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Identifying Sales Prospects: Gate-keepers, Influencers, and Decision Makers

The shift from outbound marketing to inbound marketing has forever changed the sales landscape: now, we are moving towards an inbound sales methodology. This means we have to know more about our prospects before we reach out to them, and chances are, we're going to need to get to know someone other than the decision maker very well.

With the advent of search, one area that has dramatically changed is in regards to who we have to sell to. In the days of outbound marketing, salespeople could cold call into the C-suite, marketing could email them, and it was easier gain access to the decision makers. However, decision makers can now isolate themselves with caller ID and spam blockers. We can no longer ignore the influencer or “call above” them. But how do you spot an influencer from a stop-gap?

When the decision maker (DM) needs to fix a problem, they will delegate the due diligence to a trusted colleague to research solutions. Other times, an influencer will actively seek out solutions without any access to the decision maker. If your company is doing inbound marketing, these prospects should be finding you. From there, it is up to you to determine which type of prospect you're speaking to -- will they help you make the sale or will they unknowingly stop you from ever speaking to the right person?

1) The Self-Proclaimed Decision Maker

The self-proclaimed decision maker is a toxic prospect. If they are offering you unsolicited information up front, such as "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 may be trying to take you for a ride. Intentionally or not, they are gating you from the rest of their internal purchasing process. Pay attention to those who volunteer too much information about their authority.

Ask this influencer how often they meet with the CEO, as strong influencers meet with the executive suite often. You should also ask what other products or services they've brought into the company and how that process worked. If they have not been part of the process of bringing another service and/or don't work with the C-suite often, try to find a way to be introduced to another contact who would be a better fit.

2) The Recommender

Many times in sales we have our own definition of the decision maker, but it doesn’t necessarily match that of the prospect. The prospect truly thinks they are the DM -- their justification is that they will be evaluating all vendors and bringing their decision to the C-Suite. By the prospect’s definition they are the DM because they are deciding what to recommend. This person is actually, what I call, the recommender.  In this scenario, the prospect is not being deceptive. Don’t dismiss the recommender, as they are extremely valuable in a sale. Ask why they are researching a solution and who asked them to do so. Their answer will tell the salesperson who the real DM is by the sales person’s definition. Stay tuned on how to work the recommender to win more business.

3) The Decision Maker

This is typically the C-level; the person who signs the check, who can re-allocate budget on their own, say yes with out conferring with anyone, the person in charge. While it's not always common to have the actual DM doing the research, when it does happen make sure to keep him or her close. Oftentimes, the DM might want to delegate the sales process to an influencer until it is farther 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.

The internet and 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. Influencers are now imperative to winning business. If you ignore them, you’re missing an opportunity.

Katharine Derum has over 13 years of selling and managing in the software industry. Her contributions to HubSpot include being the creator of the Inbound Marketing Assessment. You can follow her at @KADscrambledegg.

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