5 key steps for getting sales appointments with decision makers

Are you one of the many small business owners or other professionals who find it a challenge to make sales appointments with prospective customers?

If so, you’re not alone.

And if, like me, you are not a ‘born salesperson’ who loves the game of sales, even the thought of calling to set up a sales appointment with someone you haven’t met can be daunting.

If your budget will allow it, you might hire salespeople to do this for you and maybe even to handle the whole sales process from start to finish. For others of us, the choice will be to get those appointments ourselves, or miss out on the revenue from sales we don’t make.

Here are five key steps that I’ve found work well for getting sales appointments with decision makers:

  1. Research the company or organisation
  2. Understand key concerns of the industry
  3. Find out who the real decision makers are
  4. Use your network
  5. Make the gatekeeper your friend

READ: Closing the gap between sales and marketing

1. Research the company or organisation

We’ve all had them, haven’t we? Those calls from people we don’t know and who quickly establish they know little or nothing about what we do or whether we might be even remotely interested in what they have to offer.

Depending on how polite or otherwise we are feeling on the day, and how pressured or otherwise we might be with various deadlines, we may listen for a few minutes or decline to give them the time of day.

For want of a little research, they wasted their time and ours.

Under pressure to build our customer base, we can easily make the same mistake. So one of the first things to do is not to call, but to do some research. Luckily, this used to be a more complicated and time-consuming task than it generally is today.

Nowadays, by studying the company’s website and using LinkedIn, especially the Company Pages on that platform, and other social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, we can build a picture of a company, its range of products or services, its organisational structure and its key people.

Ideally, we can also find people in key positions in that company who are connected with colleagues or acquaintances of ours, thus providing us with a potential introduction that changes a cold call into a warm one.

2. Understand key concerns of the company’s industry

In any sales process we are endeavouring to show that we have a solution for a problem or challenge the prospective customer is facing. That can be specific to the company or it can be more general for their industry.

And even if our product or service may not be a solution to a general industry challenge, if we show some awareness and empathy we will have a better chance of gaining the prospective customer’s interest.

For example, someone who is seeking an appointment with the managing partner or other decision maker in a financial planning practice will have gained some understanding of the current state of government legislation in that field and the sensitivity of the profession about that.

If our prospect is a decision maker for a ‘bricks and mortar’ retail company we will make sure we have a current awareness of stories in the mainstream media about the serious challenges such businesses are facing from the movement to online shopping.

It’s not that we have to do deep research on every industry’s challenges. But if we want to gain enough interest on the part of the prospect that she or he will make time to have us meet with them, we need to know and understand something about what keeps them and their industry colleagues awake at night, whether in terms of threats to or opportunities for that industry, or both.

READ: Marrying sales and marketing right

3. Find out who the real decision makers are

In some of the early sales training I received, at no small cost in time and money, it was instilled into me that you should always endeavour to start at the top of an organisation. The argument was that, even if the CEO was not the person you need to talk to in order to get a decision, if you’ve talked with the CEO first, then others lower in the hierarchy will be virtually obliged to give you some time; whereas, if you started lower you might never get to the key decision maker.

Sometimes I’m a slow learner, as I was in this case.  Sometimes I did get to the top person on the totem pole, but after a while I worked out that if I could find the key decision maker first and get an appointment with that person, I could save myself and others a lot of time and bother.

A further learning, which should have been obvious enough even for a slow learner, was that in many organisations it is not clear even to the people in the organisation, including those in management, or partners in a partnership, who the decision makers actually are.

Ever worked in an organisation where the sometimes plaintive or angry cry was heard “Who approved this”?

So part of the process of getting an appointment with the decision maker is to establish who that is as clearly as we can, first by whatever research we can do before we make contact (see the first point above, about research), and then by checking with the people we talk with once we have made contact with the company.

We also need to recognise that managers often want us to think they have more decision making power than they really do. We need to politely ask questions such as, “Who else might be involved in deciding on this?” and “Could you just take me through the basic process for something like this to be decided on?”

And if you doubt the need for those sorts of questions, you’ve never been solemnly promised a sale by a general manager or middle management person, only to discover later that others had put the kibosh on your proposal: people who had not had the benefit of hearing directly from you and had not been convinced by the manager you spoke to and whom you unwittingly appointed as your sales rep!

Believe me, some patient questioning early on, to get clarity about the decision makers, and then working on getting the opportunity to speak directly with them, can make all the difference between deal and no deal.

4. Use your network

Whether or not you subscribe to the idea of six degrees of separation, whereby everyone on the planet is said to be on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world, the fact is that a well-developed network can often facilitate the process of getting sales appointments with decision makers.

This is not just a matter of online social networks. People have no doubt been getting introductions to prospects for thousands of years.

But LinkedIn and other social networking services can certainly amplify and speed up the process of our getting in front of the key decision makers.

Effective, supportive networks can no more be built overnight online than they can offline. So we need to keep building our network, not just in numbers but in quality.

5. Make the gatekeeper your friend

Let’s face it, gatekeeping is one of the main job functions of executive assistants, secretaries or other people you may need to speak with before you get to the decision makers. The usefulness to their employers of people in such roles will be judged in part by how effective they are in screening calls.

And they may well be operating under a directive not to allow any calls through from sales people, so it’s no use being irritated or feeling offended. They are doing their job.

We need to make them our friends, not our opponents.

This can take some practice, but I’ve found more often than not when I treat the person with respect, acknowledging that they have a job to do, they don’t get defensive or try to get rid of me immediately, and I don’t get my nose out of joint.

Often, that person will be very well briefed about what the decision maker’s concerns are, and by having a conversation with the gatekeeper we can seek to establish a basis for being put through now or for making a time to call back when it might be more convenient to try and set up an appointment.

It’s important that we don’t try to do a full pitch to the gatekeeper: we don’t want the gatekeeper trying to represent our story to the decision maker, because we know they will not be able to tell our story as well as we can. Just give enough information to pique their interest and establish that the person they are ‘guarding’ might want to hear more about this.

And we may find in the course of explaining why we are calling that we have come to the wrong part of the organisation. The gatekeeper can then become our ally in getting to the right person.

And a bonus point

The bonus point is to understand that our biggest obstacle in the sales process may well be ourselves and our preconceptions of our role and identity.

For many professionals, the need to engage in a sales process can be confronting. It clashes with our idea of being a professional, and it can seem to us that we are lowering ourselves.

This may not only make us slow to take action — it can actually lead to us self-sabotaging our own sales efforts.

But if we apply the principles and processes outlined above, and do some work on our ego and professional identity issues, we will only start to have more success in getting those sales appointments — we can even come to enjoy the process.

I did. It wasn’t always easy, but now I wonder what the fuss was all about.

What experiences and lessons would you like to share about the process of getting sales appointments with decision makers?