5 Ways to Identify Sales Leads: Gatekeepers, Influencers, and Decision Makers

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Today’s salespeople -- and especially account-based salespeople -- need to know more about their prospects before conducting outreach. And, chances are, they’ll need to know someone other than the decision maker pretty well.

In days of old, salespeople could call the C-suite, marketing could email them, and it was much easier to gain access to the decision maker. Now, C-suites can isolate themselves with caller ID, email filters, and assistants. Salespeople can’t ignore the influencer or “call above” them. But how do you spot an influencer from a stop-gap or a champion from a blocker?

Here are a few ways to determine which type of prospect you're speaking with. Will they help you make the sale or unknowingly stop you from talking to the right person? Time -- and these tips -- will help you discover the answer.

1. The Gatekeeper

The gatekeeper is usually an executive assistant or associate to the decision maker. 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?

Once you’ve identified the gatekeeper, you have a few options. The first is to call the decision maker after hours when you know their assistant isn’t there. This is fine for making initial contact, but avoid working around their gatekeeper -- a strategy that might end up backfiring.

Other options include selling to or working with the gatekeeper. The assistant is likely aware of their boss’ pain points, and your solution might also benefit them. Sell to them as you would the decision maker, and ask their advice on the best way to approach their manager when it’s time.

Work with them as an ally, and see the dividends pay out when you finally approach the decision maker.

2. The Influencer

The influencer is traditionally a junior-level employee who's asked to research options before their superior is briefed. They don’t have budget or authority to make a final decision, but they do have the power to influence the decision maker. The influencer is usually your main point of contact at the company, and they’ll pull in the appropriate stakeholders (such a finance or IT) throughout the sales process.

To find out how much power your influencer really has, ask questions like, “Have you done this before?” “Are you confident the decision maker will follow your recommendation?” and “Is there anyone on your team who might hijack our conversations?

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.

3. The Decision Maker

This is typically the C-suite; the person who signs the check, re-allocates budget on their own, and says “yes” without conferring with anyone. And, while it's not common, a decision maker sometimes conducts research. When that happens, make the most of the situation and keep them close.

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.

Access to unlimited content has put the buyer in control of the sales process. Your account-based sales strategy needs to adjust to fit the changing behavior with your prospects, and influencers are now imperative to winning business. If you ignore them, you’re missing an opportunity.

4. The Self-Proclaimed Decision Maker

The self-proclaimed decision maker is a toxic prospect. If they’re offering unsolicited information, like "I make X amount of money", "I carry a lot of weight around here," or "The CEO and I are buddies," chances are, this person has little influence and might be wasting your time.

Whether it’s intentional or not, they’re gating you from the rest of the internal purchasing process. Pay attention to those volunteering too much information about their authority.

Ask this influencer how often they meet with the CEO, because strong influencers meet with executive’s often. And find out what other products/services they've brought into the company and how that process worked. If they haven’t sourced solutions before or don't work with the C-suite often, find another contact.

Many times, salespeople have their own definition of a decision maker, but it might not match that of the prospect. By the prospect’s definition, they’re the decision maker because they’re deciding what to recommend to the C-suite. This person is actually the recommender.

In this case, the prospect is not being deceptive. Don’t dismiss the recommender, because they’re extremely valuable to the sale. Ask why they’re researching a solution and who’s asked them to do so. Their answer will tell you who the real decision maker is.

5. The Blocker

Often, the blocker has all the qualities of an influencer. They're junior or mid-level, are in charge of researching solutions for their team or company and are your primary contact and communication source for the company.

But, eventually, the blocker will stop answering your phone calls. Your emails will go unopened, and the deal will stall. You've been ghosted: the specialty of the blocker. 

What's important here is to discern when it's time to walk away from the company and when it's time to simply find a new lead there. If you think you're talking to a blocker and someone else at the business should hear what you have to say -- do your research.

Track the company's hiring on LinkedIn to see when someone on a relevant team starts. Then, reach out to them to see if they'd be interested in hearing about your solution. Strike up a relationship with an executive and use that as leverage to engage someone new at the company.

Or simply use LinkedIn to track down someone else on the team and say, "I've been speaking with a colleague of yours about your need to lower export costs on overseas shipments. It seems like you might be the more appropriate person to speak with. Do you have a few minutes this week to jump on a call?"

Identifying who you’re speaking with and who you need to speak with is a crucial part of the sales process. Incorporate these questions into your strategy, and find more success with each person you talk to within a prospect’s company.

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