“I want to buy from you, but the rest of the committee don’t.”

The words struck fear and dread in my heart. I was expecting to close the biggest sale I’d ever made, but when I called expecting to hear that the PO was on the way, instead I heard:

“I want to buy from you, but the rest of the committee don’t.”

“What committee?” I stammered.

“The other four professors. The rest of the purchasing committee,” came the reply.

“I didn’t know there was a committee,” I blurted out, incredulity infecting my voice.

“Well you never asked. I just assumed you knew.”

This was the first I had heard about any committee. What the heck was I going to do now?

This was back in the early 80’s. At the time, I was working for a company that made extremely sophisticated scientific equipment. One of the instruments they made was something called an X-ray spectrophotometer. This thing attached to an electron microscope, and analyzed the chemical composition of microscopic samples. It cost $134,000, which was a lot of money back then (and still is!).

I had been working on a sale to a professor of metallurgy, at a large university in Vancouver. We’ll call him Dr. Rock. My company’s instrument was fairly new on the market, and had clearly superior technology to the competition – something that Dr. Rock and his technician agreed upon. The company had only installed two of these instruments to date, so it would mean a lot to the company if we made the sale, and it would certainly help my reputation as a salesperson.

I assisted Dr. Rock in writing an RFP, with the specs weighted in our favour, of course. He made his submission for funds, which were approved a couple of months later. To celebrate, I took him out for lunch – a lovely little bistro called the Frog and Peach. That was on a Thursday, and I enquired as to when we might expect a purchase order.  He replied that they would be ratifying the decision by Tuesday of the next week.

As it happened, I had arranged a business trip to Winnipeg that following week. I didn’t want to jeopardize the sale, so I asked Dr. Rock if I should postpone the trip in case he needed me for anything.  He assured me everything was in order, that I needn’t postpone, and that I should phone and check in with him on the Tuesday.

So off I went to Winnipeg on the Sunday night. However, when I awoke on Monday, my instincts were bristling. Something just didn’t feel right, and by lunchtime I was feeling decidedly nervous. I put in a call to Dr. Rock, and was told that he was in a meeting. I called again at the end of the day and managed to reach him. That was when I heard the dreaded words, and discovered that there was a committee involved.

It transpired that the committee was composed of five professors who would all have be using the instrument. Dr. Rock would be the “owner”, but they all wanted to have input into the decision. Dr. Rock had assumed that I had been talking and selling to the other committee members as well. I hadn’t, but my competition apparently had!

Scrambling to think of what I could do to rescue the situation, I asked if he would be able to get the committee together later in the week and stall any decision until then. He promised to give it the old college try (pun intended!).

In the meantime, I called the company manager responsible for the instrument division. Fortunately, I had taken the time to develop a relationship with him, and he made the commitment to fly up to Vancouver, together with his head of engineering, to make a presentation to the committee.

The next morning, Dr. Rock told me he had persuaded the committee to defer the decision until we had the chance to present to them, so long as we could get there that week. I got myself on the next flight back to Vancouver, and my colleagues flew up from Tennessee to meet up with me that evening.

We went in the next day and after two hours of presenting to the committee, they made the decision to go with us. Result! Dr. Rock was happy, the company manager and head of engineering were ecstatic, and I made Salesperson of the Year.

It all turned out well in the end, but there were two very valuable lessons that came out of this experience for me:

  1. Build relationships with your company resources before you need them. I doubt very much that I would have gotten the cooperation I did if I hadn’t already built those relationships.
  2. Just because you are selling to the decision maker, never assume that there won’t be other influencers involved. Always, always, always ask: “Who else will be involved in making this decision with you?” If you do that, you won’t ever have to hear those dreaded words yourself!

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