Stop looking for the decision-maker: Put on your political glasses instead

Old clichés die hard. And in the world of selling it’s hard to find an older cliché than, “If you’re going to succeed in sales you have to find the ‘decision-maker!’”

Cliché you say? What’s wrong with looking for decision makers? Plenty! The very idea of a “decision maker” belies the reality of how things really get done inside companies.

It’s politics – properly defined and understood – that drives decisions.

And by the way, “dirty politics” is two words. True politics is simply about the ebb and flow of power inside companies and only occasionally involves the back-stabbing that is commonly associated with it.

It’s power, not title that matters

It’s hard to find the truly powerful people in companies. Margaret Thatcher was right when she quipped, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.” Contacts with big titles and low power are everywhere and are remarkably easy to find…they often come at you (and are the ones who say they are the decision maker). But those with big power (whether having a big or small title) are elusive, very elusive when it comes to meeting with salespeople.

Would you have the guts to do what Kim did?

The following is not a tale at all. It is a true and unembellished story. It illustrates my point.

Kim, a salesperson, works for a Fortune 500 company, a leading supplier of software and equipment for processing credit card transactions. Let’s call Kim’s firm Beta Company. For the last year or so, AlphaCard, a long-time customer of Beta, has been one of Kim’s key accounts.

Kim’s company recently developed a significant new advance in credit card processing software, a development so new that none of its competitors had comparable solutions. Ralph, Beta’s regional vice president of sales and Kim’s boss, thought he sniffed an opportunity. He pushed Kim to set up a meeting with Jim, AlphaCard’s vice president of operations.

“Get in there and talk to the economic buyer,” Ralph said. “Anybody can see how advanced our new software is. We’ve got to get it in front of the decision-maker before the folks over at ZetaSoft (Beta’s competitor) come up with their own version.”

But Kim held Ralph off. He became a little annoyed. It was so obvious, he thought, that she should strike while the iron was hot. It was all Kim could do to stay firm in her conviction that the time was not as ripe as Ralph thought.

Kim’s political strategy

Indeed, Kim had good reason for biding her time. Over the last few months she had been doing her homework. In particular, she had learned that AlphaCard was still in the throes of change since hiring a new president one year before.

Kim learned from her contacts that AlphaCard’s board had recruited its president from IBM, and – as one contact put it – given him marching orders to “tear down the silos, kill the country club atmosphere, and return the company to profitability.”

Kim wasn’t just absorbing random gossip. She was putting into practice her political savvy. She well knew that her new solution had to do more than make technical or business sense for AlphaCard; it had to make political sense.

She observed, analyzed, and asked careful questions. As a result, she was able to piece together the political dynamics. Slowly, one by one, the new president had been replacing most of AlphaCard’s senior management team with people of his own choosing – mostly people he brought over from IBM.

Further complicating the picture, most of the original people being replaced kept their jobs and often their titles. Only on very close inspection could one see that these incumbents had lost the lion’s share of the influence they had wielded a year earlier.

Kim’s nerves of steel

That was why Kim didn’t run to Jim, AlphaCard’s vice president of operations, with a sales pitch for Beta’s new software package. Yes, Jim had been with AlphaCard for many years, and most of the company’s employees worked under him. His was arguably the most strategic department in the company. And AlphaCard’s operations department was also the key end user of Beta’s new software.

Certainly, any decision to commit considerable financial resources to Kim’s software package would require the support of whoever headed that department. But everything Kim heard and saw of the changes underway at AlphaCard convinced her that Jim would not be the person to woo. After all, while Jim’s was the largest department in the company, it was also the largest “silo” that needed to be broken down. And, she reasoned, Jim may have been “chairman of the country club.”

“Let’s wait a month or so,” she told Ralph. “I want to see what other moves the president makes.” She explained her hunch that Jim would soon be history.

Ralph went ballistic! He was under pressure from Beta’s management for results. But he also knew that Kim was one of the best on his team. So, very reluctantly, he agreed to trust her instincts.

Political patience pays

He was glad he did. Six weeks after Ralph’s discussion with Kim, Jim was reassigned to the post of VP of special projects, a cul-de-sac job with a total of two people reporting to him. Replacing Jim as AlphaCard’s VP of operations was Ed, an executive recruited from – you guessed it – IBM.

Kim went from biding her time to taking action. Within weeks she was in front of Ed, positioning Beta Corp.’s new software development. She knew it wasn’t merely the superiority of the new product that would win the sale for Beta. Ed, she knew, would see in the deal an opportunity to quickly add a feather to his cap in his new position at AlphaCard.

The moral of the story: Simply kill the term “decision maker” and you’ve taken an important first step toward becoming politically savvy.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Delafield-based Stapleton Resources LLC ( He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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