Product Management, Consultant, Advisor

Not Sure if You’re Selling to Power? Ask this.

Who are you really talking to? (Courtesy Ryan McGuire —

You’ve done everything right.

You’ve moved the deal along perfectly through the sales stages and it’s time to send out the paperwork. You email the contract to your Point of Contact (POC) and sit back waiting for it to be signed and returned. Instead, your mail pings with a message:

“Hey, thanks for sending this on. I’m going to have to show this to our director/ CEO/ CFO/ Head of Sales/ Chief Dog Catcher to talk about getting this signed.”

Your once jubilant heart skips a beat, that ruddy glow of another deal nearly closed drains from your face.

“Who the hell is [insert random title here]?!” you ask yourself, “My contact said he was the Decision-Maker. He never mentioned anyone else needing to signing the paperwork!”

On shaky legs you make you way to your manager. It’s time to explain that this month’s key deal (which you committed to the forecast and promised was going to be signed today) is now stalled and — if you’re being honest with yourself— is in jeopardy.

Salespeople, deal-makers, and consultants around the world know this story all too well. Discovering weeks or months down the road that you’ve been talking to the wrong person all along is disappointing and frustrating.

The good news though is that it’s almost always avoidable.

So how can we avoid falling into this trap?

Two Simple Questions

From having made and listened to thousands of sales calls, pitches, and proposal meetings I’ve come to the conclusion that, in the vast majority of cases, we can find out if we’re talking to Power with just two simple questions:

“Who will be making the final decision on this?”
“Who will be signing the paperwork?”

Question 1:

“Who will be making the final decision on this?”

Sounds obvious, right? That’s because it is.

However, far too often we hear what want to hear from our POC and don’t thoroughly explore the finer details of this question.

In business, real power sits with those who have the authority to say “yay” or “nay”, to push the button on a proposal or to kill it stone dead. Therefore, uncovering who holds that position is of crucial importance for any deal to be struck — and the first step comes with asking “Who will be making the final decision on this?”

Not asking this question is a sales crime that even the most experienced amongst us sometimes commit: we put the blinkers on and assume (or worse, convince ourselves) that our POC is the deal Decision-Maker (DM), often without real evidence to support that hypothesis.

But as we know well, it’s rare that our initial POC will turn out to be the DM within a sales opportunity. Sometimes even, our initial POC may hold little power and may in fact just be an Influencer. In such cases, you’ll often hear responses to the above question with lines such as “I’ll be contributing to the decision…” or “I’ve been asked to look into this for our Head of X…”.

Listen out for words like “contributing”, “consulting”, “recommending” — just about anything at all along these lines sounds great to the untrained ear but to the best salespeople they’re indications that the person you’re speaking with is unlikely to be real Power. The tasked may have autonomy but it is only ever the task-giver who has authority.

As experienced salespeople and deal-makers know, b2b purchases and agreements tend to involve multiple stakeholders for input and signoff. Therefore, while your POC may be one of the DM’s, he is unlikely to be the sole DM. As such, while your POC maybe be critical to the process, they’re unlikely to have the casting vote — whether they’re cognisant of this or not.

Therefore, what makes Question 1 particularly useful then is that it allows you to understand more about your Point of Contact and the decision-making structure within their organisation — all crucial details within a complex sales cycle.

It’s for this reason that I recommend asking some follow up/ clarifying questions:

  • “Have you been tasked by anyone to look into [your product or service]?”
  • “Are there more stakeholders than you alone involved this project?”
  • “Will a board need vote on this?”
  • “Do you need to consult with anyone else on this?”
  • “Will the decision to purchase [your product or service] only affect your department or will it affect other departments within the business?”
  • “Will this be coming from your own department’s budget, from a larger budget, or cross-departmental budgets?”

From their answers, if your POC is adamant and clear with you that they are the sole DM then you are, of course, talking to Power.

If, as is more likely, you uncover that there are more people involved in the final decision than you POC alone, it’s important you encourage your POC to introduce those other DM’s into the process as early as possible.


Because in such a case, while your POC may be a DM, it is only within the collective of the DM’s as a group where Power resides, not in just one individual.

Question 2:

“Who will sign the paperwork?”

Your POC is either the signer or they are not. There is no middle ground on this one.

However, this is not an all or nothing question. Your POC may be a DM – maybe even the Key Decision-Maker – but they still may not be the person who signs the actual paperwork. What’s more important in asking this question is not whether your POC is the actual signer or not, what’s important is that he knows who the signer is and what the signing criteria are for the business you’re selling into.

This is how I phrase the question:

Assuming we have a solution/ service that suits your needs, and assuming we agree on terms and you want to go ahead with the purchase, when I send out the paperwork who will I be sending it to and who will be signing it?

If you POC is unable to give you a clear answer on who will sign the paperwork then the alarm bells need to start ring for two reasons:

A) your POC does not trust you yet

B) your POC does not know

If the problem is “A” then this can be worked on and circumnavigated as it’s within your control to engender and establish trust as you develop the relationship.

If however the problem is “B” then it is outside your control. If your POC does not know who signs paperwork (like the one you would ultimately be sending out) then it means that they do not know what the buying/purchasing policy and process is within their organisation. If they are unfamiliar with the process then it means they are an outsider to the decision-making process, and if that’s the case, they are not Power.

If your POC does give a name of the signer(s) — even if that name is your POC himself — I like to ask some follow-up/ clarifying questions such as:

“Is there anyone else other than X who also needs to read the paperwork before it get’s signed?”
“Will I need to include more than just one signature block area on the paperwork?”
“When I send the paperwork to X, will X be signing it, or should I expect a different name to come back on the paperwork?”

As with Question 1, if other names crop up here the onus is now back on you to bring those people into the sale ASAP in order to give your deal the best chance of success.

Wrap Up

This method has worked for me consistently over the years, and rare is it that a POC will lead you down the wrong path in their answers as it’s not in their interest nor that of their company’s. Buyers want to get deals done just as much as sellers.

By following the line of questioning outlined above 99/100 times you’re going to very quickly identify whether you’ve been talking to Power and, if not, who you need to get chatting with right away.

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Nick Hynes

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