The Decision Maker Myth
Are you talking to the right person?
Business development people often try to improve their sales prospects by approaching the “decision maker.” Usually this means “going straight to the top” and speaking directly to the “man in charge.” Why waste time with underlings and formalities?
In reality, this is rarely successful and usually does more harm than good. Not only is the so called “decision maker” unlikely to be sold, a clumsy approach is very likely to poison the well and decrease the likelihood of an eventual sale.
Many people stumble with this early in their career. The ego trip by passing mere mortals on an express trip to corporate Mount Olympus is more than most can resist. Some people never actually learn.
In any case, if you want to affect outcomes, you need to insert yourself inside the decision making structure, not try to circumvent it. Fortunately, there are some well researched principles that can guide you on your way to sales success.
A Personal Story
Early on in my career I was working on a desk that traded natural gas financial derivatives. I wanted to catch a “whale” – a big trader who would make me millions in commissions and make me a rising star.
Unfortunately, I soon found that grizzly oil and gas traders were less than enthusiastic about talking to freshly minted brokers in New York. One in particular used to growl at me every time I talked to him. I had no idea how to win over a guy who clearly couldn’t stand me.
One day an older trader took me aside and suggested: “Talk to the junior trader. If you can build a relationship with him, his boss will respect it.”
I took his advice and it worked. The junior trader was much more eager to talk to me and I even made some decent size trades with him. Moreover, when he went on vacation, I found his boss downright friendly and willing to accommodate me.
A Study in Conformity
Look at the picture below. Which of the lines on the right is the same length as the line on the left?
What if I told you it was A? Would you believe me?
How about if you were in a room with ten other people and you were the only one who didn’t think it was A?
Experiments performed by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s showed that when confronted with a majority opinion, people would give answers which they knew to be wrong. The majority not only rules, it influences.
No matter who has formal responsibility for a decision, opinions usually form out of a group dynamic. Even when you can get a “big boss” to agree to your proposal, you will find that it gets side tracked if others in the organization are opposed to your initiative.
Why Organization Charts are Maps to Nowhere
Top executives, like anyone else, are greatly influenced by the opinions of those around them. There are a lot more employees than managers, so significant power often resides lower down on the organization chart. In most cases, the lunatics really do run the asylum.
Successful salespeople know that influence on a purchase decision can be subtle. Whether the prospect is an ordinary consumer or an organization, approval and advice is usually sought from others.
Moreover, ecosystems of influence can be complex. A woman might seek advice from one support network for a shade of lipstick and another on how to choose an accounting firm for her company and still another for a doctor for her family.
Fortunately, a lot of research has been done that has yielded valuable insights into how networks of relationships work and how people are influenced.
Seeking Out Influence
To understand how decisions are made, it is crucial to understand the social networks that produce them. The following description is adapted from Orgnet, a management consultancy that specializes in analyzing organizations.
Connectors: The technical term is “Degree Centrality, but basically these are people who interact with lots of others in the organization. Some times they are outgoing, the life of the party. In other cases, they are just quietly helpful, the office “den mother” who everybody confides in.
In the above example, Diane is very likely to know quite a bit that goes on. Moreover, she probably plays a big role in shaping opinions around the office. Unfortunately, many managers are like Jane. They might have a lot of authority to make decisions, but surprisingly little role in what actually happens.
Gatekeepers: Heather might not be the life of the party, but her opinion carries a lot of weight. No matter how charming Diane might be, she will have to go through Heather to get to Ike or Jane. She doesn’t have a lot of connections herself, but she occupies a crucial place in the network and functions as a gatekeeper.
Closeness: Fernando and Garth don’t have as many connections as Diane and aren’t as well positioned as Heather, but they have fairly easy access to everyone in the network. Smokers in offices would tend to have a high closeness scores. Their influence is subtle, yet pervasive. If you want to spread a rumor, tell a smoker.
So if you wanted to get your story told, who would you tell it to: Diane, Heather, Fernando or Garth? The truth is that it can be any of those or even someone else like Ed or Carol. What’s most important is that you maximize your penetration into the network as a whole, not any particular person in it. Once again, the majority doesn’t just rule, it influences as well.
The nice thing about a network is that it can be entered from anywhere. As you begin to learn how it works better, you can work it more efficiently. However, by making blind assumptions about who matters and who doesn’t you are more likely to make yourself a pariah than to successfully exert influence.
Those who seek to go “straight to the top” often find themselves stuck on bottom.