Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How To Sell Despite Gatekeepers, Flak Catchers, And Other Obstacles

Many times you’ll have to fight your way through an army of flak catchers to get your proposal in front of the people who matter. Flak catchers, by the way, are those people noted author and social commentator Tom Wolfe identified as the ones sitting in the outer office whose job it is to intercept incoming shrapnel, complaints, and sales pitches to protect the real decision makers inside.

There’s a great temptation to try to blow right by the flak catchers and get to Mr. Big. The problem with this tactic is that it backfires too often. You never know just what the relationship between the two may be. Many a busy executive will take cues from an administrative assistant because they work so closely together day after day. And the assistant will know just how much power they have, too, and not hesitate to use it if they feel slighted in any way. Remember how much trouble Marie Antoinette got into because she brushed off the concerns of the little people.

You have to be careful, too, about job titles. Does the Senior Vice President of Marketing make the final advertising budget decisions? Does the Operations Manager buy the production line equipment—or does that job belong to the Purchasing Manager? Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends on the company and their practices. You obviously need to do your homework and ask lots of questions as you’re working your way through the maze.

The decision influencer that will really drive you crazy is the invisible one. I don’t know how many times I’ve worked for months on a prospect, making endless presentations to person after person only to get a final “no” because there was an unidentified decision influencer I missed along the way. You just never know and unfortunately you can’t count on the prospect to offer you all the guidance you’d like to have. Ask, ask, ask.

Another source of sales insanity is the self-appointed expert. Every prospect seems to have someone on staff whose main job responsibility is to pass negative judgment on every sales proposal. They always seem to be hardest on those proposals that didn’t start in their office, too, which is an interesting coincidence.

Some product and service lines draw these experts worse than others. More than two-thirds of American homes have computers, so you can count on at least half the prospect’s employees having an opinion on your product if you sell information systems. Everybody is an expert on advertising too, of course, since everybody is exposed to it every day.

The strategy I’ve adopted to deal with all these contingencies is to make the presentation to anybody who will listen to it, whether I think they’re directly involved in the decision or not. With a complex sale, you can never be sure who’s doing what or who has the stroke, so cover them all. Since a complex sale can take time (weeks, months, or even years) to complete, it’s not unheard of for someone you’ve pitched to get promoted, transferred, or terminated before the final decision is made. So cover all your bases and make the presentation to anybody you can corner long enough to hear it.

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.

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