I was reading a sales blog post on critical questions to ask the customer. One that jumped out to me was the advice to make sure you ask, “Are you the decisionmaker?”

Perhaps I’m being too nit-picky, but it seems to be a terrible question. As I reread it, I thought, what do we learn from the response to the question?

First the response can only be “Yes,” or “No.” (I thought it was conventional wisdom that open ended questions tend to elicit more information than closed ended questions.)

We really learn very little from the response to this question, and what we learn is likely to be very inaccurate.

We also know that in complex B2B decisions, there are more likely 5.4, or whatever research you rely on. So asking if an individual is the decisionmaker isn’t very illuminating, we still have to determine who the other 4.4 are.

Additionally, people tend to inflate their own self importance in things, so they are likely to answer in the affirmative, even if they are peripheral players.

Unfortunately, this is the very question sales people ask too often. And they rely on the answer. So if the individual responds, “Yes,” the sales person latches on to that individual counting on that person to be the person who will carry the day for them. We don’t need to know the latest research on buying and the number of decision-makers involved. Our experience should inform us that it’s very unlikely a single individual is the decisionmaker. We know people increasingly avoid personal risk, so they want others in the boat with them. We know in complex B2B decisions, it’s likely to impact many people and organizations, so they are likely to be involved. We know, even if we are dealing with the CEO, that she will want the complete support and engagement of her team, so she will get other people involved.

I’m constantly amazed in doing deal reviews for very large complex deals, how badly sales people do in identifying who is involved in the process. Most of the time, efforts are focused on an individual–the person we know, the person who likes us, the person who will see us. Too many sales people stop there, failing to identify who else is involved, failing to understand how the decision will be made, failing to figure out whether they are dealing with the right person.

Better questions would include:

Who’s involved in making this decision? (Or who else is involved?) It’s our job to determine the other 4.4. We can take the response, expanding to understand the interrelationships between people, how they will be organizing themselves to buy, and many other things.

What’s your role in this project/decision? At least in the phrasing of this question, we get the individual to be more descriptive of their role. We can take the response in many directions, perhaps understanding who else is involved, the individual’s attitudes, why they are involved, their vested interest, and all sorts of other things.

These open ended questions also lead us to understand their buying and decisionmaking processes. We can learn how they’ve organized themselves to buy, what’s important to each person, where we should be focusing our efforts, how we can help in facilitating their buying process.

We can even learn that they may not know. They may be struggling with buying, as a result we can help them.

Understanding who’s involved, why, what they are trying to achieve, how they will buy, who we need to work with is critical to understanding a deal and winning it. We need to know more than “Are You The Decisionmaker?”