How to find the Decision Maker

How to find the Decision Maker

Richard HighamListen to my interview with Richard Higham, a most highly respected consultant in the sales and sales leadership space. Richard is an engaging speaker, trainer, and coach. With 20 years of experience in the development over 10,000 individuals from more than 100 financial institutions



Dylis: Hi there, this is Dylis Guyan from, international sales marketing, leader, coach, and speaker but of course, you don’t have to be international to work with me.

I have a wonderful guest with me today, Richard Higham, who is a most highly respected consultant in the sales and sales leadership space. Richard is an engaging speaker, trainer, and coach but he also combines a warm and enthusiastic style with powerful insight into customer interactions and his focus is really on solving sales problems and seizing those sales opportunities, particularly in the financial and professional services sector.

And over the past 20 years Richard has helped in the development over 10,000 individuals from more than 100 financial institutions ranging from banks to accountants, actuaries, insurers, fund managers, and private equity. And that in itself is extremely, extremely impressive.

Richard also writes and speaks regularly on business development and relationship management issues. So welcome today, Richard. I’m absolutely delighted to have you on this interview.

Richard: It’s great to be with you Dylis as always.

Dylis: Thank you. Well, what I’d like to talk about today is one of those areas that people just seem to struggle with in the sales world, in that they really struggle to find the decision-maker, particularly in bigger companies. So let’s just start by defining what we mean by the decision-maker, what would your definition be, Richard?

Richard: Well, that’s why this is difficult Dylis. It’s quite hard to define, so you could say that simplistically the decision-maker is the person who takes the decision. But it’s rarely one person so good research that’s been done recently would indicate that in the typical say a 100 to 500 employee company will normally be 7 people involved in a significant buying decision. Now that’s driven by lots of things, it’s driven by changes, it’s driven by uncertainty so we have to be very careful how we define who the decision-maker is. And that probably in a typical decision of several decision-makers, or people wearing several hats, so yes, of course, there’s the ultimate sign-off. And that may well be somebody who has not been involved in the decision at all but needs to give authorization. Talking to a group of academics the other day making a significant purchase, a large x-ray machine. Before the final deal could go through the university secretary had to sign for that purchase.

Dylis: Yeah.

Richard: But they haven’t been involved at any stage and didn’t want to be. So when we look at the other people involved, there were procurement people who were saying are we following the process, there were the ultimate user, a Head of Department who wanted the x-ray machine and needed it. There were people from estates who were going to be involved in the fitting of it, there were a number of different people. There were researchers who had a view on which x-ray machine was going to be the right one for them to use. So I think we can’t say the decision-maker, we’ve got to always looking for the decision-makers and always assume that there are more decision-makers than you know about.

Dylis: Yes, exactly. And it’s really understanding each of those decision-maker’s objectives as well isn’t it?

Richard: Yes, both their corporate objectives…

Dylis: Yes.

Richard: But also their personal objectives. For instance, the specifier, her main interest, she’s going to be the final user, in this case, was particularly concerned about the ongoing life costs of the equipment and the ease of getting support if it was needed. Now there were others who had no interest in that whatsoever but for her, that was a pivotal point both for the organization but also for her as an individual because she was going to be the one who’d get the phone call on a Sunday afternoon saying the machine’s down what should we do

Dylis: Yes, and as you say they have, in every instance that I’ve come across, people would have had a business objective and a personal objective.

Richard: Yeah and they won’t usually tell what the personal objective is.

Dylis: That’s right, yes.

Richard: Unless you build relationship and trust and you stand in their shoes and you see it from their point of view.

Dylis: Exactly right. So why do you think people find this so difficult, Richard?

Richard: I think there are a number of reasons. One is, it’s genuinely getting more difficult, it is.

I think of a large bank I’ve done work with over the years. I think in the 4 years that I’ve worked with them we’ve had 17 lead decision-makers. Simply because that’s the banks’ policy. It rotates people very frequently.

In that period they stripped out a complete layer of management, of leadership, so all their global heads. So there was suddenly a vacuum and nobody really knew in the bank who could take the decision.

Now that, combined with a time of volatility not many people are rushing to put their hands up to say I’d like to spend some of the company’s money please. So people back off from some decision-making.

I think, so there’s a changing world, there’s volatility in the organizations, I think there’s also a tendency and what makes it difficult for us is that we ask the wrong questions. So if I were to say to you so Dylis who’ll be taking this decision? It’s almost inevitable that your ego, and I know it’s very well balanced ego Dylis, but even your ego will say I take the decision, Richard. And almost how dare you ask.

So we need to ask a different question, I need to ask you the question, Dylis, apart from yourself, who’ll be involved in this decision? Or even gentler, Dylis who else would you want to involve in your decision on this? Or, what kind of process will we need to go through together to make sure that we achieve your goals. Or, who’ll be involved in the sign-off for this decision?

So I need to make it easy for you to tell me that there are a load of people out there rather than make it difficult. So I think we make it difficult for ourselves but it’s genuinely difficult to spot who the decision-maker is.

