Buying Decision Making Process and Selling Through Influencers

Navigating the buying decision making process is one of the keys to selling effectively. Sometimes you’ll get to talk directly to decision makers, and sometimes you won’t.

The bottom line is that you won’t always have access to the person who controls the purse strings. In fact, there’s often more than one, or at least no single one.

The old model of approaching sales as if there’s a single decision maker is, often times, just plain wrong. Decision making is more disaggregated and consensus-driven, which means you can effectively sell through Influencers, especially if they’re one-step removed from Decision Makers, or even one of many Decision Makers.

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to know the difference between a junior Influencer and Decision Maker
  • Why ownership is the single most powerful thing you can give someone in the sale
  • Specific steps to take to sell more effectively through Influencers, and have them sell effectively on your behalf
  • Why being a co-conspirator is the smartest strategy you can try

The buying decision making process has a lot of players, especially at larger companies. One of the keys is to understand who exerts influence, and who’s part of the decision.

In the event you can’t talk directly with all decision makers – and you usually won’t be able to – the key is to create ownership so your Influencer can sell effectively and enthusiastically on your behalf.

There are specific steps you can take to help them get there. Helping them articulate their insights, giving them the tools they need to facilitate internal discussions, and helping them navigate the process are just a few.

Ultimately, you want to become a team with your key Influencers and Decision Makers so that, in some small way, you’re working together before a contract is even signed.


Full Episode Transcription

$25 million. That’s how much Rick Singer, a now infamous private college advisor, was paid by wealthy parents to help their kids get into exclusive universities. Now, I’m not making this up, this has been on front pages everywhere. And this obviously has big ramifications for the image and authenticity of top universities. Let’s forget about that for a second and focus on the scam itself.

Why is it so important for wealthy parents to risk felonies and personal devastation to get their kids into a top university. For me it wouldn’t be, but many see college as a virtual guarantee of future success.

Going to a top university has several benefits. One, it comes with a world-class network through the peers, other students there at the school, parents, the professors and alumni. Number two, it’s full of other smart kids who are likely to do great things in the future. And number three, it’s a resume builder. Companies recruit kids from the top university.

The problem with college of course is getting in. Once you get in, you’re golden, but getting in is difficult or even impossible for some kids. I didn’t go to a top-tier university and here you are listening to me now. Joke’s on you.

College admissions boards don’t disclose how they make decisions. They’re not accessible to the public and there’s very little influence you can have over the process. Enter Rick Singer. Rick promised parents a way into exclusive universities, a, quote, “back door,” that included rigged SAT tests, fraudulent soccer photos, and sports coaches on the take, all to help kids get into these renowned universities. Rick was an influencer, albeit one who was committing a crime.

In order to close your own deals, you’re sometimes faced with a similar situation. Working with someone who doesn’t ultimately make the decision about whether you win the business, but exerts some influence over it. You don’t necessarily know who’s involved or how much influence your influencer has in the first place, but it’s the best thing you’ve got to go on.

In this episode of Modern Sales, I’ll discuss some ways you can sell more effectively through influencers with some actionable ideas you can implement into your sales process right away.

Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners and salespeople, looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a health scoop of psychology, behavioral economics and sales studies, to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherill, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

You don’t always have access to the people who control the purse strings. What you’re selling may not be a top priority. Buying decisions are often made through consensus-driven decision making and decision makers want to protect their time and therefore limit their involvement as much as possible. Bottom line, you don’t always have access to the people who are making the decisions. It sucks, but it is the case, especially if you’re selling to large organizations.

The solution is to develop closer, more strategic relationships with influencers, if it’s not practical to work directly with decision makers.

Now, I wanna give you one note before I dig too deeply into this. Do not spend your time selling through influencers if they’re too far removed from the decision-making process. I suppose it’s wise for me to take a second to define what I mean by an influencer. So, an influencer, in my use of the term here in this episode, is someone who can directly influence and lobby on your behalf the decision makers in the process. And often an influencer is a decision maker in the process, but they are not the decision maker.

Now, sales in the old days, they would tell you only talk to people with the authority to make a decision. But as you probably know from your own organization, decisions just aren’t made in an authoritarian manner anymore in many cases. It’s often the case that many people are involved in the decision, and therefore it can be either consensus-driven or at least it happens in the presence of lots of other people.

So, ideally, your influencer is one of many decision makers. But if you’re working with a junior person who has now direct connection to the decision makers, I’m gonna use this LinkedIn degrees of connection idea. So, our influencers by definition are directly connected to the decision makers. So, if you’re talking to someone who’s two steps removed or three steps removed from a decision makers, we are not in a sales relationship, this is not an active-sales opportunity, what we would push for is access to either an influencer who’s one of many decision makers, or the decision makers themselves, in order to move this thing forward.

