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Winning the Complex Sale

2 Feb, 2015 By: Tom Cooke & Kim D. Ward, PMSG

Overcome the Challenges of Selling to Decision Influence Groups
Most selling professionals and sales managers agree that navigating Decision Influence Groups to win the complex sale has become one of the most difficult challenges in today’s business environment. It is safe to say that in the last 20 to 30 years, there has not been a more significant or more difficult obstacle confronting sales professionals than navigating the multiple influencers and decision makers who now set the pace for corporate purchase decision making. If salespeople understand the dynamics of complex buying and selling and are prepared to create critical decision mass, they can become trusted business partners to your customers.

Navigating the Complex Sale

A Decision Influence Group is a collection of people who influence and participate in a buying decision process. Most commonly, DIG’s are created because of assumed decision risk or for the purpose of limiting decision mistakes and improving overall decision satisfaction. Companies that utilize Decision Influence Groups have numerous advantages. As an example, a byproduct of using Decision Influence Groups for purchase decisions is that the customer maintains more control over timing and outcome because salespeople are frequently unprepared to navigate a shifting decision influencer landscape.

And yet, as with any selling challenge, this growing purchase decision trend provides tremendous opportunities for the informed sales professional who is fully prepared to successfully navigate the complex sale. In order to win the trust and support of Decision Influence Group members and develop a true ‘Trusted Advisor’ status with more members, we must be adequately prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. Which influencer owns the compelling reason that’s driving the decision?
  2. What process will the company use for making the decision?
  3. Who will be involved in the decision process and what role will they play?
  4. What are their individual decision criteria and or decision objectives?
  5. How much influence and credibility does each influencer have?
  6. Where is each influencer in their individual decision process?
  7. Is each influencer a supporting, opposing or neutral influence?
  8. Which strategies and/or techniques should be applied to:
  1. Help each influencer achieve their goals?
  2. Synergize decision influencer decision making and momentum?
  3. Create competitive differentiation and advantage?
  4. Create ultimate decision, company and solution satisfaction?

Construction of a Decision Influence Group

Whether it is a formal or informal Decision Influence Group, DIG construction always begins with the Crucial Decision Maker.

The Crucial Decision Maker (CDM) is the final decision maker and has the authority to draw others into the decision process for decision support. The CDM is frequently the executive or business owner who has the most to gain or lose from the decision. There is normally only one Crucial Decision Maker.

The makeup of a Decision Influence Group is uniquely dynamic and created based on the goals and motivations of the Crucial Decision Maker. There is no typical DIG construct. Salespeople may find a degree of DIG structure variance in every selling situation. The formation of the group is commonly based on the motivations, expertise, responsibilities, credibility and influence of each group member. If the CDM chooses not to fulfill the role themselves, then they may assign or appoint one or more people to serve as the Decision Group Navigator (DGN). The DGN commonly possesses high levels of influence and credibility with other DIG members and is asked to gather information and navigate internal processes. If the DGN is not also the CDM then the Decision Group Navigator(s) will pass along decision recommendations so that the CDM can make the final decision.

In addition to the core Decision Influence Group members, the Crucial Decision Maker and the Decision Group Navigator, other influencers may be called on for input.  These additional influencers may be:

Integration Experts (IE) may be recruited for the DIG because they possess unique knowledge or experience that might be critical in making the best purchase decision. Most frequently the IE is considered an expert on mission critical integration and implementation. One simple example is the IT person who is recruited to help the group ensure the productive purchase and integration of technology solutions.

Group Advocates (GA) may also be recruited or accepted into the influence group. They commonly focus on policy or procedure and their DIG responsibility is to protect the company and the Decision Influence Group. Depending on what is being purchased, the GA could be someone from Human Resources, a purchasing agent, internal legal counsel or any others who have assigned responsibility in their company role to protect the integrity of the company’s processes and procedures.

User/Producer (UP) employees are frequently asked by supervisors, managers and executives for insight or input when they are making purchase decisions. The reason is simple. If the purchased product must be implemented and utilized by employees, then many decision makers feel that it just makes sense to gain the UP’s special insights, perspectives and preferences before making any final purchase decisions. This is especially true when the proposed integration or implementation will span a broad base of end users.


External Resource (ER) individuals are commonly outside the natural group and company but they are recruited into the DIG because their opinions are valued. Again, depending on what is being purchased, the ER could be anyone from a DIG member neighbor, friend, outside consultant, accountant or legal advisor. Really it could be anyone that one or more of the Decision Influence Group taps for council because they believe that the ER’s opinions, expertise or insights might have true decision value.