Dylis: And this is relevant even for a smaller company isn’t it?

Richard: Absolutely.

Dylis: You know, it’s still worth asking the question in a smaller company

Richard, Well, yes because you know in small companies they’re often slightly more opinions that there are people so you’ve got to careful how you ask and doing it courteously.

I remember one awful man that I sold with having started a meeting with somebody, looked at him and said, do you know I think I’m going to stop this meeting. I didn’t want to have a meeting with the oily rag, I need to speak to the engineer.

Dylis: Oh!

Richard: I don’t think that visit resulted in a deal. So we need to get the, even if you think you’re speaking to the oily rag, you need the oily rags help to get to the engineer.

Dylis: Yes, yes.

Richard: I think particularly difficult incidentally, you’re talking about smaller companies. In family-owned businesses where the dynamic can be very, very different and we can be talking to the very smartly dressed young entrepreneur with the shiny bit of metal sitting outside who gives the impression, yes, I’m the Managing Director but he wouldn’t dream of taking big decisions without going home and talking to his Mum who started the business 30 years ago and still pulls the strings from behind her knitting needles.

Dylis: Yes. You have such a wonderful way with words, Richard.

Richard: Well, maybe difficult to get to Mum but we need to recognize that in that instance Mum is probably the decision-maker.

Dylis: And that’s right. And so that highlights brilliantly how important it is that you need to ask the question about who else would you like involved.

Richard: Yes.

Dylis: So you’re asking them in a way that makes it easy for them to open up and say yes I need to speak to my mother or…

Richard: Absolutely. I mean it’s knowing that there almost always will be somebody else.

Dylis: Exactly.

Richard: Go into every deal assuming there’s going to be somebody else.

Dylis: Yes. And that’s a great caveat actually. Just to be mindful of that with all of your interactions.

Richard: Yes.

Dylis: Brilliant. So what are the steps then that people need to take before they even make contact? And I know some people say to me but Dylis, I don’t even know who the decision-maker is, never mind how to find them.

Richard: Yes, and I’ve been there, done that working for a pretty dreadful company about 30 years ago. The deal was it was all cold phone calls, 100 a day and the line always was, I need to speak to the owner, the Managing Director are they in? And remarkably we did business even with that approach.

However, I think we can do better than that. So I think some of the things that I’d always want to be doing are using referrals and introductions. So looking to see well, who do I know who knows people in this space, possibly knows people in this company and get their coaching and their advice who should I be speaking to.

I think LinkedIn is an outstanding tool for this, going to the company, If you use sales navigator, even better because you can look for the relevant leads in the companies that you want to deal with. You can choose, look at your existing customer base and click a box which says similar and you’ll find a whole load of similar people in similar organizations. So I think being able to find people is easier than it was.

Dylis: Yes, I would agree.

Richard: But still, you know, still not always simple. I think in terms of warm-up, interestingly, I was talking to a large logistics business the other day and the way they’re working things now is they’re saying to their business development team, okay figure out who you’re likely to want to call over the next 1 to 2 months. Now start warming them up using social media, communicating with them, sending them through leadership ideas, looking for them in groups and beginning to make contact. So when you do call them and when you do make contact it seems that you’re almost friends already

Interesting data coming through and you pick your bit of data some people would say 58%, some people 62%, some people even more of the decision to buy is now being taken before we interact with a human being. So we need to do this stuff before we start talking to decision-makers.

Dylis: Yeah and there is some interesting figures that I was reading, research done by a guy called Chet Holmes. He wrote the book The Ultimate Sales Machine. Very, very good book. And he was talking about if I put 100 of your ideal clients into a room only up to 3% would be looking now.

Richard: Yep.

Dylis: And 30% wouldn’t be interested and then you’ve got a 67% block in the middle, 7% of whom know they want to buy but they’re not ready just this moment. Another 30% who are aware of their problem but so busy with everything else that they haven’t got headspace to even think about it or make a decision and then another 30% who aren’t aware that you have the product or service to solve your problem.

Richard: And I think that’s incredibly important insight, yeah.

Dylis: Yeah. So this social media aspect is brilliant because you can form that relationship and start getting people to think about their problems and looking at the ramifications and also creating top of mind thinking.

Richard: I think that’s right Dylis. I think it also highlights the need for us to align out selling cycle to the customer’s buying cycle. So we often charge in with a product push and as you said from that data people aren’t always in a position to do, they’re not ready to buy.

Dylis: Right, yes.

Richard: They’re earlier on in their buying cycle. So we need to be taking activity to engage with decision-makers early in the buying cycle and that’s not product push, that’s engagement.

Dylis: Yes.

Richard: It’s not being a salesperson, it’s being a relationship builder and a trust builder. So that when the time comes that they’re ready to push the go button you’re the first person that they think of.

Dylis: Exactly. And the other thing that I talk to my clients about is using Google Alerts so that’s And put your prospective clients in there and the intelligence that you get back from that is astounding in some circumstances.

