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The Decision Maker Myth

2010 February 14

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.

– Greg

45 Responses leave one →
  1. John MacDonald permalink
    February 14, 2010

    Really enjoyed this one Greg. So often it’s easy to miss the way decisions are really made in an organization. Like most useful rules, it doesn’t prescribe an answer but rather an approach.

  2. February 14, 2010

    Another enjoyable article by Greg 🙂 I find myself looking forward to these. I remember my first job BC (before children), the organization I worked for had a clearly defined organizational chart (“maps to nowhere”) comprised of 5 head honchos (who reported to the highest chief aka CEO) and their subordinate staffs. I quickly learned that the clearest, most effective path to each head honcho was through his (and there was one her) executive secretary (yes – they were called secretaries in those days). Maybe it was my useless BA in Psychology (although it does look lovely on the wall in my parent’s house) that brought me to that conclusion or maybe it was my intuitive abilities that guided me towards majoring in Psychology – which came first – the chicken or the egg? I think those sales people who incorrectly try to get to the top decision makers might have a touch of arrogance also; that they not only don’t understand the decision-making process as you so eloquently described, but that some might also think they are wasting their valuable time by schmoozing with the underlings. I love the example you give of conformity and how the majority not only rules – it influences. Would you mind if I borrowed that section? Naturally I will name my source. Thanks again for another insightful article.

  3. February 15, 2010


    Great post again. I just wander if targeting more people in a company isn’t likely to worsen prospects of success when these people realize they all have been targeted. I mean they may think something like: “Well, why doesn’t this guy just call the CEO or Director X instead of wasting everybody’s time”? Wouldn’t they feel annoyed?


  4. February 15, 2010


    Thanks and nice to see you back!

    btw. I’d like to think of them as guidelines. I got a thing about rules. See here🙂

    – Greg

  5. February 15, 2010


    Thanks and feel free to use the section.

    Btw – in most organizations, an important power center is smokers. An enormous amount of information is transfered when they go outside:-)

    – Greg

  6. February 15, 2010


    It’s not about targeting a certain person, it’s about starting with one person and penetrating the entire organization. That’s one of the nice things about networks, they’re connected so you can get anywhere from a particular starting point.

    Just like my experience with the senior trader, he was only willing to talk to me when he felt that I had become an extension of his organization.

    – Greg

  7. February 15, 2010

    Great post Greg! And I completely agree with you that very often we do make a mistake by going trying to bypass the junior person.

    Talking of Gatekeepers – they too play an important role – not just in our lives – but more importantly in their boss’ lives. I have been associated with a 5 star hotel chain – and we noticed that very often, the gatekeeper wielded tremendous influence over the boss – s/he could actually swing decisions in our favor if treated right. They also acted as mood barometers – and would tell us if it was the correct time to talk to the boss or not.

    On one occasion, when I was with an advertising agency, we were trying to seek opinions of the Captains of The Industry about the impact of cellphones that were being launched for the first time in the country. This was years ago. A very senior industry leader was inaccessible during this exercise – since he was in a 2-day conference. But his opinion really mattered to us. We managed to find the solution to this impasse – we requested his secretary to catch her boss when he was free and ask him just 3 basic questions on our behalf. And she agreed! The next day she called us and gave us her boss’ responses to our questions!

    Bottom-line – the seemingly irritating gatekeeper is not just a gatekeeper – that person can also be a major influencer and very often a surrogate decision maker!

    Ajoy Vakil

  8. February 15, 2010


    Great story and very true!

    Another thing that people often overlook is that by entering the network where it is most accessible, you will be more easily be able to become part of the extended network yourself and, therefore, be able to influence events.

    – Greg

  9. February 15, 2010


    Excellent points. Building a base of support in a targeted organization is best accomplished through respect and understanding of the various employees’ roles and knowledge of their industry in general, and the company in particular. Building that support may be the slow way, but it is the means to establishing long term relationships that will support your efforts in the future, especially when problems arise. As a thirty-year veteran of sales and marketing, I can say that when I finally met the top people in an organization, they knew my name, the company I represented, and the work we had done on their behalf. Today there are a lot of consultants making money on C level sales programs. Those companies that have paid for this consultation would be better off if they made multiple copies of the practical and no nonsense information in your post and hand them out to their representatives.



  10. February 15, 2010


    That’s high praise.


