Understanding Our Customers’ Decisionmaking Processes


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Understanding how our customer will make a buying decision is critical to our success in selling. It’s common sense, it’s trained into us as entry level sales people, but in my experience, sales people really don’t understand it. Here some examples that have occurred in the last couple of days:

I’m reviewing the sales strategy for a very large sales opportunity. I asked the team, “Who’s involved in the decision-making process and how will the customer make a decision?” It was a major enterprise IT software sale, the team immediately pulled out the customer’s organization chart and pointed to the CIO’s box on the chart. I asked, “How do you know he is the decision-maker?” The look in their eyes was, “why are you asking such stupdi questions, isn’t it clear?” Their response was polite, but ill-informed, “It has to be the CIO. We’re selling a major software system, he’s at the top of the IT food chain, he’s the decision-maker.”

Another similar conversation about a major customer. The sales person was trying to determine the “strategic decisionmaking process” for the customer in an attempt to “wire” the process, creating a template for all his company’s selling activities. His thought was, “we need to call on these people, jump these hurdles, and do these things, each time we sell. Our goal is to get very good at executing that process with the same people in every deal.”

And then there are the mind numbing questions you hear too many sales people ask: “Are you the decision-maker?” or “Who is the decision-maker?”

Too many people make the mistake of thinking of the decision-making process as a “monolithic” process that doesn’t change. They deal with the same people, do the same things in the same way, only because “that’s the way they did it last time.” Or they use the organization chart as the “map” of the process, seeking to call on and influence the person at the top of the food chain. Customer decision making processes vary with each decision, we have to understand that and tailor our strategies to the process for each buying situation. While many of the same people may be involved in situation after situation, the way the decision will be made will vary.

To understand how the customer will make a decision and their decision-making process, we need to understand the following:

  • Who is involved in the process and what is their role? Are they the decision-maker? Are they recommenders? Are they influencers? Even within the same group, these roles can vary from decision to decision.
  • What are their key issues, needs, and priorities? Not for the group, but for each individual involved in the decision making process. For example for a major Sales 2.0 software implementation, IT people will have certain needs and priorities, the sales people will have others, marketing theirs, and perhaps customer service, finance….. We cannot be successful unless we address the needs and priorities if all people involved in the decision making process.
  • Why are they invovled? What’s in it for them?
  • What are their attitudes toward us and the alternatives–remembering the alternatives may not be the competition. How many big deals have been lost because the users selected us, but when it went to the real decision maker, another completely unrelated project was selected and allocated the funding?
  • What is each individual’s communication style—it’s not necessary, but I think it is important. Understanding their communication/behavioral style is important because in informs us on how we should work with them. Are they an analytic—bring in the sales engineers, back a pickup full of data up to the loading dock, dump it, then bring another load. Are they relationship oriented? Whatever their style, if I communicate in their preferred mode, I am more likely to be effective.
  • How will power and influence be exercised in the decision? We don’t like to talk about this, but each person in the decision making process does not have an equal vote. Each person in the process does not equally influence the decision maker. If we are dealing with our “friends,” and they are involved in the decision making process, but have little power or influence, then it’s wrong for us to put all our hope in them. I’ve never liked the “find the fox” methodologies, in every organization and every decision there is a formal and more powerful informal way in which power and influence will be exercised.

Until we understand these things, we do not understand the customer’s decision making process. Even worse, it long sales cycles, the decision making process will change. Needs and priorities may shift, new players may come on board, other things will change, meaning we need to change our sales strategies.

Customer decision-making processes are fluid, from deal to deal, even within deals. If we only use our past experience and treat each new deal as having the same decision making process, then the likelihood that we are talking to the right people about the right things at the right time is very low. Our ability to win also declines tremendously.

A final story, some years ago, I was at the top of the food chain for a major sales organization. We were making a decision on a major set of sales automation tools—ultimately investing millions in purchases and implementation. I was part of the decision-making process, and many vendors sought to meet with me to understand and address my needs and expectations. While I made it clear that I was not the decision maker, it was clear to me that most of the vendors were focusing on me because of my title and position on the org chart.

We clearly told everyone who would be making the decision–I had appointed a team of people, led by a key manager. I didn’t ask them for a recommendation, I asked them to make a decision. I gave them my input on what I what I wanted to see, as well as my expectations. But this team also sought to understand the needs and requirements of everyone in the organization. They did a huge amount of research and homework on what we needed, critical success factors in implementation, and who were the best suppliers and integrators out there. They were clearly more knowledgeable and more capable than I in selecting our suppliers and making a decision. Even if I had wanted to, I would have been foolish to try to reverse their decision, because I knew so little and they had become truly expert. As long as they satisfied my criteria for the decision, they were the decision-makers. At best, I was a significant influencer in the process (I wasn’t even the approver–even I didn’t have the signature authority for the investment, only our CFO and CEO –together–could sign the contracts.)

Yet, all those vendors wanted to spend a lot of time with me, convincing me thery were the best. Some even ignored my decision making team because I “had to be the decision maker.” Others treated the team as necessary hurdles, while they focused their efforts on me. One even talked to my boss, the CEO– I did have to field a phone call from him that started with, “What the f…” I’ll stop there. Al ot of people thought they knew the decision making process, the winners knew it and leveraged it to their advantage.

Do you really understand how your customers make decisions or are you letting the org chart be your guide? Are you addressing each person involved with what they want, when they want, in the way the want it? Are you adjusting your strategies as the process changes?

We’ve done a lot of work on how customers make decisions. If you want a white paper we’ve written on this, just email me. It’s free, I’d be glad to send it to you. Email me at [email protected]

FREE WEBINAR! Join us for this week’s FREE webinar from the Future Selling Institute on Trust and Sales Leadership with Charlie Green of Trusted Advisors. Mark your calendars for Friday, April 15, 2011 at 11:00 AM EST and click here to register.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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