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Home » CEB Sales Blog, Customer Management, Sales & Service, Sales Force Management » Targeting the Decision Maker Is Not Always a Worthy Cause

Targeting the Decision Maker Is Not Always a Worthy Cause

Customer StakeholdersIf there’s one thing we can all likely agree on, it’s that at some point in the sale, you’ve got to find and get in front of the senior decision maker at the customer’s organization to get a deal done.  At a lot of member companies we work with, this very commonly takes the form of a “target the customer’s executive-suite” strategy.

In other words, let’s track down the customer contact that will own the decision, or at the bare minimum, figure out the people within the customer organization who can get us access to that person.

We’ve done some recent work at the Council that sheds interesting light on the effectiveness of this strategy.  In a survey of senior decision makers across several hundred of our members’ customer companies, it turns out, the thing senior contacts at customer organizations care about in any large deal is NOT a potential supplier’s solution.

Instead, the number one thing that these senior contacts care about is, in fact, their own company’s buy-in around that solution.  

This makes a lot of sense.  After all, what senior decision maker wants to spend a substantial amount of money and allocate scarce resources on the implementation of a new solution…only to find out that everyone’s against it?  That’s a recipe for disaster.

And so, as companies have moved to selling ever-more complex solutions (bigger deals, higher margins, higher price points), not surprisingly, decision-makers at customer organizations have been even more wary of going it alone.

As a result, today we live in a world where even when a sales rep does the hard work of clawing his or her way up to the corner office…makes an effective pitch…and gets the decision maker excited…that conversation still ends with the senior customer contact saying something like: “This looks great and we’re excited to partner with you, …but I’ll tell you what, before we can get this partnership finalized, I just need you to go talk to a few key members of my team, our procurement folks, and get final sign-off from our legal department…then I think we’ll be good to go!”

Welcome to the complex world we live in today, the world of the consensus sale.

So, what now?  If you’re that sales rep, what should you do?

Through our research this year about the different customer types you’re likely to run up against, we’ve found that relying on an old-school strategy of finding friendly, senior-level advocates, just doesn’t cut it.

If your goal is to get a deal done, you have to depart from the “decision-maker-only or bust” strategy, and start finding the customer contacts that can mobilize action internally, are effective at building consensus, and can own & architect change within their company.

And these valuable contacts aren’t always the senior decision-maker…

SEC Members, learn more about our newest research on customer stakeholders – read an executive summary or listen to a replay of our recent webinar on the topic.

Comments from the Network (6)

  1. Kathleen Hanley
    on October 13, 2011

    This is an interesting point of view on exectuve sponsorship.

  2. Derek Shebby
    on October 31, 2011

    I agree in part but I am concerned that your message may become lost in translation. When starting the complex challenger sale, from what I understand, it’s the vision and objectives of that decision maker that feed the direction of where that sale will go. During that process, you will be interacting with these other valuable contacts you mention but only during the mission that the decision maker sent you on to accomplish (whatever that may be).

    If we want to encourage our sales people to challenge the decision maker and work with them on the direction their organization needs to move in then we need to begin with the “decision maker or bust” strategy. If you fail to start at the top, in the beginning, you could be spending a lot of time looking to solve challenges in areas that the decision maker doesn’t find that important. This could result in a more lengthy sales cycle and a more product driven or price driven transaction.

    What are your thoughts?

  3. Rick Karlton
    on November 2, 2011

    Thank you for the comment, Derek.  In our research for the membership this year, we found that starting at the “top” at the customer organization (with the decision maker) isn’t always the right strategy, and sometimes not even possible.  Given the maturity of most of our members’ companies as well as the industries in which they operate in, the ability to just find customer opportunities where there are defined solutions-selling opportunities (as well as a defined decision maker with a clear vision and objectives) is becoming increasingly rare. 

    In our research of the the most successful sales reps in a business-to-business, complex sales environment, we found that high performers scour potential customer accounts up and down, working to engage senior contacts as well as key influencers.  In doing so, they’re not necessarily just looking for well-defined customer needs that align with the solution(s) they are trying to sell (great to find, but again, becoming increasingly rare), but instead, looking for instances where there is discontent with status quo.  These successful reps find customer contacts that attach to the new vision they are able to paint that challenges the current approach.  They then test these customer contacts to ensure they’re not only willing, but will ultimately be effective at driving consensus-based change inside their organization.  And senior decision makers aren’t always willing (and sometimes don’t have the skills necessary) to steward that kind of change.

  4. Derek Shebby
    on November 2, 2011

    It is more challenging to reach the decision maker at the top of the organization for many reasons. Some of these include, not having strong business acumen, knowledge of the industry and most importantly having great questioning skills. Beyond this, how do you get through all of the gatekeepers and layers protecting the C-Level in the first place? Why would a C-Level meet with you if you were product pushing or having a defined solution you want to sell? They have other people that handle that.

    The people at the top have the responsibility to the strategic vision and direction of their organization. They have a plan even though it may be abstract and at the 40,000 foot level for a sales person to grasp. In asking great questions, they can identify themselves as a consultant and find a way to help the C-Level through their organizational challenges. The more great questions our sales people ask and drill down, the more chances they have at discovering how it can connect to a possible decision relating to their products and services. It may not be obvious at how it could impact their organization.

    We’ve gone down that path of telling our sales force and managers that they do not have to meet with the person who is ultimately going to say yes because it was challenging to reach them. “They dont care about our products and services, that’s an IT decision.” But what we really did then was doing our people a disservice. It was an excuse we accepted but easily refuted when our business was lost because someone else had more talent in setting that appointment at the top and finding opportunity. Since then we have changed our approach and now coach and develop those individuals to improve their skill sets so they can meet and stay at the C-Level. What we’ve found is once you have the sponsorship of the top, then we win.

    There are situations where you can’t meet with the C-Level and must go through whatever sponsor and influencer you can get but should we be opening the doors to accepting that our sales people and managers dont need to work on that skill set? Should we be promoting the mixed message?

  5. John Taumoepeau
    on November 2, 2011


    I would be curious to know exactly what the details of your research covered. We certainly have opposing views here. I can’t say I have exact research, but I have a healthy amount of data and field work in constructing these sales.

  6. Rick Karlton
    on November 3, 2011

    All interesting points, Derek. As mentioned in my post, if there’s one thing we’d likely all agree on, it’s that at some point in the sale, you’ve got to find and get in front of the senior decision maker to get the deal done. There’s no question there.

    Also as discussed in the post, we ran a survey targeted at senior decision makers across several hundred of our members’ customer companies to understand what these contacts care about. It turns out, the number one thing they care about is their own company’s buy-in around that solution. Essentially, these senior contacts are pushing our sales reps into a consensus-based sale…whether we want to go there or not.

    At the end of the day, they may be the ones signing the check for a given supplier’s solution, yes. But, they aren’t necessarily the ones making the decision. Our research this year proposes that instead of focusing our sales folks exclusively on targeting the senior-most contact at all costs, we need to instead arm salespeople with the tools to help them find customer contacts that can mobilize action internally, are effective at building consensus, and can own & architect change within their company.

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