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In-Depth

Reaching the Decision Maker

Getting past voice mail is a challenge. Persistence, a message focused on your customer -- not you -- and recognizing the diffusion of decision-making power are key. 

You could have the greatest SQL Server-based, Windows Server-optimized, Outlook-friendly, software-as-a-service-enabled offering the world has ever seen. But your company's not going anywhere unless you reach people inside potential customer companies with the authority to buy your solution.

Reaching decision makers seems harder than ever. Sales efforts are more scattershot, and communication is less personal, with voice mail and e-mail predominating over opportunities to make real connections with people.

Several experts, who write about techniques for reaching decision makers and consult with Microsoft partners on a regular basis, shared their tips and techniques for reaching the right person with Redmond Channel Partner magazine. What they say might surprise you.

Finding Decision Makers
Reaching decision makers is actually a two-part task. One part is finding them, the other is reaching them. But how do you find them?

The temptation to rush out and buy a database of leads can be overwhelming, but the first step is to turn the spotlight on yourself. The biggest treasure trove of information on the kind of decision makers who will actually want to buy your services or software is your own files.

"Get together with your team, and make a list of your top 10 customers. Rank them in order of revenue, profitability and ease of doing business, which is especially important," says Brian Carroll, author of Lead Generation for the Complex Sale, which McGraw Hill is publishing next month. "What I encourage people to do then is look at the attributes. Who was involved in the buying process? Who was the most interested?"

Called vertical marketing by Microsoft, and niche marketing by others, the process is generally used to identify the niches where you're having the most success. The same techniques can be extended to aligning your sales process with the person or job role in your company's prospects who historically shows the most interest in your product or service. "Let's say you specialize in Great Plains. Well, the CFO could be concerned about that," Carroll says. "But you may want to talk to the manufacturing people in the company, too."

While you're at it, looking at the other side can be an equally valuable exercise. Developing a list of your 10 worst engagements might reveal that the involvement of certain job roles tend to drag out the process.

So that's the homework on yourself. Now it's time to do some homework on your clients.

First, you need a broad understanding of the way things have changed within corporate America -- and that some of the sales wisdom from the old days doesn't hold up. Reaching decision makers is different now from the old days.

"[It's] an old sales technique [from] 20 years ago. If I meet with you, at the end of the meeting, will you be able to make a decision to go forward or not? If you couldn't get an answer to that, you wouldn't waste your time. That doesn't work so well anymore," says Mac McIntosh, a marketing consultant and columnist for RCP magazine. "I think in the old days the decision makers were, perhaps, more autocratic. They still did listen to their committee. But the committee today appears to have more influence."

Committee-based decisions are much more common now. This makes sales easier in some ways, and harder in others. It's harder to figure out who to talk to because there's usually not one person with all the power. On the other hand, it can be easier to instigate a productive conversation, because there might be a dozen people who can influence your sale. That also means sales are more complicated. You can't just convince one person. Suddenly, selling requires matching your a client's buying process.

How do you plug into that process? McIntosh recommends asking open-ended questions that your counterparts will answer:

  • How do decisions like this get made at your company?
  • Do you have a specific process or committee that's involved?
  • What departments and people are on the committee?

Next, get down to specifics at your prospect firm. There's something else that's different from 20 years ago: you've got the Internet as a research assistant. The Web is a great way to go deep into a company, finding as many contacts as you can.

Jill Konrath, a consultant and author of Selling to Big Companies, offers another suggestion that's worked for some Microsoft partners and other technology companies she's advised: work with local companies in your own niche, as long as they're not doing the same thing as you.

"If they're targeting the warehouse market, who else sells into the distribution channel? Who else sells into the retail stores in areas that are contiguous to what you're offering? You would want to become partners or friends with other people who sell to the same customer. You can share your knowledge," Konrath says.

Whether you research contacts online or in person, aim for depth. "Many people, at VARs especially, are targeting one or two individuals. I would rather see companies have 500 companies in their database rather than 2,000 or 3,000, with five contacts at each," Carroll says. "The key we found to getting sales moving is that more than one person is involved in the buying process. You need to figure out ways to get the conversation going. If it's just in one person's head, your sale's not going to happen."

Aside from researching the people, another key is to find triggering events that make a good entry point -- mergers, acquisitions, new offices, a new executive -- some internal change that you can relate to.

Crafting Your Message
Once you have an idea who you're going after inside a potential customer's company, it helps to try and put yourself in that person's head. "Most people don't realize what's going on in the corporate world. For public companies, Wall Street wants immediate results. The corporate decision maker that these people are trying to reach is swamped, overworked, as well as gun shy and risk-averse," Konrath says.

