be extremely complex and confusing.
However, since the decision-making process will have a direct impact on you, it is essential to do all you can to understand it and to have a clear plan for managing it.
There are four basic steps to be aware of in developing a successful strategy:
Identifying the right people
Early on, you have to encourage the client to say who will be involved in the decision. This does not mean that you should bluntly ask for the key names, as that may lead to a defensive response.
Assuming, however, that you have established a degree of rapport and credibility by asking the right questions, you should be able to get a good idea.
The “right” people are generally those affected by the purchase. They may have specific knowledge about the area you are discussing, be involved at an operating level, or have a say in the financial side of things.
All such people can sway a decision. Unless you get to know them, any amount of high-powered sales techniques, skilled questioning or persuasive arguments could fall on deaf ears, with the risk of not winning the business.
Getting to the right people
This is easier said than done. All of us have been in situations where we have been prevented from getting to a key influencer, let alone the decision maker.
The possible reasons are endless. Your contact may not have earned enough credibility, or your timing may be wrong. It may also happen that the contact you are relying on to present your case at a more senior level is not doing a good enough job.
The best advice is not to get into this position in the first place. This means handling the initial meeting so well that your contact wants to introduce you to other parts of the organisation. This can be done by building credibility, posing no threat and by selling the benefits of arranging further meetings.
At a more fundamental level, ask yourself whether the person you are dealing with should have been your first point of contact. It is easier to work downwards in an organisation than to climb up. Thorough research and persistence at the outset to ensure you are starting with the right person can avoid delays and frustrations later on.
Understanding each perspective
Before you can influence the right people, you have to understand them. Think about this from the following perspectives:
What is their function within the business? A sales director is probably responsible for increasing competitiveness and driving top-line results. A finance director is in charge of managing costs, reporting systems and the bottom line.
The same analysis can be applied to other roles in the organisation. But it is not enough just to look at job titles and make assumptions.
Find out about specific responsibilities, the current issues in each department and, most importantly, how performance is measured.
What is their part in the decision? There will be input from different sides. The influencers may be responsible for ensuring that proposals are up to standard and meet specifications.
However, people affected by the day-to-day implications of the decision will be asked for their views, while outside consultants or board members may be asked to give advice. The key is to understand the role that each person will play.
What are their issues, needs and wants? People are like icebergs in the sense that you only see a small part of the whole. Take every opportunity to understand what is important to each individual.
Find out their past ambitions, fears, concerns, past experiences, relationship with others and views of the project. If you cannot meet with every influencer, try to discover from others what makes them tick.
Adapting your message
In the end, you may have to influence two or three people, or for a major contract, perhaps dozens. The key is to recognise that everyone is different.
In the same way, you would deliver different sales messages to different companies, use various influencing strategies for each person involved in the decision. You should be consistent, but you must also appeal to each person's interest and concerns.
Talk about increasing revenue with the managing director; mention ways to reduce costs to the finance director; highlight improving the morale of the team to the sales director.
In each case, explain the relevant features and benefits of your solution that will have the most impact. Demonstrate in different ways that you have the credibility, capability and compatibility to solve the range of business issues.
Invest the energy and resources to make sure you identify the right people and follow the process through properly.
The more people within the organisation you have built rapport with, the better your chances of success.
In the end, business is about winning. There is no prize for coming second. Do your research, create a plan and carry it out methodically.
TIPS TO WIN
Sales professionals often aim too low when trying to establish new contacts with target companies. That is probably because they feel more comfortable working with technical or more junior managers who “talk their language”.
To sell effectively in today’s business environment, you need the skills and confidence to add value to a meeting with people at every level.
Previous experience with a client or industry can lead to incorrect assumptions about who will be involved in the decision and their level of influence.
The decision-making process varies between companies. It is based on the culture of the organisation – democratic or centralised – and any past knowledge of this type of purchase. It can also change over time. The managing director may have cast the deciding vote last year, but this year he may have passed responsibility to the finance director.
The approval process can also change along with the economy. In good times, authority is delegated, but when economic conditions worsen, those at the top want to be involved in every decision.
Therefore, never make assumptions based on past experiences. Also, the ultimate decision maker is not always the most senior executive. Find out how this decision will be made and devise a strategy accordingly.
Identify your allies
You do not want people supporting you within the organisation unless they are highly regarded by their colleagues. The objective should be to enlist the support of those with influence at the highest level and an interest in the outcome of the decision. These people can be powerful allies if they want you to win.
Get out front
What if there is one decision maker, a handful of senior influencers and a large number at the lower level? This calls for a particular strategic approach. Firstly, decide who to meet with as a priority and recognise you cannot meet everyone. A representative sample or a group meeting with individual departments may be sufficient.
Secondly, sell the idea of meeting these people to your primary contact, so they will make it happen. Finally, decide which combination will work best – for example, your senior partner with their managing director. Then, execute the plan.