Sales professionals are lazy. That’s a good thing. Why work hard when you can work smart to get the sales results you want? And the smartest move any sales professional can make is figuring out who the decision maker is right at the start, before you start wasting time with gatekeepers.

Counter-intuitively, the decision maker isn’t necessarily the one who actually makes the decision. That’s a common misunderstanding. The decision maker typically rubber-stamps a decision that’s already been made by someone else. In many cases where I’m doing sales management consulting and there is already a sales director in the company, they’re the real person who makes the decisions.

As a sales coach in Vancouver, this comes up with clients a lot — and not always just with clients. Sometimes, I deal with it in my own sales consulting business.

Connecting sales professionals with people that make decisions

I got an unhappy reminder about the importance of identifying the decision maker recently, when I misunderstood who was the real decision-maker in the company. I was invited to present myself to the CEO, who admitted straight away that he left all sales strategy decisions to his sales director, who had exceeded expectations without fail every year for the previous 12 years (The problem in the sales pipeline that they were experiencing was a very recent phenomenon).

In these kinds of situations, the sales director may be standoff-ish, believing that my presence can undercut their authority – but I was pleasantly surprised that he was fully on board with the process and eager to work with me. Soon we were working together quite closely, putting together an overall strategy to present to the CEO together. After weeks of planning, we were an hour away from approval…

And then it fell through. I received the bad news over the phone from a very apologetic sales director. The CEO’s niece had just left a competitor’s company and he thought it would be a good plan to bring her on board to develop the new strategy. Weeks of strategizing down the drain…

I’m not certain if I mis-identified the decision-maker or just had some awful bad luck; after all, if we’d managed to hold off the family for another hour, the CEO would have rubber-stamped our grand strategy.

On the other hand, the CEO made the decision to hire his niece without really consulting with his own sales director about it – and in this case, the sales director was obligated to approve the CEO’s decision.

In actuality, the real decision-maker might have been the niece! All it took was one timely (or ill-timed, depending on your perspective) phone call and her own job aspirations were rubber-stamped by the CEO.

People Sales Professionals Should Try to Avoid in the Sales Process

The situation I described above was a tough break, but at the same time, I did manage to avoid the kinds of obvious gatekeepers that can hinder a sales process.

If you’re selling a technology solution, it may be tempting to go to the company’s IT manager, since they’ll be more likely to understand how your technology works. That’s a mistake. The decision maker in the company doesn’t need to know how it works – they need to know how it’s going to benefit them. If you’re clear on your technology solutions’ value proposition, you should be able to explain the benefits (eg. “It’s going to save your company $500,000 a year, minimum”) in a way that even non-technical top executives can understand.

Another common error is to go to middle management, thinking it’s easier to get to see them than the CEO who never seems to be available for a meeting. It’s a fatal mistake for a sales process – more often than not, you’re stuck because you have no real idea of what their relationship with the decision maker is. Shortcuts are dead-ends. The gatekeeper might not be able to get you the deal, they can certainly sabotage it.

Invest the time and energy that’s required to truly understand who the decision maker is in the organization. That’s where your conversation needs to start.