So, if you’re working with a junior person who has no decision-making power, and no direct connection to any other decision makers, and they weren’t instructed by a decision maker, or even influenced by an internal initiative to contact you, you have to explain to them how the process works. Here’s the thing, in many cases those folks won’t even know how buying is done within their own organization. They certainly don’t know how you sell, and so it’s okay to take this opportunity to explain to them how it typically works. And so rather than you being a know-it-all and showing up and telling them, “Hey, let me tell you all the reasons you’re wrong for going about it this way,” what you can say is, “Hey, when I’ve worked with other clients like your company, here’s how they typically bought.

Does this sound familiar? Does that sound like it might be possible?” The truth is they almost certainly don’t know exactly how buying is done within their own organization, and you can help them not only advance the discussed with you, but also understand the organization that they work in.”

So, now I wanna turn to some ideas for how you can better work with influencers, and I’ve got exactly eight of them. I’m gonna run through these, and give you some ideas about how you might be able to employ each.

The first thing that I want you to do is just simply ask for access. If you’re talking to an influencer who is not a decision maker, we definitely want access to a decision maker. Again, if you’re selling to really big companies, it’s possible that you won’t be talking to the right people immediately. I would be a little more patient with those. You can decide on whether or not the company is a fit through your qualification process, if they are, I’d definitely be more patient with those and not push too hard. But it’s okay to ask for access because you might just get it. So, asking for access early in the process is the first thing that I would recommend you do.

The next thing is to understand the differences between how different people have mandates within an organization. So, different titles will have different roles within the hierarchy, and you really have to sell to those differences. So, by way of example, a manager or a coordinator will be much more concerned with execution. They’ll be much more concerned with implementation, “How are we actually gonna do this stuff.” Whereas a director-level person, a VP-level person, certainly a sea-level person, will be much more concerned with strategy, “What should we do? What are the trade-offs? How would we approach this problem? How have others done this? What pitfalls did they face?” These are the kinds of questions that those folks are gonna be facing.

So, if you’re selling through an influencer, chances are they’re going to be lower on the hierarchy within a company, meaning they may be a little bit more concerned with the executional elements, and so you may have to speak to those elements more than the strategy elements in order to get them excited. But really understanding from them, just having them tell you about their job, about their role, about what their mandate is, about why they contacted you. That should give you the information you need to know in order to better understand the differences between them and some of their peers or even superiors within the company. But that’s a critical thing to understand really early in the process.

The third thing I would tell you, and I think this is the absolute biggest piece of advice I want you to take away from this entire podcast, so if you’re taking notes this is the time to put a giant star next to it, is to give them ownership. Include them in the process of constructing the details of the deal. Especially if you’re talking to someone who is one of many decision makers and is a key influencer in the process. Include them in the process. Don’t just tell them how you work, ask them, “What would be a perfect outcome for you? What would be a perfect project? How will that go?” One way that I like to do that in practical is rather than sending a proposal, rather than sending collateral and having them shop my collateral around, I like, because maybe I’m fast at it, is to put together a mind-map.

So, in one call I can generate a mind-map with something like 30 or 40 different points on it that summarizes what they want the project to be and what I understand the organizational needs to be. And that mind-map, as fast as it is for me to put that together, let’s say within 10 or 20 minutes, it has a little bit of a wow factor, which is nice, and I’ll record a video where I walk them through my understanding of their project and why I put the map together in this way. But I also give them a chance to give me feedback. I also give them a chance to say, “This is right on the money,” or, “We need to make some major changes,” or, “You forgot something,” or whatever. Basically I’m seeking alignment from them very early in the process so that when we get to a proposal stage, when we get to a stage of me giving them any kind of collateral, they have some ownership of how this whole thing came together.

Another way to do this is, a lot of people will ask you for a proposal early in the process, and if you know me at all and you’ve followed me here for a while, you know that I am very anti proposal early on. In fact, you can go back to episodes 11 and 12 to listen to more things I have to say about proposals. But the key thing I wanna get across is you don’t have to write a full proposal early in the process. What I tell people is, “Hey, if you’re looking for a proposal, why don’t I just put together a quick outline and then you can tell me if I’m on track or not?” This works exactly like the mind-map that I was just telling you about. It’s exactly the same idea. Rather than a formal proposal, I’m just gonna go put together a Google Doc, they can go in and add comments, they can either add changes to it, they can send me an email. However they wanna work and collaborate on this. But basically the big idea is I wanna give them ownership over how this thing is taking shape early on in the process.