    – Greg

  11. February 15, 2010


    Very interesting post. Back in the day, when sales was all about presenting your product we were all taught to go right to the top. After all, if you were going to regurgitate info why not do it at the top.

    But now, things are different. A consultative sales approach is more effective. And the cornerstone to consultative selling is information. Talking with as many people in an organization gets you lots of info and allows for a much more target sales approach.

    Thanks for the great article.


  12. Keir permalink
    February 15, 2010

    Greg, Bang on as usual. In fact every discussion with a person in an organization is of importance. It is another opportunity to create your and your company’s brand within an organization. It allows you to begin to understand their business culture and pick up tips that can be critical down the road – incumbent suppliers, length of contract left to go, names of team members, potential challenges and so on. Personal assistants are fantastic and should be given extra care!

  13. February 15, 2010

    Thanks, Greg

  14. February 15, 2010

    Great stuff. Just what I needed to hear. I’m finding out selling is an art as well as a science…

  15. February 15, 2010


    Great points! Especially the one about networking within the organization being a good way to collect information.


    – Greg

  16. February 15, 2010


    Glad to hear it! Thanks.

    – Greg

  17. February 15, 2010

    Great Post Greg.

    In the technology business, in which I do a lot of work, the mandate from sales is “sell high” “sell C level” and I have found that a) it’s very tough to get the “C” level person to listen B) they frequently are way above the decision process for the particular item being sold.

    Companies right size their sales process and target marketing to those who stand to benefit the most from what they are selling as a starting point.


  18. February 15, 2010


    Great points. And having an established network within the organization will increase your chances of success when you finally do reach “C” level (which you inevitably do if you’re successful).

    – Greg

  19. Jeremy permalink
    February 16, 2010

    Hey Greg,

    I have found the most productive sales method is to find the people in the business who are actually tasked with making “the strategy/plan” or whatever component part they are managing happen, i.e. the C-Level comes up with/signs off the idea, passes it down to the departmental managers who in turn distribute in whole or part to their team; the team members may also further delegate to more Jnr members. These guys have probably been briefed poorly by their colleagues, and just want to find suppliers who will make their job easy and allow them to go back to the team with answers.

    So, the next time you get an email from the “Office Assistant” they may have a more important job than you think!

    The moral of the story is treat everyone with respect and courtesy, don’t waste time, ask the right questions and you’ll soon find out who’s doing what.



  20. February 16, 2010


    It’s a nice moral:-)


    – Greg

  21. February 16, 2010

    One of the things I sometimes hear from event sponsor prospects is “We deal only with the ‘C level.’ Anybody else is a waste of our time.” Very seldom when I probe either the sponsor prospect or their targets do I find that such views are realistic, especially in the case of CIO’s who often report to people with more general admin titles. But it is a myth I run into.

  22. February 16, 2010


    As always, thanks for your input.

    – Greg

  23. February 16, 2010

    Ten years in sales, and never heard it in such a clear, structured and convincing way.

  24. February 16, 2010


    Wow! Thanks a lot.

    – Greg

  25. February 17, 2010

    Hey Greg,

    Insightful as ever! Your posts are indeed so refreshing..

    I completely agree with David Lamoureux about the consultants who train people on C Level Selling..In fact as a victim myself, I realised the consultant was basically regurgitating all that was printed in “Selling to VITO (Very Important Top Officer!!!) by Anthony Parinello…And I paid good money (nearly $200) to hear him say what could have been bought off Amazon for less than $10!!

    My experience has been that there is nothing more practical than plain old common sense to selling within organisations..Once we understand the dynamics of the purchasing process and the motivations of the different stakeholders, it is not too difficult at all..And all this without the “Decision Maker” not even being involved..

    And your observation about smokers is Bang On:-) !! Many a deal has been won by engaging with this tribe..


  26. February 17, 2010


    Thanks. I never heard of Selling to VITO. It’s only $9.32 on 🙂

    (Digital Tonto is still cheaper though)


  27. February 17, 2010

    Greg – you’re right – your blog is much better and far less expensive than books! Thanks for yet another great post.
    The approach you outlined is easily incorporated into the old idea of finding your internal coach – the person in the organization who believes in your solution enough to help you sell it internally.
    And regarding which level to sell to within an organization, I have found these factors to be useful guides:

    1) Budget approval levels – if you’re selling something which costs a million dollars, you’re going to need executive approval. If it costs less than $5,000, you need “only” line level approval.

