Targeting the Right Executive for the Complex Sale

Stephen J. Bistritz

When you're in the middle of a sales campaign and navigating a complex client organization you can typically identify multiple executives at various levels in the organization who influence the buying decision for a major purchase. However, for each sales opportunity there is usually only a single executive who would be considered as the relevant executive for that opportunity. Identifying the relevant executive may be the best use of your time in your current (or next) sales campaign. How is the relevant executive defined? It's the executive who stands to gain the most – or lose the most – as a result of the outcome of the project or application associated with your sales opportunity.

To dramatically illustrate the concept of a relevant executive, think about a key sales opportunity that you lost. Were you aligned with the most influential person in the client organization – the person who made the ultimate buying decision? If not, your competitor was probably aligned with that person and that's why you lost the deal.

Why is it so critical to identify the relevant executive? Because that executive may be in a unique position to proactively make a purchase decision or usurp a buying decision that has already been made in the formal decision-making process. Successful salespeople are tuned to the formal decision-making process; it’s the one that's described in the RFP or articulated by those who actively participate in the formal decision-making process. (How many times have you heard the expression, “You don't need to go over my head; I'll be making this buying decision.”?) But in nearly every sales opportunity, there is an informal decision-making process taking place. Successful salespeople understand that the informal process always trumps the formal process and they take action to make certain they are aligned with the key players who are part of the informal process.

But how do you identify the most influential person in the client organization as it relates to a specific sales opportunity? First, be constantly aware of what’s happening in the client organization. Observe how major buying decisions are made, who wins when reorganizations take place, and which executives receive the special assignments that are meaningful and significant. Additionally, look for who’s connected to other key players within the client organization. Notice which executives are tapped to lead the new projects of high importance. Discuss these events with your supporters or mentors in the client organization and then triangulate your information to develop your conclusions. Then, if you can align with the executive you think has the most to gain or lose - the relevant executive for the sales opportunity – spend some quality time with that person.

Your objective is to get that relevant executive selling for you so that you can win the deal. Salespeople often talk about their coaches in client organizations and the value of a coach when buying decisions are imminent. Sometimes a coach can be on the sidelines cheering you on; he is transparent with his support for you, your company and your solutions. Yet when you leave the client's location, the coach can become silent with respect to that support. What should be cultivated is a mentor – someone within the client organization who not only openly supports you in your presence but also sells in your absence, especially when you are in the middle of a sales campaign. After your presentation is over and you've left the building, a mentor will stand up and openly support you and your solution. If you can identify and align with the relevant executive and have that executive also become your mentor, the results can be extremely powerful.

Here's a word of caution, however: Because influence is situational, the person you identify as the relevantexecutive for the current sales opportunity might change for the next opportunity. It's important to understand this, because some salespeople fall into the trap of mapping the politics and influence in their key accounts for one deal and expect that those variables will remain constant for all subsequent deals. Influence is always in motion and there are so many factors involved in the complex sale that you need to profile influence one sales opportunity at a time.

Stephen J. Bistritz is the co-author of the best-selling sales book, “Selling to the C-Suite,” published by McGraw-Hill in 2010. He is president and founder of a global sales training and consulting firm based in Atlanta. Visit his website at