The one thing you might find scary about that is you don’t want your client to dictate exactly how you work. But if you’ve done your job framing exactly how you work, framing the problem as you understand it, they’re going to be operating within those confines, and you’re gonna get back an outline or a mind-map that looks a lot like the original one that you handed them in the first place, but it comes with them feeling a sense of ownership. And I don’t say this in a manipulative way, that’s not my goal. I actually do want their feedback. But again, if I’m doing my job, I’m doing my active listening, I’m paying attention the what it is that they want, I’ve qualified the client, there’s a good chance I’m gonna get it pretty close to right the first time. But I also want them to have some buy-in and to feel some real ownership.

Ultimately, what that will do is make them more invested at every subsequent step of the way. So, giving them ownership, really, really critical.

The next step I have for you is to make them a star. Help them appear important to their boss. So, while you’re talking to them, they’re going to be sharing ideas with you constantly, things that are on their mind, things that they recognize could be better within their organization, initiatives that are happening at the organization, different changes that can be made within the organization.

And so when they have those good ideas, recognize them as they come up and include those ideas and remind them, when you do have a proposal or when you have a mind-map, let them know, “Hey, this thing that you said in our last call, I thought that was amazing and so we’re gonna include it here.” Remind them that that was their idea. And that’s not only going to solidify their ownership over that feeling, but it’s going to make them a star.

And if you do get access to decision makers in the process, which ultimately you’ll be much better off if you do have that, but if you can bring it to that point, you should still recognize the influencer in front of the decision makers. Make them a star, because they’re still going to be lobbying for you or against you in the background.

Related to that last point, I think it’s also critical to help your influencer articulate their insights. So, when you’re talking to them, you’ll be collecting key insights that they’re able to surface, but you might be a little bit better equipped at articulating. And that’s not necessarily because you’re so wonderful and they suck at describing or articulating their opinion, it’s simply because having a little bit of objectivity, being removed from the situation, gives you an advantage that they don’t have. You’re able to see things and summarize things in a way that is otherwise quite difficult for someone who’s close to the situation. This in my opinion is one of the key reasons that a lot of people hire consultants and service professionals. So, if you can help articulate their insights, you are providing huge value to them, and again you’re making them feel like a star, and you’re leaving a more positive, bigger impression on them in the first place, which is obviously a good thing for everybody.

The next thing that I want you to do is really understand the process. Ask your influencer how the decision is going to be made this time, or how decisions have historically been made, and how you can help accelerate the process. They’re potentially going to know quite a bit about how decisions are made internally, why some initiatives are successful and others aren’t, why some people are successful in selling and some aren’t. Really ask them who’s involved, what do they like to see, why is this a priority right now, how will you all get together and make this decision and make it final, how will you be evaluating vendors. All these kinds of questions will help you understand the process. And related to understanding the process, you want to give them the tools they need.

So, if they come back and tell you that the process works like this, they’re gonna go out and collect sales decks and collateral and proposals or whatever else that they’re going to collect, you’re going to need to give them some tools so that they can sell on your behalf. It’s at this point that you should ask them, “What is the best way for us to get them to say yes.” So, big shift here. This is what I call becoming co-conspirators.

You wanna work with your influencer and help them understand, “Hey, you and I are in this together. I want you to look like a superstar, you want to look like a superstar, and one of the ways that we can do that together is to become co-conspirators so we really deliver the absolute best project that your boss and your team could have.” So, asking them how decision makers on their side like to buy, and using a question like, “If your boss decided not to work with me, why would that be?” Asking that kind of question will help them think through the mental exercise of what could possibly go wrong. In project planning we call that a pre-mortem, and you can use that in sales too. You can basically ask them, “Hey, if this whole thing went sideways and got screwed up and we didn’t work together, why would that be?” And with that information, some of it you may be able to action, and wouldn’t you like the opportunity to do that? I hope so. It’s a loaded question, of course.

So, becoming co-conspirators will also influence your understanding and also their understanding of the tools that they will need in order to successfully bring this deal to a close. And maybe that means you’ll win the deal, maybe it doesn’t mean that, but the key thing and the awesome thing about all of that is it really aligns your interests. It aligns your interests with your influencer, it aligns your interests with the decision makers. And it helps the influencer understand that you are really working on your behalf. You’re the one giving them ownership, you’re there to understand the differences between their everyday life and the decision makers. You wanna make them a star. You’re helping them articulate their insights. And ultimately you wanna become co-conspirators so that the deal can get done and everybody looks great at the end of the day.

Those are my tips for selling through influencers. I hope this was helpful. If you’re getting something out of this podcast, I would ask you just a really simple easy favor, and that is tell someone that you’re listening to Modern Sales, tell them what you’re getting out of it, suggest that they subscribe. Another thing you can do to help me get the word out about this podcast, is leave a review on iTunes. Believe it or not, that still matters. You can do it from your IOS device or iTunes on your desktop.

I thank you once again for listening. My name is Liston. You can check me out at www.liston.io. And I hope you have a fantastic day.