Have you ever heard this sales adage: Never take “no” from someone who can’t say “yes?” There’s more than a kernel of wisdom in it, but this truism undoubtedly pre-dates the age of virtual corporations with horizontal organization charts describing the functions of an empowered workforce. In most complex selling situations, the first hurdle to overcome isn’t “no,” it’s identifying all the various players with something to say about the decision.
When it comes to identifying the people involved, I refer to decision “influencers” as well as decision “makers.” That’s because there are many people in the modern business structure who don’t have the authority to say either “yes” or “no” but whose opinions are solicited by the final decision makers. Even seemingly simple decisions often go through the influencer mill. This happens for a variety of reasons.
For one, a large number of executives today practice consensual management. The old autocratic “buck stops here” decision maker is out of sync with the latest in management theory. These modern executives believe (and rightly so) that involving more people in a decision improves the ultimate acceptance of that decision. If you’ve ever sold consulting services, for example, you know that the client staff members who are going to be affected by the project can destroy it if they don’t “buy in” early in the decision-making process.
There’s also a widespread belief that the more people involved in a decision, the better that decision will be. It’s a safety procedure practiced by decision makers who prefer to spread the risk among a larger group. Of course, decision making by committee has its downside, too. It tends to produce “safe” decisions because a group tends to grind all ideas down to the most acceptable level.
Group decisions may be safe, but they’re certainly not necessarily better. Each member of the group has his or her own agenda and will act to carry it out within the group with varying degrees of success. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the committee charged with designing a horse. Every member added the features they wanted. One suggested the beast have four legs and another made them long and added large, flat feet for traction on soft surfaces. Another insisted on a tail to shoo away flies while yet someone else modified it to not be bushy so maintenance would be lower. And so the process went through meeting after meeting until the committee to design a horse produced instead a camel.
Here’s a scary number: 27. That’s the number of “yes or no” interim decisions that need to be made in a situation where a committee of just three people is deciding whether to buy an item with three specifications (like size, color, and quantity) and where each person has to consider and agree/disagree with each of the others on each possible combination of specified features. And what’s really scary about that number is that it does not include the final yes or no buying decision! Unfortunately, sound management practice or not, decision-making committees are often part of the complex sale.
That’s one reason I suggest eliminating as many of the interim decisions as possible when you put your proposal together. If you give the committee just one decision to make (buy or don’t buy), you’ve eliminated all of the interim decisions they have to debate.
Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, motivating personnel, financial management, and business strategy.