Finding sales prospects: three basic rules for locating the decision maker who can in fact say yes to what you offer

Finding sales prospects, first basic rule: You can make a sale only if you deal with the person who can say Yes to what you offer.

That’s obvious enough, especially if you’re selling to individuals.

But it’s more difficult if you’re selling to organizations. The selling skills you use in finding prospects within organizations in both the public and private sectors is more complicated, as these organizations are filled with people who have only negative decision-making authority.

That is, they have the authority to say No to you, but, no matter what or how good a deal you offer, they’re just not able to say Yes. Saying yes is just not in their job-description.

Which means, if you want to sell, then you need to find your way to the person or team who can say Yes. That’s why a crucial selling skill if finding your way to the prospects who can make yes decisions.

Trouble is, before you can talk to that person who can say Yes, you often have to wend your way past other people who have only negative decision-making authority; they typically range from the guard at the plant gate to the Purchasing Manager to the Decision Maker’s secretary or subordinate.

Finding sales prospects, second basic rule: In most cases, the Purchasing Department is usually NOT the best place to begin.

If you’re new to the game of selling, you might think that the place to begin is with the purchasing manager. If you’re selling your personal services, perhaps as a consultant, you might expect that the personnel manager is the person to start with. In both cases, you’d probably be wrong. Actually, not only wrong, but likely to sabotage your prospects with that organization.

Why it is usually NOT a good idea to start with the purchasing or personnel departments.

Finding sales prospects, third basic rule: The people who can only say no, never yes, tend to be easily accessible, so it’s tempting to meet with them and get a sense that you’re making progress. But that’s just keeping busy, not really finding sales prospects.

If you do make your presentation to them, you’ll generally find that nothing happens — at least nothing positive. After all, they can’t say “Yes, we’ll buy.” They can only say either “No,” or “I’ll have to think about it” — which really means, “Maybe I’ll carry your message up to my boss, the real decision maker.”

But the reality is that do pass the word on to the boss, the sale is almost certainly equally dead. It’s very unlikely that they’ll make the kind of strong case for your product or service that you could if you met directly with the Decision Maker.

For one thing, they don’t know your product as well as you, and won’t be ready to explain why it is better than the competition. Besides, selling your product is not a priority to them. If the Decision Maker says No, or is just luke-warm, they aren’t likely to risk their job by pushing on as you would.

What makes a “Decision Maker?”

The “Decision Maker,” as we use the term here — that is, in the context of finding sales prospects —is the person (or perhaps team or committee) with the ability to say Yes to what you’re offering — whether that Yes means to

  • buy your product,
  • hire you or to retain your services,
  • take the next step, such as agreeing to a demonstration or a trial.

In small organizations, the Decision Maker will typically be the person at the top — the owner of a small business, the managing partner of a law firm, the president of a company, the director of a public agency.

It may take more effort to spot the appropriate Decision Maker in larger organizations. Begin looking for the appropriate Decision Maker early, as soon as you start your preliminary research in developing your prospect list.

As you research the company, and particularly as you talk to people both within and outside the organization, keep your antennae open for the person (or work team) who seems to be in charge in the area in which you would propose to work, and who meets the “AND” test. Resources for finding your way to the Prospect who can buy

Finding sales prospects, fourth basic rule: Use the AND test as a tool

The AND test is this: the Decision Maker is the person (or team) who possesses three key characteristics: Authority, Need, and Dollars (AND).

“A” represents Authority

In finding sales prospects, bear in mind that the person to whom you make your presentation must be at a level to have the authority, or “authorization,” to make buying commitments for the amount appropriate to your projected work.

Thus if your cheapest model costs $5,000, and the person with whom you meet has a $3,000 purchasing limit, then you cannot expect a Yes decision from them. That individual, therefore, is not the Decision Maker, in our meaning of the term. She may be a part of a team that has full decision making power. Or she may be a “Decision Influencer” — that is, someone whose advice is heeded by the actual Decision Maker.

“N” represents Need

Find your way to the person (or department) with a problem that your product or service can solve. That is, find your way to who has the NEED for your product.

If your product is a janitorial cleaning tool, for instance, there is obviously no point in meeting with the head of data processing. Similarly, the purchasing manager is usually the wrong person, as the purchasing manager likely does not have a first-hand need. (We look at the role of the purchasing department later.)

“D” represents Dollars

A person can have Authority to buy, and Need for the product, yet still not be a Decision Maker because she lacks Dollars (or budget).

It may not be easy to find whether or not money is available to spend on your product or service. There is no tactful way of straight out asking if they have the money. But you can sometimes ask indirectly, by questions such as,

“Suppose we find that this product does meet your needs. Will it be possible for you to buy in this present budget cycle?”

However, don’t necessarily believe the Decision Maker who claims poverty: usually that’s just an excuse to get rid of sales people.

What if you can’t find the person or team with “AND”?

Finding sales prospects, fifth basic rule: be aware of the importance of “Decision Influencers”

A “Decision Influencer” is a person or team who may not have AND, but may nonetheless may be the key factor in whether that organization buys what you are offering.

Implications: first, as you scout around, be alert to who these decision influencers may be.

Second, do not alienate them along the way: they may not have the title and power to say yes, but they may nonetheless have the ability to keep you from getting the sale.


The content in this post has been adapted from my books,  Selling 101, and Newbie’s Guide to Selling Face-to-Face   They are available in various e-book and paper editions; see below:

Selling 101: Consultative Selling Skills for Entrepreneurs, Consultants, Free Agents (third edition).  Order e-book as Amazon Kindle   (Amazon offers free apps that enable you to read it on your PC, Apple I-pad, I-pod, Blackberry, and others)

Newbie’s Guide to Selling Face-to-Face — via Amazon as ebook or pbook

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