Whether you’re prospecting, cold calling, or trying to grow business within existing accounts, political structure plays a huge part in winning sales opportunities. We all know there are several roles in the decision making process: the coach, gatekeeper, influencer, evaluator, or ultimate decision maker. I sat down with Tom Stanfill, CEO and Co-Founder of ASLAN, to discuss why we need to identify the actual structure, how to do it, and a tool to make it easy for sales reps.
Why Political Structure Matters
We refer to this topic as “political structure” because one of the first things we want to find out when working on a sales opportunity is who the decision maker(s) are – and the truth is, it’s not always about rank.
The key is: Rank does not equal power or influence.
There’s a lot of politics involved in how decisions get made. It’s not always formal or organized. You won’t find political structure within your prospect or customer’s org chart. The most powerful and influential people in the room are not necessarily the highest ranking individuals.
Therefore, as sales reps, we have to figure it out for ourselves.
Let’s start by discussing the different roles that make up the political structure of an account.
The people who determine what will happen:
- Decision makers – ultimately determines what will happen. They can “break the tie” with their vote.
- Influencers – the people that the decision maker listens to.
The people that will make it happen:
- Evaluators – the point person, evaluates vendors, asks questions, distills information and feeds it to the decision maker and influencers.
The people that watch it happen:
- Coach – they know what’s going on, but they’re not part of the decision making process itself. They can be very useful as insiders to give you, the sales rep, intel on what is happening internally.
The people that wonder what happened:
Ha ha. But all jokes aside, everyone has value, but not everyone is involved in all parts of an organization. So these people are not necessarily relevant, or helpful, for our purposes.
Sales reps need to understand each role, learn to identify the people playing each of these roles, and then leverage those relationships to help bring their solution to the prospect’s business.
If you don’t understand who the decision maker really is, you can’t address the decision making process. You can’t address their questions, their concerns, and the whole deal could fall apart.
A perfect illustration of this principle at work comes from the 2011 movie Moneyball. At one point in the film (which is based on a true story) Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), GM of the Oakland A’s, is trying and failing to make several player trades with the Cleaveland Indians. He is thwarted by a seemingly insignificant intern, Peter Brand (Jonah Hill).
In this scene, Beane pumps Peter Brand for information on who he is and how he has influence over the Cleveland baseball team’s management. The general manager of the team should, in theory, have the most power and influence over decision-making. But Jonah Hill’s character, a lowly analyst, seems to be calling the shots in the meeting. We won’t give away any spoilers, you’ll have to check out the film to find out why.
This is a great example of politics at play within an organization. Understanding the players will help sales reps determine how the decision is ultimately made.
How to Utilize Evaluators and Coaches
If you are dealing with an evaluator, that’s a great place to get information. For a sales rep, the role of an evaluator is to help you understand who the players are, and eventually turn them into a sponsor to help you access the decision maker directly.
The problem is, you can’t directly affect the decision making process. The evaluator is someone who represents the decision-maker, but will not make the final call. Their involvement in the decision only goes so far as vetting vendors, sifting through information, and culling down the list of potential partners/suppliers to a select few for the decision maker to choose between.
Again, they are the people that make it happen, but they don’t determine what happens. Why does this matter to us as salespeople?
Because if you sell something or are recommending something different than exactly what the evaluator has been told to look for, you will always lose. You may have (or be able to offer) what they are directly asking for, but you know it’s not what they actually need to solve their problem.
The issue is that the evaluator’s main focus is to fulfill the criteria that has been set by someone else (the decision-maker); and if you’re not talking to the person who has set the criteria, you can’t change the criteria, in order to help them ultimately make a better decision.
You can’t influence the decision making process if you’re not working with the decision maker.
The coach can also play the role of telling you the “landscape” of the organization and the “who’s who.” They can help you determine which influencers may be for you or against you, and which influencers have the strongest relationship with the decision maker. The coach is typically someone who wants you to win. They are a key player because they are on your team, and can feed you information that they’re not telling anyone else. They give you the back story, provide you with context, and sometimes even grant you access to the decision maker.
How To Determine Political Structure
Using other players, i.e. the “people who watch what happens,” are probably the best source of inside information that can help you determine who the players are (as we just discussed above with Evaluators and Coaches).
Or for people working on growing existing accounts, it’s easier to rely on the people you’re already working with. That’s a great option – probably your best option for determining who’s who.
But not everyone has the luxury of meeting with an insider or a coach – especially in a virtual selling environment where it’s not as easy to go onsite and bump into people or form relationships with them. Most of us are dependent on 2 things: Clues and Questions.