Resulting Challenges

Because of the natural formation of Decision Influence Groups which are intended to decrease decision mistakes and improve overall purchase satisfaction, several challenges emerge for the sales professional. Some of the more common selling challenges created by the formation of DIG’s are:

  • Decision process and procedures which don’t include the salesperson
  • Decision research and DIG member discussion outside the salesperson’s input and influence
  • External competitive marketing influence prior to salesperson engagement
  • More difficulty in identifying and contacting decision making executives
  • Extensive decision criteria developed by DIG prior to salesperson participation
  • Difficulties aligning with decision influencers in their decision process because of ‘late’ decision engagement (More RFP’s and RFQ’s)
  • Decision Influence Group members who are dramatically out of step with other influencer decision steps, motivation, decision criteria, objectives and goals

Strategies For Winning The Complex Sale

Even though the complexities of Decision Influence Groups have made selling more challenging for B2B salespeople, navigating the group and winning the complex sale can easily be accomplished with the right mix of education, application and technique.

  1. Understand the Buying Decision Process

Understanding where each member of the Decision Influence Group is in their decision process and being proactively prepared to help them through their decisions is critical in maintaining momentum. The four customer buying decision steps are, Acquire Information, Assess Options, Apply Decisions and Achieve Satisfaction. 

  1. Identify The Buying Company Decision Influencers and Process

If salespeople intend to help a company and their Decision Influence Group through their buying decision process then they must identify the influencers and any internal method used to make the decision. Internal decision procedures are easily identified by asking questions like: “What process will your company use for making this decision?” If there are formal or required decision procedures which the company or DIG must follow, then the people involved with making the decision will normally be able to explain them.  Identifying DIG members requires a few more questions. These questions make it easier for the salesperson to identify influencers, determine possible decision support or opposition, and understand the hierarchical credibility of each DIG member. Some recommended questions are:

  • Who else might help with making the best decision?
  • Are there others who will be supporting the decision process?
  • If you choose to go forward, who else might be impacted by the decision?
  • Is there anyone you might help by making this decision?
  • Is there anyone who may not want you to make this decision?
  1. Identify Decision Influencer Motivations, Objectives and Challenges

Everyone involved in influencing and making a purchase decision may have different goals, motivations and objectives. Frequently this influencer individuality is referred to as ‘having a different agenda.’ To determine how they might best help each of the influencers through their individual decision process salespeople should ask DIG members strategic questions like:

  • What would you like to accomplish with this decision?
  • What obstacles do you think might exist?
  • What do you think is driving or prompting this initiative?
  • Where is this decision on the priority list?
  • Are other providers or solutions being considered?
  • How could we make this decision easier for you?
  • What do you hope this will do for you in the future?
  1. Help Each Decision Influence Group Member Through Their Decision Process

Once the salesperson understands who might be involved in making the decision and what each person hopes to accomplish and why, then the task of helping them to make the best decision and achieve their individual goals becomes important. Generally speaking, this requires the salesperson advisor to work with DIG members to accomplish the following tasks.

  • Compile a comprehensive list of DIG member decision criteria and their individual priorities for each criterion.
  • Ask questions which uncover additional decision motivation and increase the customer’s perception of affirmative decision and product purchase value.
  • Identify and overcome any competitive decision influences.
  • Identify and reposition any opposing DIG member influence.
  • Develop ‘Trusted Advisor’ status with as many DIG members as possible.
  • Coordinate communication and support between buyer company influencers (DIG members) and seller company resources (Complex Selling Team).
  • Create positive critical decision mass for higher pay-off purchase decisions.

Even though Decision Influence Groups and complex buying and selling have become more common in the business world today, great salespeople can still be effective. A salesperson that successfully navigates and influences DIGs to improve buying decisions creates a differentiated, trusted position for themselves with the client company.

At Learning Outsource Group we have had the pleasure of working with tens of thousands of successful selling professionals, managers and leaders and have continuously collected best practices and developed successful selling strategies for over two decades. Our research, sales coaching and consulting have produced our newest flagship advanced selling skills training “Cooperation Selling.”  To learn more about Winning The Complex Sale and understanding how and why companies make purchase decisions, Learning Outsource Group will be presenting at the upcoming ITEX Expo & Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, FL in March.


Authors:  Thomas Cooke is the Founder and President of Learning Outsource Group and the Managing Principal of Print Management Solutions Group.  He is a recognized speaker & facilitator at numerous conferences, organizations and OEM’s. He has authored or co-authored various training programs including Selling Managed Print Services and Sales Management Leadership University.  Kim D. Ward is the Director of Education and Training with Learning Outsource Group.  Kim has authored and co-authored numerous training programs and books. He has personally delivered seminars to over 70,000 participants. 

About the Author: Tom Cooke & Kim D. Ward, PMSG

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