Deal talk: Finding the decision maker
When doing a deal, one of the harder parts is finding the true decision maker for the deal. The question below seems simple —
Isn’t the decision maker the person talking to you?
While the answer is sometimes “Yes”, it’s not straightforward. I’ll discuss this article in two parts:
- General principles for finding the decision maker
- How to figure out where decision making sits
1/ General principles for finding the decision maker
Here are three general principles:
1. Decision power generally sits in “business” or “product/tech”.
Decision power is usually either in “business” or “product/tech”. This mirrors the profit center of a company. The Pragmatic Engineer has a fantastic article on Profit vs Cost Centers. To put it plainly:
- Business led: In companies, where tech is known as “IT”, the highest salaries are in the business, and the business is the decision maker. This is usually in places like banks. In some tech companies with a General Manager (GM) structure, and the GM holds P&L + product + engineering resources, then the GM might have decision making power.
- Product/tech lead: In some tech firms, the power is with the technical team. This could be product or engineering or both, and this team tends to be the “profit center”. Business supports the scoping, evaluation, and recommendation. But the ultimate decision power is with product and/or engineering.
2. There might be multiple decision makers.
Even if the person talking to you is from the org with decision power, they might not be the final decision maker. The person could be responsible for making a recommendation. Then, the decision could be at levels above or below them. It might be decision by committee.
3. The larger the company, the harder it is to figure out where decision making sits.
The larger the company, the more complex it is to discover where decision making sits.
- Small company: the CEO / CTO is probably the decision maker. However, check who controls resourcing. 
- Large company: there are multiple stakeholders, but there’s likely still one person to “sign off” on the deal.
I suspect it’s hard to pinpoint decision making because of two main reasons (inspired by “High Output Management” )
- Unwilling: The person is unwilling to tell sales who will make the decision.
- Unable: The person talking to sales doesn’t know who the decision maker is. Or they mistakenly think they are the decision maker, when there are many others that have to be bought in.
2/ How to figure out where decision making sits
Three tactical suggestions on how to discover where decision making sits.
- Ask questions directly
- Seek third party sources
- Talk to someone about your deal
1. Ask questions directly
First, use the decision principles above to investigate who holds decision power. Second, ask questions like:
- What are the next steps to come to a decision?
- After XYZ, I’ve seen ABC done after, when will we do ABC?
- Should we involve [insert cross functional team]? When will they have capacity?
You don’t have to ask all of this upfront, but it should be top of mind to uncover this as the deal progresses.
2. Seek third party sources
Use Linkedin sales navigator to map the organization. If selling to a startup, talk to VCs/connections about how the company makes decisions.
Third party sources help one verify the company’s decision making culture. From my time in sales, I once mistakenly thought a senior person would make the decision, but after talking to people who worked there, I learned that for that company, there was full ownership for one DRI (directly responsible individual) to make the decision (no matter the rank).
3. Talk to someone about your deal
Invite people to sanity check if you’ve identified the right decision makers. When doing sales, relentless optimism is both a strength and a weakness.
- Strength: Sales requires enthusiasm and confidence that a deal will close.
- Weakness: A salesperson may end up convincing themselves that a deal closed and they were talking to the decision maker, when it’s the wrong person.
I am grateful for sales managers and peers who have asked thoughtful questions to check “deal energy” (e.g., asked frankly if the deal was real).
There are substantial costs when sales identify the wrong decision maker:
- Deal loss: Your deal doesn’t close because the decision maker wasn’t persuaded. You lost to a competitor who was better at the sales process.
- Deal limbo: You think your deal has closed, but it’s a “maybe” (the worst place to be).
Deals come and go. Sometimes you will identify the wrong decision maker, and it’s important to humbly reflect and learn from it versus blame circumstances.
To answer the question at the beginning of this post: The decision maker is not always the person talking to you. Think through org structure principles (where does decision making sit in the org?) and ask questions.
 I learned this the hard way when selling to a retailer. The CFO was enthusiastic about switching, but the CTO (rightfully) waited till there were newer products. It would have saved time to have disqualified the deal earlier. The deal did come — 2 years later.
 In “High Output Management”, Andy Grove explained how performance issues could be due to either unwillingness or inability.