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Opinion: How to find the real decision maker

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Tons of time and money is wasted on sales proposals, only to be jilted, turned down, or worse – left at the altar. Lost love. Lost revenue.

Think it’s not you? Think again!

How many proposals, bids, and quotes have you sent in your career? How many have you won? How many proposals, bids and quotes have you sent this year? How many have you won?

Here’s the reality. Most proposals, bids and quotes are lost. I cannot help you win them all, but I can help you win a few more. You’re probably not talking to the real, final or only decision maker. You’re trying to marry the wrong person.

Here is the rock-solid strategy to prevent “sales separation.”

• Before you propose, ask how, not when. The prospect asks for a proposal. What do you say? What do you ask? Most of you will answer with some greedy, “When will the decision be made?” or “what’s the budget?” Some kind of wallet-driven questions. Real answer: When the prospect asks you for a proposal, you ask, “How will the decision be made?” Not “when?” Not “who?” Not “are you?” Not “do you?” But specifically the word “how.” You’re trying to identify the decision-making process. In other words – your path to yes.

• Ask “who.” When you ask how the decision will be made, the prospect will respond, especially these days, that there’s a committee. They’ll talk about when they meet and that they decide, yada yada yada. Then you ask, “Great! Can you tell me their names?” Write down their names and titles.

• And maybe ask, “Do you work from a set budget?” Beginning a money dialogue at this point feels OK. Try to find out if they make the budget or just spend it. That’s a big difference. The person who makes the budget can easily add to it.

• Here’s the big question: “Then what?” After the prospect tells you that he, she or a committee decides, your next question is critical in your quest for the real decision maker (because I promise you it’s not the committee). You ask, “Then what?” Listen carefully to that answer because it contains the truth. The prospect will invariably say something like, “Well, for orders over $25,000 we run it by the CFO, or I just run it by my boss, but he always takes our (my) recommendation.” Yeah right. In other words, the prospect or the big committee can’t do anything without asking their daddy.

You respond with, “Great! What’s his name?” Write it down, and go back at it with another, “Then what?” The prospect says: “Well the CFO with orders of more than $100,000 has to run it by the CEO, but he always takes our recommendation.”

Here’s what you’ve just learned: The CFO and the CEO are the decision makers, and the people you are presenting to can’t decide jack squat. They can make a recommendation, they can eliminate you, maybe for the wrong reasons, but they can’t select you and give you the order. Your job is now to get your proposal in the hands of the committee members, the CFO and the CEO with their names on them and spelled correctly.

Important: Get permission from your newly discovered nondecision maker, and do it in the way where he or she doesn’t feel like you are going over their head or around them. Asking for their help and support creates a sense of teamwork, and as long as you have the customer’s best interests at heart, there should be no problem.

Final reality: I learned this strategy very early in my sales career, and still use it today in one form or another. “How will the decision be made?” followed by, “Then what?” is the secret formula to discovering and getting your proposal to (and maybe even a meeting with) the real decision maker.

Jeffrey Gitomer, author of “The Little Red Book of Selling” and 11 other titles, is president of Charlotte, N.C.-based Buy Gitomer. He gives seminars, runs annual sales meetings and conducts Internet training programs on sales and customer service at He can be reached at


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