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Start at the Top: Sell to the Decision Maker

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Think back to all your sales situations over the last year. How many meetings did you have with real decision makers versus day-to-day prospects who seemed to support your offering but lacked decision / budget authority?  How many of the latter type of situations did you win and lose?

My instinct is that your win rate is low if you are selling “below the line” – that is, selling to people that are not decision makers. If you are investing time and resources in having a lot of sales meetings with people who lack decision authority, you need to rethink your sales strategy. Your goal shouldn’t be more sales meetings; it should be setting up meetings with actual buyers.

Many salespeople struggle with starting at the top and selling to decision makers. Often, salespeople will take the path of least resistance and settle for meetings with influencers who are not driving decisions. These meetings may feel like stepping stones to meetings with real decision makers, but this strategy often does not lead to winning decisions. For various reasons ranging from corporate politics to personal insecurities, the original person with whom you meet will become a gatekeeper, preventing you from meeting higher up and building a sales relationship with the true decision maker.  Even if the day-to-day person is a true internal champion of your offering, you may find that your contributions to the sales process are limited beyond a certain point.  Who sells your product better – you or a day-to-day prospect?

Salespeople are frequently unable to stop this from happening. Once you open up a dialogue with an influencer who is not the end decision maker, your options become more limited, as you now must consider the influencer before you take any further action.  The influencer may not have the power to hire you, but he or she almost certainly has the power to get you removed from consideration.  Placing your fate with someone who is not the decision maker can cost you valuable time and leaves you more vulnerable to competitors. A winning strategy is to sell at the top.

Here are some of the benefits of selling to top executives:

You will get quicker decisions. Decisions are made at the top, so it makes perfect sense that decisive people tend to rise to the top of companies. In many cases, an executive’s seniority in a company can be measured by how many decisions that individual makes in a given day. If you start at the top, you will have a quicker sales process (as decisions are made much faster), and you will be able to focus your efforts on the next deal sooner. Also, decision makers tend to have a broader strategic view of their companies, putting them in the best position to assess the true value of your products or services (thereby enabling them to make more informed and quicker decisions).

Referrals from the top are more effective than “climbing the ladder”.  Even if the senior contact refers you to someone else in the organization that may not have final decision authority, this is a preferable position than selling directly to the lower level contact.  First of all, if the ultimate decision maker took the time to refer you to someone else for further vetting, you have made it past an important initial screen – the decision maker doesn’t believe that your offering is outside the realm of feasibility.  Second, your pitch is more likely to be taken seriously and acted upon by the lower level contact, since it has passed the initial scrutiny of the decision maker.  Finally, since the decision maker already understands the basics of what you are trying to sell, you won’t have to invest time in coaching your lower-level prospect about what to say or how to position your product to the decision-maker (and worrying about whether this will actually happen).

You will garner more candid and accurate Win Loss Analysis information. True decision makers provide more candid Win / Loss feedback information. For example, the reason you lose will not be because your contact was afraid to bring the initiative to his boss or because of internal politics. People at the top of organizations tend to be the best communicators and more upfront with feedback; communication is a key skill for executives. In addition, many decision makers have sales backgrounds and appreciate your position as a salesperson. When you get Win / Loss feedback directly from someone who understands sales, you will get an insightful perspective on why you win and lose (or about what you need to do in order to win more business).

Identifying and targeting the true decision maker is the responsibility of the salesperson. Consider adopting the following three strategies to focus your sales efforts on decision makers:

  • Perform more upfront prospect research to ensure that you are targeting the right level buyer for your sales meetings.
  • Focus outbound sales outreach on senior level contacts.
  • During initial sales discussions, ask prospects how the decision to purchase will be made. This will help you better identify your decision maker.

I often use the analogy of an airplane flight to make this point. Have you ever noticed that when you are flying in a plane at lower altitudes, the air is choppier and the plane tends to hit more turbulence? When the plane increases its altitude, the ride is smoother and hits fewer bumps. When you sell at the top, you will have less turbulence. Getting to the right person will speed up your sales process and allow you to close more business.

By, Richard Schroder is president of Anova Consulting Group, a leading market research firm focused on Win Loss Analysis and Customer Satisfaction Research.