How to Sell to Decision-Makers & Influencers, According to Sales Leaders

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Flori Needle
Flori Needle


According to Gartner, a 2020 sales trend was that salespeople had to convince multiple stakeholders and evaluators at a company to buy their product.

salesperson having a conversation with a sales lead

These evaluators can be at any level and position within an organization, from team managers to CTOs. People in these different positions have varied interests, goals, and overall desires towards the products and services they use to meet their business needs.

Most critical, though, is that each stakeholder has a different level of power within their organization. Some are influencers that speak to the decision-makers and convince them to go in either direction, while others hold the final say on decisions.

As a salesperson, you need to be prepared for everything, regardless of the position of the person you’re selling to. However, the prospect of not knowing who you will be selling to can be nerve-wracking. In this post, we’ll explain how to identify sales leads you may be in conversation with, and give insight from expert sales leaders on how to sell to decision-makers and influencers.

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Identifying Sales Leads

Below we’ll explain how to qualify different sales stakeholders.

The Gatekeeper

The gatekeeper is usually an executive assistant or associate of the decision-maker. In some instances, it is beneficial to work with the gatekeeper to build trust with them and have them vouch for you with the decision-maker. Enter gatekeeper marketing.

If the gatekeeper is an executive assistant, you should know immediately by their title. If they don't hold the title but are working in an assistant's capacity, ask questions like, "Do you work closely with [executive name]?" Or, "You wear a lot of hats; how do you prioritize your day?"

The gatekeeper is likely aware of their boss' pain points, and your solution might also benefit them. Talk to them as you would the decision-maker, and ask their advice on the best way to approach their manager when it's time.

The Influencer

The influencer is traditionally a junior-level employee who’s asked to research options before briefing a superior. They don’t have the budget or authority to make a final decision, but they do have the power to influence the decision-maker.

Influencers exist on a scale, and the more extreme side of influencers are sometimes called champions. These people have shared direct information with you about how products and services are reviewed and discussed within the company and may introduce you to the appropriate stakeholders throughout the sales process.

To find out how much power your influencer really has, ask questions like, "Have you done this before?" or "Are you confident the decision-maker will follow your recommendation?"

The answers to these questions tell you how experienced your influencer is in presenting product/service solutions to the decision-maker, and it signals how much help you'll need to offer throughout the process.

The Decision-Maker

The decision-maker is typically C-suite; the person who signs the check, re-allocates the budget on their own, and says "yes" without conferring with anyone. And, while it's not common, a decision-maker sometimes conducts research.

Often, the decision-maker delegates the sales process to an influencer until it's further along. In this case, work with the influencer but keep the CEO in the loop. Show you're happy to work with their team, but regularly check in with them.

When referring to a decision-maker, they might possess different titles or descriptions depending on the company they work for. Here are a few additional terms that may describe them, depending on their role: manager, executive, director, managing director, or vice president.

How to Sell to Decision-Makers & Influencers, According to Sales Leaders

Once you’ve qualified the person that you’ll be selling to, it’s essential to sell to them in a way that speaks to their role. Below we’ll discuss advice from expert sales leaders on how to sell to people in different positions.

Have themes for speaking to different personas.

Elle Midey, Head of Corporate Sales at HubSpot, gives general advice on how to sell to people at different levels of influence in an organization: “It’s great to have themes for how to talk to different personas as a starting point in a sales discussion.”

She adds, “It’s no secret that CMOs, CEOs, CTOs, all care about different things. However, at the end of the day, you are speaking to a specific person at a specific company about their specific pain. Instead of generalizing, do some research!”

To get the information you need, Midey suggests doing research into the individuals’ background and how it may affect what they think, what their specific role is in their current company, the company’s overall goals and how the individual fits into them, and whether their pain point is something you can actually fix with your solution.

She believes that it’s important to help any stakeholder you’re speaking to through the decision-making process with strategic and personalized information: “Sellers should act as extensions of their prospect’s team, and that starts with deep discovery into the above questions.”

Build trust with gatekeepers.

A gatekeeper can be a valuable ally. By talking directly to the individual instead of immediately asking to be passed off to leadership and expressing genuine interest in getting to know their organization and challenges, you can gain valuable insight to help you make a sale down the line. Creating a sense of familiarity with them also goes a long way in building trust and working with them to close a sale.

Here are some questions and talking points you can try to build trust and learn more about your prospect:

  • "I see your company is preparing to launch XYZ product. How has that experience been?"
  • "What are some of the challenges your organization has faced in launching XYZ?"
  • "A previous client of mine worked through a similar challenge. I would be happy to talk to you about the solutions that worked for them."

Ask influencers about their day-to-day challenges.

Dan Imbriaco, SMB Manager on the HubSpot Sales team, says: “Influencers, I find, are much more focused on the ‘day in the life’ aspect of the product that you are selling as, oftentimes, they will be the actual users.” He says that the goal with these prospects should be to ask questions about the challenges they face with their current systems, toolsets, and day-to-day tasks.

Imbriaco’s strategy is to present the idea of a magic wand when speaking to influencers. He will ask them, “If you had a magic wand that could fix that challenge, what would that be?” He says that the question often helps you uncover a deep pain point that you may solve. At that point, you can present your product or service as a solution and demonstrate what a day in the life would look like if the sale were to go through.

Equip champions with the information they need to promote you to higher-level decision-makers.

As mentioned above, champions are high-powered influencers within a company that will introduce you to key stakeholders and promotes what you have to offer to get others on your side.

Champions are valuable people to be in conversation with at any given organization, which is why Travis Haninger, Co-Founder of SequoiaCX, says that it’s essential to focus on the stakeholders that have considerable influence because, if these individuals are on board, others will follow.

Haninger’s tip for selling to champions is to equip them with all of the information they need to promote you to higher-level decision-makers. He says, “Give them the knowledge and resources to counter other stakeholder objections, demonstrate ROI, and give assurances. Identify champions early in the process, and they will open doors and build consensus in ways that are impossible to you.”

Don’t sell to decision-makers, partner with them.

When selling to decision-makers, Hannah Ajikawo, Head of Europe at Sistas In Sales, says, “We shouldn’t be selling to decision-makers; we should be partnering with them.”

She says that this is important because senior decision-makers are usually in the positions they are in because, throughout their career, they have proven that they can take action, be trusted, and deliver results. She says it’s critical to help them build upon their perceived value in their org. Ajikawo says to focus on three key areas: insights, priorities, and the decision-making unit (DMU).

With insights, Ajikawo says you’ll want to ask yourself, “What do we know as salespeople that this decision-maker doesn’t have the time to find out and explore themselves?” Opt to share information with them that they may not be thinking about or have the time to uncover to build credibility.

With priorities, she says you must understand what strategic Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they have to identify opportunities where you can potentially fit in and present your product, service, or business as a solution to their pain points.

Minding the DMU means identifying who will be impacted by the sale. She says, “We need to multithread the deal even if our main influencer is adamant that they don’t need to be involved.” Since you’re a trusted source, you need to understand and prepare them for all aspects of the solution you’re selling so you can accurately inform them on what will happen and what they should expect if they follow through with the sale.

Aijkawo adds, “Do this right, and the sales engagement becomes super enjoyable.”

Selling to different stakeholders is a hallmark of B2B sales.

As a B2B salesperson, it’s more than likely you’ll be involved in a scenario where you are selling to different stakeholders, or maybe multiple at once.

It’s important to understand the different needs and intentions of each position you may be selling to, so you can maximize your influence. The more insight you have into each persona, the easier it will be to convince the necessary individuals and increase the likelihood of completing a sale.

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Topics: Sales Strategy

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