Understand buyers’ top 10 decision types

Sales success is all about decisions. Facilitating them, that is. And not necessarily “yesses.” They’re certainly preferred, but ironically, trying to get to “yes” often precludes getting any decision. The aim is to get a decision, whether “yes” or “no.”

What? “No” is okay? What self-respecting salesperson would accept “no.” After all, aren’t all the sales books about getting to “yes”? (Many are, but that doesn’t mean that buyers welcome the approach.)

Begin with a definition

de·ci·sion (d-szhn) n.

  • The passing of judgment on an issue under consideration.
  • The act of reaching a conclusion or making up one’s mind.
  • Baseball: A win or loss accorded to a pitcher

The first two are obvious. I included the American baseball reference because it reminds us that a decision has two possible outcomes.

Without a decision, you’re sentenced to eternal follow-up. If they had kept records of sales follow-up in the 19th century, it doubtless would have informed at least one of Dante’s nine circles.

Throughout my sales coaching career, I’ve strongly advocated for a decision focus. Forget pitching or persuading. Use your lawyering skills to facilitate a well-informed, sustainable decision that leaves buyers emotionally secure enough to take action, and intellectually clear enough to defend it against later challenges.

Decisions themselves are binary. However, whenever humans are in the mix, there’ll be complexity. Here are the Top Ten types of business development decisions.

1. Delayed decisions

Decisions are hard for most people because they involve risk, so they do whatever they can to avoid them. It’s been said that we don’t become decisive; we merely run out of time not to.

To avoid deciding, some prospects play the waiting game, hoping that circumstances eventually make the decision for them. Because they intuitively understand the implications of engaging in buying activity, prospects who are inclined to delay decisions may delay even expressing interest until they have an immediate and urgent need to do something, i.e., when they’ve run out of waiting time.

When they contact you with that mindset, getting the business may depend on your ability to deliver exactly what they need, when they need it, how they need it, and at a price they’ve probably already decided they’re willing to pay. Because they’ve exhausted all their “consideration time,” it’s hard to modify the specs they’ve established in their minds, no matter how flawed or incomplete they might be.

2. Decisions to please others

Some prospects may feel a political or social obligation to buy from someone else, such as those who settle for barely adequate legal representation purchased from a relative, or an imposed source. There’s an inherent reluctance built in.

Instead of abandoning the prospect entirely, try to redefine the need in a way that doesn’t put you in direct competition with the incumbent or anointed prospective counsel. Look for a compromise that allows the prospect to give you some of the business without giving up the incumbent (and triggering the need to justify doing so). It’s almost always wise to avoid a direct attack on the incumbent’s turf and focus on solutions to other business problems not yet defined as legal problems. That way, the prospect can approve you as doing “additional” or “different” work and avoid having to justify to himself or others not selecting the insider.

3. Forced decisions

Forced decisions occur when Buyers find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They have little time for information-gathering and analysis, so the seller who wins is often the one who was in the right place at the right time.

When your prospects have to make unavoidable decisions about problems that matter, make sure you’re a) clearly associated with the problem, and b) have had frequent enough contact that you’re the first person they think about.

This is where a consistent and relevant social media presence is critical. If you’re part of their daily feed, it’s hard to forget about you, and how you’re associated with the meaningful problem or challenge that just arose.

Send useful information and make calls that keep you uppermost in their minds. Keep yourself visible in the trade press. Make it easy for them to make decisions and select you quickly when they’re under the gun. These tactics also make it easier to justify hiring you when others question the decision afterward. (See: 2. Decisions to please others.)

4. Take out the crystal ball

Realistically assess and project what, given her circumstances, your prospect is likely to do next. You may have some difficulty accepting this because when you’ve developed a plan it’s natural to focus on how you want her to respond, rather than how she’s most likely to respond. Don’t be unwilling to recognize a potential outcome simply because you’re focused on how much you want a different one. Approach this just as you do a deposition or preparation for courtroom testimony, i.e., anticipate all possible outcomes and prepare for each.

Here’s a useful way to think about it:

  • What’s the worst response the other person might make?
  • What’s the best?
  • How do I expect the other person to respond based on their perspective?
  • Based on objective evidence, how confident am I about this expectation?
  • Given the response I anticipate, is this worth my investment?