That's where all the research you did into your customers' business comes in. The research isn't just about identifying an opportunity -- it needs to form the bulk of what you talk about.

Konrath mentions a client who's had success selling an IT solution to investment banks. "The secret is [he] hardly mentioned his product or his company."

Delivering Your Message
Now that you've figured out who you want to talk to and what you want to say, the challenge becomes getting them to want to talk to you. Your main option is the telephone. It's a great tool -- except nobody answers.

"Most people leave this nice little voice mail message. 'Hi Bob, I'm a Microsoft partner. here's what we specialize in, I'd like to find out what you're doing in this area,'" says Konrath, adding that the usual fate for that type of message is deletion. She recommends a three-part formula for minding your phone manners:

  1. Within 10 seconds you must establish credibility -- the best ways are by referral or demonstrating knowledge of a firm by mentioning a triggering event.
  2. Building on the idea that Microsoft software is viewed as a commodity, you must move quickly to presenting your value proposition and the difference you can make -- not a message about the software or service you provide.
  3. Close the call with confidence. "When you say, 'I'd like to meet with you at your earliest convenience,' that sounds like groveling," Konrath says. Instead she recommends closing with something along the lines of, "Bob, we've made a real difference over at this company that I mentioned. We could make a real difference at yours. Let's get together."

Taking the Long View
So, you leave your beautifully crafted message backed by hours of research, and you never get called back. What now?

"The fact that nobody calls you back is of no significance. You have to mount a campaign, not one or two calls," Konrath says. Most sales require a minimum of seven to 10 touches, she says, and most people quit before five. Not all contacts are phone calls. They might be e-mailed white papers or invitations to Webinars. "There's going to come a point where they're going to answer the phone by mistake, or the letter comes in where you've included a white paper that's of value," she says.

Telephone Tradecraft

Telephone Tradecraft Shut out at the phone bank? Stuck in voice mail limbo? Here are some tips from our experts (who don't necessarily want to be associated with the suggestions).

  1. Ask for the sales department. Confess that you're not a prospect, and ask, one salesperson to another, for some help reaching the right person.
  2. Make an ally of the CEO's administrative assistant. That person can often direct you to the right person. They know how decisions get made. While they're deflecting your call from the boss, they also recognize things need to get done.
  3. Misdialing extension numbers -- on purpose. You're trying to reach Fred, who won't take your calls. You misdial and reach Sally. When Sally answers, you say, "Oh sorry, I was trying to reach Fred." This is the sneakiest technique of all because, depending on the company's phone system, when Sally transfers you, you'll show up on Fred's phone as Sally.
  4. Call before or after hours or on lunch break. People aren't as heavily scheduled and may pick up the phone.

One-to-many marketing e-mails also have a role -- in fact, they may be your only route to influence a final decision maker. Most sales target companies that are ready to buy now. Marketing e-mails can plant the seeds for the majority of companies that are not at that stage. "With Microsoft partners, what they have to do is figure out who are the right customers, put them in a database, and market them over and over again," McIntosh says. While the 1.5 percent response rates typical of marketing e-mails seem paltry, McIntosh points out that sending e-mails 12 times per year brings the response rate for the file to 12 percent to 18 percent.

Much sales traction is generated lower down the org chart, but CEOs too busy for personal pitches are often more receptive to receiving one-to-many style marketing e-mails. "Do I think the CEO will be the one who will bring me in? No. But he should be getting my newsletter, so when the committee comes in, he can say, 'Oh yeah, I've heard of them,'" McIntosh says.

Once you've gotten a champion within the company, it's important to recognize that the deal isn't done. Your champion, be it the general manager for manufacturing, the vice president for IT or the CFO, may end up being the one taking your solution before the committee or the final decision maker.

"I've seen cases where partners have sold the champion, but they haven't given the champion the tools to sell the boss. You need to arm them with information to help sell to the decision maker, because you may not be able to get to the decision maker yourself," McIntosh says.

Making a Connection
When it comes to selling, we live in interesting times. In the old days, keeping current on potential customers was an art form requiring intuition, research skill and networking. Now, search engines and moderately priced online tools give everyone nearly instant access to information that makes them as informed as company insiders.

Decision makers use technology, too, in the form of voice mail and e-mail. They wield those technological tools like a huge shield between them and the people selling them solutions. With electronic barriers, it can be that much harder to make that personal connection that causes the decision maker to consider your solution.

The experts we spoke with agree that getting beyond the delete key is a challenge, but clearly it can be done by using solid research to inform customer-centric messages that focus on business benefits, rather than technology features. Repeated tirelessly, with a constant focus on bringing valuable information tailored to the decision maker, you can get through.