Identify the Key Decision Makers

One of the challenges that many business developers face is getting to the key decision-maker. The issues are very common. "I don't know who the decision-maker is." "I get intimidated by dealing with a senior level person." "I don't have credibility with people at that level." "All her calls are screened." When we look at these challenges we find that they fall into three major categories.

First, you may be having difficulty identifying the decision-maker. Secondly, you may be blocked from getting to the person who can really make the decision. Third, many people feel anxious or uncomfortable when they're actually in front of a senior level decision-maker. We'll discuss strategies to help you in all three of these areas.

Let's talk about the first area, identifying the decision-maker. Think about the people at your prospective client as falling into one of two groups. The first is the decision-maker. This may be a single individual, or if you sell a variety of products, there may be multiple decisions-makers. The decision-maker is the one who can, as the name would indicate, actually make the decision to buy your product or use your services.

The second, and much larger group, includes supervisors, users of the product and technical experts. We'll refer to this second group by the acronym S(supervisors)-U(users)-TE (technical experts) or SUTEs. These are people who can influence the purchasing decision but don't actually have the authority to make the decision. That doesn't mean that they're not important. However, their needs are different than those of the decision-maker, and we will need to cultivate our relationships with them differently. It's important that we don't get confused about who does what. Those who claim they are the decision-maker often do so in the hopes that we won't circumvent the process by going over their heads. Others claim to be the decision-maker for ego reasons, or simply because they feel that they might be able to make the decision. Unless we're sure about the level of influence each individual has in the company, it's very hard to maximize our effectiveness.

The first step is to make sure that we fully understand what we mean by decision-maker. The bottom line is that the decision-maker is the individual who can make the decision without further approval. Think of it this way, when you submit your invoice, who will have to sign off on it in order for you to get paid? That person is the decision-maker. Never lose sight of that target. That's not to say that you want to just exclusively focus on influencing him or her. That would short sighted. Decisions are not made in a vacuum and any good decision-maker is going to want input from those who are likely to be impacted by the decision to buy your product or service.

How do we identify the decision-makers? One method that we will discuss in more detail later, is to purchase contact names from a list broker. An alternative to this is to hire a recruiting researcher to develop an organization chart on a company that's a top prospect. The executive search community has used this practice for many years and there's no reasons why you can't make it work for you.

If you're targeting specific industries you might want to consider using any of the larger contact list brokers. They do a good job of keeping their information current and the price is very reasonable. Like most marketing firms we keep a list of these firms close at hand.

It's also important to remember that the decision-maker is likely to change over time. Just because a person is the decision-maker today, doesn't mean that they'll play the same role the next time around. There are a number of factors that will influence this. For example, the more you're asking them to spend-the higher the decision will be made in the organization. Similarly, as business conditions become more difficult, the higher the decision is likely to be made. Another factor is your personal history with the client. If the company knows you or your firm they may feel more comfortable delegating the purchasing decision down in the organization. If you're an unknown entity, the opposite is often true.

One of our clients sells a training program to a large multi-national bank. When they started working with the bank, the decision to use their service was made at an extremely high level. As the company became more comfortable with the supplier the decision making process became less arduous and was delegated to more junior level people.

This presents its own unique challenges. How does one remain in contact with the senior level individuals when they're no longer directly involved in the approval process? New reasons or excuses need to be created in order to stay in touch. Developing these high level relationships is so difficult and time consuming that one doesn't want them to lapse due to lack of contact. However, if I just call to thank the high level executive for renewing the contract she'll think that I'm wasting her time. Once you waste the time of someone at this level it's very hard to regain your credibility. Thus, success with a client creates its own set of challenges. We'll discuss creative strategies to deal with this situation shortly.

As we mentioned there is a second group of individuals who play a variety of roles in the decision. These are the people we referred to as the SUTEs. Who are they?

The SUTEs have varying degrees of influence ranging from considerable to negligible. They don't decide who wins, but they do have a say about who can play. In effect they limit the number of participants. The SUTEs tend to focus on the product itself and evaluate it based on factors such as, ease of use, compatibility with existing systems, or will your product make them look good in the eyes of their superiors? By contrast, the decision-makers tend to evaluate products or services from a broad strategic perspective. Issues for them might include, lowering overall costs, impact on profitability or gaining market share.

Where should you focus your initial efforts? At the decision-maker or on the SUTEs? It is far better to aim too high than too low. Starting at the top and working your way down is always preferable to attempting to push the boulder up the hill. This strategy also is helpful to avoid getting blocked from dealing with the decision-maker.

It is very difficult for a SUTE to shut you out from communicating with the decision-maker if you've already had interaction with him or her. Ultimately, your strategy should be to gain the confidence of the SUTE and convince her that you are truly looking for a win-win outcome. We'll discuss the specifics on how you do this shortly.

On your pad of paper, underneath where you wrote down the name of the account, write down the name of the person who you believe is the decision-maker. If you're uncertain about who the decision-maker is, simply write down DM with a large question mark next to it. This will remind you that finding out who that person is should be high on your list of priorities. Next write down at least three SUTEs for this account. These should be people who can influence the decision, although that level of influence is likely to vary from person to person. Don't feel constrained to write down the names of only three SUTEs. This is a good opportunity to list as many SUTEs as you can.

Once you've listed the decision-maker and a minimum of three SUTEs, assign to each of them a level of influence. This is simply whether you believe that the person has a high, medium or low influence on the buying decision. Obviously the person you've chosen as the decision-maker will have a high degree of influence. The level of influence for your three SUTEs may vary considerably. Naturally, this is only a snapshot of what you believe to be their levels of influence at this moment in time. As you learn new information about these people, or as their roles change, you'll want to adjust your contact strategy accordingly.


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