I remember, I had a number of pharmaceutical companies on my prospect list and I put them into Google Alerts and there was one particular day I got an alert to say that a company had issued their Financial Report.

When I had a look at the Executive Summary, The Chairman talked about the great year they had had, it was something like a 20% uplift year-on-year but they were being negatively affected to the tune of 5% on currency fluctuation. So, I could leverage that information, in fact I cut and pasted that summary into an email and said I noticed from your financial report your Chairman said…And then I went on to say that I work with companies helping them to increase their sales revenue to mitigate this loss. Of course, there are products now to mitigate the loss in currency fluctuation but I got an appointment from that. And they were shocked as to how I even knew about it. And I said I’m following you as a company, I’m interested in you as a company and that led to business which was, incredible just from some information from Google Alerts.

Richard: And I think that keyword that you used, oh, you’re interested in me, I mean there’s that cheesy saying isn’t there, that I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.

Dylis: Yes.

Richard: And this ability to not to feign interest in our customers and our prospects but to be interested. Oh. that’s really interesting, I didn’t know about that, how does that work? And so forth.

But just one thing on Google Alerts, just a small tweak on that is that sometimes I, if I’m going to go and see somebody I enter their name in Google followed by the words “says” and that sometimes throws up speeches that they’ve made or comments that they’ve made and you go in saying really interesting to hear what you were saying at the Universal Congress of Hog Makers but I thought that was a really interesting insight into the use of manganese wear parts that you highlighted.

And suddenly your relationship’s better built. So yeah, I think being better prepared. Of course, there’s mileage in picking the phone up and cold calls do work. However, for most of us warming up, preparing, building relationships before contact hugely helps the identification and the relationship with the decision-makers.

Dylis: Yes, completely. So, really to summarize what we’re saying here is that in the bigger companies we’re looking at a decision-making group.

Richard: Yes.

Dylis: And of course, we’re not always aware who they are, so we need to be asking who else would you like involved in this process and really being, creating yourself a list of prospective clients that you would like to work with so that you can start to do that preparation work, you can start and link with them.

Richard: Yes. Absolutely.

Dylis: On LinkedIn.

Richard: Yes. Absolutely. It’s a discipline. Yes.

Dylis: Yes. And do you have this as a set discipline, Richard? So you would have your list of prospective clients and you would start and do some investigative work to find out more about them and to start and create that relationship.

Richard: I think that’s a critical success factor for most of us in business and particularly for most of us for whom selling is a part of what we do but not all of what we do.

Dylis: Yes.

Richard: I think these are the things that are easy to get pushed out, particularly when we’re being successful. You know if you’ve got no work on it’s comparatively painless to sit down and come up with a list of prospects. But this isn’t a sporadic activity, it’s a consistent activity.

Dylis: Yes.

Richard: It’s keeping it going.

Dylis: And this is key, Richard, I’m glad you used that word because I’ve been doing some work recently with a group of people and I was talking about consistency because if you’re not consistent with this preparation work and with your contact with people then you end up with peaks and troughs of cashflow…

Richard: Yes.

Dylis: And this, you know, I’ve got a diary full, next week I’ve got nothing in. And it’s not good for you as an individual to be working in that kind of stress situation. So if you can integrate this consistent process people will be successful.

Richard: Well, I think that’s right, I mean a couple of quick comments on that. For anyone running a production facility, they know that stop-start is incredibly expensive and very difficult.

You want it to be as continuous as possible, it’s the same with the sales process. And yes, you’re right to think about the short-term stress but if you’re trying to build value into your business either to get investment down the line or to get some kind of backing or even to sell the business then that transparent, consistent, scalable sales activity will significantly increase the value of your business. So very important.

Dylis: Excellent! Well, Richard as always, thank you so much. You always bring massive insights and you know you have been a real, I was going to say a mentor for me really.

Richard: How very kind.

Dylis: Over the past years, you know in the very early days and I’ve learnt such a lot from you and really respect you as an individual and your skills and knowledge. So thank you for sharing those insights with me today.

Richard: Dylis, the only thing I’d say about that, that one of the joys of mentoring someone really good is that you end up being mentored by them. So, I’m learning at least as much from you. Anyway, enough of this mutual congratulation.

Dylis: Thank you very much Richard. Have a fantastic day and I’ll speak to you again soon.

Richard: That’s great and Dylis if anyone in your network wants to make with me always delighted to speak. You can reach out to me either through yourself Dylis or at or give me a call +44 7712588757 or always through LinkedIn. So, lots of ways as they say, to get in touch.

Dylis: Fantastic. I think we got, certainly, I got so wrapped up in our mutual congratulations there Richard, I forgot to give you the opportunity so thank you very much for adding that.

Richard: It’s a pleasure.

Dylis: I’m sure there will be people who will benefit hugely from having a conversation with you.

Richard: Great. Thanks Dylis

Dylis: Thank you very much, Richard. Bye for now.

Richard: Bye.

Richards Higham’s contact details;

Mobile; +44 7712588757


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