I want to consider a persistent challenge in the business of communications: dealing directly with the decision-maker on any project.

In my first corporate job, my boss was an advice-giver who took an avuncular approach to counseling his young writer/directors. Fitz was always on the lookout for opportunities to call one of us into his office to instruct us on how to deal with a particular project we were working on, or to use another project currently under way in the department as an exemplar for how to do or not do something. This advice always came wrapped in plenty of colorful anecdotes from the company’s history (the firm was over a hundred years old) and from his own experience (also rich, though he was considerably less than a hundred).

One of the first times I remember having such a session with him, the subject was an incessant challenge in producing communications programs: a writer or producer’s point of contact is often not the decision-maker regarding any significant aspects of the job, whether it’s design, content, final copy or – especially – budget. Beware, he cautioned. He predicted – accurately – that no matter how long I worked in the business, I was going to confront the prospect of moving far along in the planning and production of a job, only to find that all the work to-date was now going to be referred to someone’s boss (or a committee of bosses), and that everything on the table would be subject to change.

Fitz was right. In the years that have passed, I’ve been involved in the production of thousands of brochures and newsletters, videos, marketing campaigns, product launches, websites and live events. Repeatedly, my teams and I have spent the greatest portion of our time defining the scope of a project, creating content outlines, executing initial designs, writing first drafts, only to be asked to wait while some higher authority – with whom we have no direct contact – evaluates and, often, redirects the piece.

We talk a lot about this challenge, because how we address it plays an important role in how efficiently and effectively we deliver what our clients expect.

A Parallel With Selling

One group of people who share this need to reach the real decision-makers is salespeople. There’s a vast body of literature devoted to strategies and tactics for identifying and gaining access to the real decision-makers in any potential sale. It keeps salespeople awake at night.

It occurred to me to ask some of the salespeople we know how they address this issue. I’d like to introduce a few observations and recommendations from them, and invite you to respond with your own ideas. Do you agree with what they have to say?

Tom Davis is Vice President of Business Solutions for Loma Media, who create world class business communications and media for commercial and public sector clients. Here’s what Tom has to say:

Just about everyone I know in sales has experienced the deadly Ambush Killer. It’s the point in a sales negotiation where things are zipping along smoothly and all systems are go (at least in your mind) and then, seemingly out of nowhere, an unseen, but very real force rears its ugly head and you realize your success may just be an illusion. The Ambush Killer comes in several forms. The most common comes when you realize (or are told) that a key person is not (or has not) been involved in the process. . . . the dreaded, “Let me run it by my boss.” Accepting put-offs or allowing the customer to shift your focus away from important elements are other Killers. Not taking good notes (which leads to “convenient” memory), giving up too early (since most sales are made between the 5th & 12th attempt) or asking about budget in an inappropriate way or at an inappropriate time are all rookie mistakes, but Ambush Killers nonetheless: small missteps lurking in the dark just waiting to ruin your day.

Tom’s Three Ps

The key to defeating the Ambush Killer in all its forms is a system I like to call, The 3 P’s. The first P is People. It never hurts to ask up front, “Who are ALL of the people who need to or will be involved in the process?” You should know all of them by name.

The second P is Path. What is the path that this decision is going to take?  Define the path early and refer to it often.

The final P is Power. This is not so much a question you can ask as something you’ll be able to discern through careful observation. Who truly has the power to make the decision on whatever you’re selling?  Further, who has the power to influence the decision-maker(s)? These are the people you must have in the room when you make your presentation if it is humanly possible.

So there you have it. The 3 P’s triumph over the Ambush Killer. A plot worthy of a Summer Blockbuster. All for less than a small popcorn at your local megaplex. By my calculations, I just saved you $12.75. You’re welcome. Happy selling!

Now I’d like to turn to some comments from James Taylor, vice president of the Travel & Transportation Industry Group for global IT services firm, CSC.

There’s a common situation created by unavoidable human nature – at least for some personality types. This is the phenomenon of someone in a client org who has been empowered to engage with suppliers and prospective bidders for upcoming projects. Sometimes – especially with people for whom it’s a relatively new experience — they get caught up in the newly bestowed power they have. This leads some to profess to have full decision-making authority for the piece of work in question. You may expend time, resources and perhaps some political capital inside your own org to marshal the right team to go after the opportunity. Then, you get to a point at which you think you are really well positioned, only to find that the decision-making rests with someone else. I see this most often in global companies when you are building a relationship with one of their divisions or one of their regional headquarters. The bidding may even be done locally, but ultimately the decision and the budget reside elsewhere back at the Head Office, or with some other executive. It’s important to be attuned to this possibility from the outset.
Once this has happened a few times, you become very wary and perhaps distrustful of what you’re being told. Then you run the risk of a) missing the opportunity to fully embrace the local person because you are so certain that the decision must reside elsewhere; and b) insulting the person you are facing off with by asking at the wrong moment whether they really have authority and/or budget

This isn’t something you can overcome easily without experience: experience of having fallen prey to this situation enough times to better pick up on the signals.

Jim’s Action Items

So, how does this sort of experience shape actions and behaviors that help find who the decision maker is?  and perhaps more importantly, how to get access to them?

  • Understand the org structure before you engage. Typically you can see patterns in the structures across companies and quickly determine who the decision maker is.
  • Understand the links between the executives — use Linked In, BoardEx, or any other similar tool to find out what informal linkages exist in the organization.
  • Ask questions. Without challenging your contact’s authority, you should be able to determine if the person you are facing off with will have any issue sharing information about their decision making process or introducing you to the decision makers.
  • Suggest that if a conversation could be arranged with the key decision maker it would help to be sure that any proposal submitted is on point and clearly addresses the points on which the decision maker places importance.

What’s Your Advice?

I think these ideas have direct applicability to our work in communications projects, as well as sales. What I have learned from Tom and Jim is that the work of determining and reaching the decision makers doesn’t happen by accident: it’s an intentional process, and one that should be a conscious effort on your part – an integral part of your discovery and planning stages.

I thank Tom and Loma Media, and Jim and CSC for their contributions. What’s your take? Do you have some advice for all of us from your own experience? We welcome your comments.