    2) Solutions which span functional (departmental boundaries) or geographic locations. In these cases, you have to start with someone who has authority over both (or all) of the affected divisions or areas.

    But even in these cases, I would still begin by finding myself an internal coach: the person in the company whose problem my solution addresses. This person would be chosen according to your outlined strategy, in essence choosing someone who has the ear of the executive who will eventually sign my deal. To have a starting point for my pitch, I would pick the person in the organization who is experiencing the “pain” and who will be willing to go to bat for me if he or she believes my solution will make the pain go away. I would build my relationship with my new-found coach to the point where he or she feels comfortable enough with me as a potential supplier, to put me in front of the executive team so I can close my deal.
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..Holistic Websites – Does your site measure up? =-.

  28. February 17, 2010

    btw – I just noticed that my comment somehow attached our latest post – not something I would do automatically as this post has nothing to do with your post’s subject or my comment (which hopefully is related to your post!) I’m grateful for the exposure, but concerned because it looks, spammy. If this is something I set up accidentally, please remove it – if it’s by design on your part – THANKS!
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..Holistic Websites – Does your site measure up? =-.

  29. February 17, 2010


    Great advice! Thanks.

    – Greg

  30. February 17, 2010


    It’s a new plug-in I’ve added. I saw it on other sites and liked it.

    – Greg

  31. February 17, 2010

    It is neat indeed! Thanks again.
    .-= Eric Goldman´s last blog ..Holistic Websites – Does your site measure up? =-.

  32. Maria Abdullina permalink
    February 18, 2010

    Greg, thaks for a such illustrative post! You gave me the flavor of opinion makers…

  33. February 18, 2010

    Thanks Masha. Nice to see you here:-)

    – Greg

  34. Steve Burris permalink
    March 13, 2010

    Excellent – what i call good information !

  35. March 13, 2010


  36. Marama Castle-Brown permalink
    April 17, 2010

    Great insights thank you Greg. I must admit I read this post and had a ‘cringe’ moment as flashbacks of past ‘top down’ approaches that had ended in disaster for me. I took my learnings and adapted the way I approached things. I love the network matrix and you are right about smokers! In fact, I took up smoking in one company because the social-puffs belonged to different departments and the gathering of opinions gave me a broad view of what was going on. My clients at the time were media agencies (big drinkers and smokers) One of my biggest clients was a smoker, so often I would make an appointment to see him and he would happily meet me at his local cafe for a 30 minute catch up and ‘ciggie’ Just on the top down thing…I agree that one needs to do their research and consider where the opening in the network is to influence a decision from the right person/people but I have also had success with a direct approach to the decision maker. But only after doing my research and seriously considering the pro’s and cons. With that done, going straight to the top may actually be the right move.

  37. April 17, 2010


    Thanks. You are right that sometimes you can go directly to the decision maker, every organization is different (and besides, they have to talk to someone, right?). However, you’re always better off if you have built up a network in the organization first.

    – Greg

  38. Marama Castle-Brown permalink
    April 21, 2010

    Hi Greg

    Yes for sure. Going to the top should be well thought out and, like a parachute, check everything before you jump! I’ve been away on business so will catch up on your latests posts over a well earned vino on the weekend. Keep up the great posts.


  39. April 21, 2010


    Enjoy the weekend and the vino!

    – Greg

  40. Rebecca Fahlin permalink
    May 6, 2010

    Great article. I learned a lot. I agree. Sometimes the ones up on top, unfortunetly, don’t have a clue to wha’ts going on. It’s best to go to the person who is closer to where the action is rather than someone sitting in their ivory tower.

  41. May 6, 2010

    Thanks for saying so, Rebecca!

    – Greg

  42. May 18, 2010

    Hi Greg,
    Great post – so insightful, helpful and on the money.And I do agree with you. But I have to tell you, I am so exhausted from trying to “do it right”. 🙂
    In my experiences, the lunatics really are in charge!

  43. May 18, 2010

    Thanks Lisa. Have a great week.

    – Greg

  44. June 4, 2010


    Thanks for the post. I am getting into the marketing side of a non-profit business and it’s all new to me. This article is a big help! I have hit the gatekeeper wall many times. It is clear that I need to look at the other individuals in the organization as a way in to the decision maker.

    Thanks so much.

  45. June 5, 2010


    Glad to hear it. Good luck!

    – Greg

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