Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have
the power to say yes.
—Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady, United States of America
Few things are more irritating in business than dealing with a person who pretends to be a decision-maker but in reality is just a subordinate. You know these misleading types. They may indeed work for a company that you hope to establish as a client, and they may even have a title implying influence, but they are in no way able to authorize anything. In the rare case that they are able to suggest a deal, the request must go through so much approval and red tape that developing a strong relationship with this individual was, in hindsight, probably not worth the effort. It would have been easier to find the real decision-maker. Businesspeople waste billions of work hours calling, dining, and persuading these tricksters in hopes of garnering some business only to find out that their efforts were in vain. They eventually learn the hard way that if they can’t buy, you won’t sell.
This problem has no easy solution, but I have found one way to manage the situation quite effective. As you work your way through the different layers of people in search of a decision-maker, simply be direct. Specifically, ask your contact once you’ve shared your intentions, “Who will make the final decision on this?” You could also phrase it this way: “Who are the other people who will be included in making a final decision on this?” In most cases, your contact will answer your question with the same directness you used. Asking questions like these significantly cuts down on the time you spend trying to sell someone who cannot buy.
These questions are open-ended, meaning they cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. If you pose these questions in a yes-or-no format, they lose their potency. Asking an open-ended question in this situation forces the person answering to provide vital information that empowers you to be most effective. These types of questions leave little room for interpretation or misunderstanding. In fact, you should use open-ended questions in business as often as you can.
This tactic does not give you a license to neglect or mistreat people who are between you and the ultimate decision-maker. Tread lightly and treat everyone involved in the process with the utmost respect, from the secretary to the CEO. You want those who aren’t necessarily decision-makers but influencers to also buy in to what you propose. Insiders, those who work for the company you hope to bring on as a client, have influence on decision-makers. Sometimes these individuals yield more influence than you think. Your goal should be to draft them onto your team so that they can sell your idea from the inside.
This small but powerful change had an immediate impact on my business when I adopted it, from faster results when selling to more interested investors when pitching. After asking the suggested questions, I received clarity; I knew exactly whom my target was. Without such vital information you are throwing darts while blindfolded, wishing to hit the bull’s-eye. That’s no way to run a successful business. Take off the blindfold by using this approach and increase your chances for getting a yes.