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Who Is the Real Decision-Maker?

How to tell if you're selling to the person who can really tell you yea or nay

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Q: I've been getting the runaround for the past six months from the CFO of the largest organization I've ever attempted to sell to. What's a good way to find out where I stand? I thought I was with the decision-maker! How can I be sure?

A: Will the real decision-maker please stand up? The "perched-pen" syndrome that you're experiencing from this CFO is not all that uncommon from someone who appears to be the decision-maker but in reality is just a very high-ranking manager. As a general rule, those who manage financial accounting functions are not the most important players in the enterprise decision-making process and are usually a far cry from being the actual decision-maker.

Don't get me wrong--the CFO may be an important ally in the organization and can play the role of an inside coach. They are certainly in a position to give you important information about the decision-making process, but they will most likely fail the following test:

The next time you find yourself making a sales call on someone with an impressive C-level title and you want to make sure that this is the person who will be making the decision, try this: At the end of your sales call, as you're closing your briefcase, look that person straight in the eye and say, "Ms. Prospect, are you prepared to move forward? Are you prepared to begin to use our solution and realize the kinds of benefits we've been talking about?"

Let's say you get an answer along these lines: "This sounds very interesting, but I need to discuss it with my people. Why don't you call me back in two weeks."

At this critical point, you can wait the two weeks and never be sure that you've got the decision-maker on your hands, or you can say this: "Ms. Prospect, if you didn't have your team to consult with--and I know that you do--but if you had to make the decision right now, what would it be?"

I know that saying this takes guts! But it will tell you something extremely important about the person you are dealing with. If Ms. Prospect really is the decision-maker, you will get an answer something like, "Well, I usually have my team flesh these issues out for me, but if I had to make up my mind right now, I'd stay with our current vendor." Or, "If I had to make up my mind right now, I'd do business with you and your company because I like what I've seen so far."

Real decision-makers will answer your question for two reasons: They can. And they won't hedge on a direct question or challenge like this before members of their own team. Remember, if you hear, "I am not prepared to answer that right now" or any variation on that sentiment, guess what? You're talking to a wannabe, not the real decision-maker.

If you would rather ask me a question live, you can tune in to my Entrepreneur Sales & Marketing Show, which is broadcast on the Internet every Friday from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. PDT. To listen, go to

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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