Clues can be verbal or body language. If you pay attention, you can determine who the person is that you’re talking to by the questions they ask and how they refer to the decision making process. Anyone who is not the decision maker(s) will almost act like a press secretary, because they are representing someone else. Pay attention to their language. They won’t use words like “I” and they don’t speak with final authority.
If you’re face to face, (it’s harder to do in a virtual meeting), watch how people respond and react. Pay attention to where they look after speaking – most people will make a comment or ask a question and then look at a specific person for their reaction. Who do they turn to? You can usually tell by people’s body language who has the most power in the room.
But questions, especially when selling virtually, are probably your safest bet. Have a couple of key questions ready, that will help you determine who the players are, and most importantly, who the decision maker is. Many sellers overlook this part, because they get excited about an opportunity and it can feel uncomfortable to bring up. You don’t want to come across as rude. But we have a saying over here at ASLAN, “Never assume when you can know.”
It’s better to ask, tactfully and intentionally of course. Tom gave a great example of his favorite question to ask instead of guessing or assuming. Sales reps could say something like:
“Let’s just pretend I have the perfect solution – the price is right, the solution fits your criteria, it takes care of everything you need. If that’s true, what has to happen next?”
What you want is for them to describe the process. If they say, “Well then I’d hire you,” or “I’d buy from you,” then you’re probably speaking to the decision maker. But if they say, “Well we’ll meet with our internal team,” then you’re probably not speaking with the decision maker. At that point, you can ask, “Well who is that internal team?” and “Is there anybody in that team who really needs to be bought in to make this happen?” Follow the bouncing ball. Ask those clarifying questions to figure out who is attached to each one of the next steps.
As you follow this line of questioning, always position your questions with why it’s in their best interest to tell you the answer. For example, “The reason I’m asking is _____.”
You could position your question with, “The reason I’m asking is because I want to make sure I’m addressing their concerns,” or “I want to make sure that we build in time to meet with them.” It always needs to be about them. Instead of something like, “I don’t want to waste time talking to you…” (which is what they will otherwise probably assume). Basically you want to give them an Other-CenteredⓇ reason:
“I know it’s difficult for you, as the point person on this project, to understand and learn everything you need to know about our products and services. I want to make you look good, so I want to make sure that I help you articulate this and provide you with the information that you need, as you pass this along. So, I’d love to know who needs that information, and what do they care about, so that I can support you as you try to communicate and explain this solution. I want to make your job easier.”
Going back to politics, the number one fear of an evaluator is looking “stupid” as the point person. They want to look good in their organization. Your job is to help them look good. If they know that bringing you in to meet with other people in the organization makes them look good, then they’ll want to do that. If they think bringing you in will hurt their “political status” in the company, they won’t. Spend the time to make sure that they are comfortable with what you offer and they understand what your motive is.
If you are truly Other-Centered, and your motive is pure, this line of questioning won’t come across as forced or combative. If you are simply trying to serve, the questions will come across as how you intend them to.
How to Build a Relational Map
Once you identify all the players (i.e. the coach, the evaluator, the influencers, the decision maker), the first thing you want to do is figure out how those people are aligned with your solution. They are either:
- Positive – they like you, they like what you offer, they want you to win
- Neutral – they’re not sure who they want to win
- Negative – they want someone else to win
These are the facts. Each player falls into one of these buckets. (We sometimes refer to them as green, yellow, or red to denote positive, neutral, or negative). So take the players you’ve identified, and then categorize them as red, yellow, or green. Your coach or the evaluator may be able to help give insight on where these players fall.
The next step is to figure out how they’re connected to one another. Figure out how the influencers are connected to the decision maker. What is their relationship? Is it positive, negative, or neutral? Strong or weak? Are they able to get you access?
When you know how those players connected to one another, and you know how they feel about your solution, you can build your relational map. (We literally recommend that sellers map this out on paper, draw lines connecting people and color them in with red, yellow, or green). This also allows you to determine where your risks are.
You build your relational map, your access strategy, based on who is positively connected to the decision maker and who wants you to win. You can then figure out how to navigate in. That’s your best way of gaining access.
Bringing it Home
Remember, rank does not always equal power. Ignore titles – they only tell you who reports to who, not who has the most power. When sales reps begin to focus on influence and not on rank, it will open a whole new world.
Sales reps, spend time learning to ask and position your questions in a way that makes the evaluator want to sponsor you and help you. And spend time during your sales process moving the evaluator from someone who is skeptical and required to assess you, to someone who wants you to win. If you get stuck, don’t skip over the evaluator. Invest your time in making them your ally. It will pay off.