5. Reactive decisions

Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, but are affected by larger trends and events in the prospect’s industry. Prospects, particularly those more comfortable as followers rather than leaders, may base buying decisions partly on what their competitors are doing. While you’re gathering information on prospects, keep an eye on their competitors, too. Try to anticipate what those competitors might do, how your prospects might react and how those reactions will affect you. Use competitive information to help them make decisions. Understanding the industry/competitive landscape also enhances your relevance in the prospect’s eyes.

6. Personal preference decisions

While we must help Buyers make informed decisions, we must also consider their personal taste, emotional needs, and the way they view circumstances. Don’t be such an expert that you risk losing the sale because you and your Buyers can’t agree on what they should buy. Analyze your Buyer’s personal style. As you outline benefits, put yourself in your Buyer’s shoes and make sure you appeal to their personal preferences.

7. Results-driven decisions

Some Buyers choose a particular firm or lawyer because they believe it or she is uniquely capable of helping them meet a goal or achieve a particular result. Ask about company- and personal goals and explore why they’re so important, and what’s prevented them being reached already. (This is exploring the Cost of Doing Nothing.) Once it’s clear that they don’t have the luxury of not achieving the result, make sure that you get the result specified in clear, objective terms. If you can’t visualize what you’re hearing, you’re not there yet.

Only after you’ve concluded this qualification process, describe how you can help meet them. Keep it categorical; don’t give away the store. The way to do that is to use “what-oriented” language, i.e., what you’re going to do, and avoid describing the “how” in any detail. After all, that’s what you’re selling.

8. Popular decisions

When it comes to cutting-edge technology or the latest gadget, some people don’t want to be left out of the loop. While most often exhibited in fashion- or consumer-product applications, this same need to “belong,” to be mainstream, influences more consequential professional decisions, too.

Stress the importance of using the most modern or efficient legal service approaches or methodologies, and not appearing outdated or behind the times. Don’t sound like the technology is, of itself, important. Show how using the cool new stuff delivers “faster, better, cheaper.” Subconsciously, they’ll fill in the “cooler and more fun” part for you. Cite the number of clients who have selected your firm and stayed with you, and ask Buyers if they think there might be a meaningful reason why so many other clients are so happy with your service.

9. Safe decisions

Remember that decisions mean risk. Many Buyers are strongly risk-averse; they hesitate to make decisions because they fear negative consequences, e.g., that you won’t live up to their expectations, or that they might find a better solution, or another solution at a better price. Using questions, get the prospect to identify the larger risk or cost of delay or doing nothing.

Now, put their minds at ease. There’s an emotional process called “Feel, Felt, Found” that relates to assuaging decision fear.

“Ms. Prospect, I understand how you feel about using a smaller firm. Many of our clients felt the same way. After hiring us, though, what they found was that our greater attentiveness, personal attention and specialization made them glad they decided to hire us.”

Then, suggest a next step that’s hard for someone like this to refuse. Offer to arrange a call from with a satisfied client whose situation is or was particularly relevant to hers. Use a specific company and name, and explain the relevance. (Obviously, you must have clients who are so enthusiastic about you that they’ll agree to initiate the call.)

Clear it with them broadly beforehand, e.g.,

“Ms. Client, you’ve been very gracious with your praise for our success together. From time to time, would you be willing to share those opinions with someone who’s considering hiring me?”

They’ll readily agree.

Continue with,

“Thank you. I promise to be judicious. When I identify such a person, would you be willing to initiate the call on my behalf? It sometimes takes busy people a while to get around to making the call, and I’ve also found that it really gets their attention when a client calls them to discuss our working relationship and your results.”

Very few clients, about whom you’re confident about your relationship and results, will decline. In fact, some will insist on it.

(I was fortunate enough to have one client whose results were so dramatic that I’d used him as a frequent reference. Concerned that I was abusing the privilege, I asked him about it. He surprised me with,

“On the contrary. If I ever learn that I wasn’t the first person you had someone call, I’ll be upset with you.”)

10. Power decisions

Sometimes you can get a reluctant Buyer over the hump by appealing to his sense of power. When faced with making a decision, some people fear the risk and question their authority to choose. When selling to persons in a position of authority, you may only have to remind them subtly of their power. Reminded, many will feel a need to demonstrate that they, in fact, have such authority.




I’ve trained 5000 lawyers in firms of all sizes. They attribute $1 billion in additional business to our collaboration.

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Mike O'Horo

Mike O'Horo

I’ve trained 5000 lawyers in firms of all sizes. They attribute $1 billion in additional business to our collaboration.

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