Selling to the Committee

by Carolyn Edlund

Ah, the dreaded committee. The place where ideas go to die. Selling to a committee can be tantamount to banging your head against a wall.


Selling to the Committee


I will admit that when my full-time job was selling for an art publisher, committees were my least favorite thing (can you tell?) I once had as a customer a not-to-be-named but instantly recognizable large museum. It turned my job from selling to their gift shop buyers into agonizing decisions made in committees. It was the beginning of the end.

When I got a one-on-one with a decision maker, the presentation was easy; the sale was short and sweet. But once the committee system was put in place, nothing was promised, and I had no control. I couldn’t even get a “No” which is far preferable to being put in limbo just to follow up interminably and wait for the eventual death knell.

As an artist, you may have the misfortune to deal with committees deciding whether to purchase your work for a collection, give you a show, offer you a contract, represent you in their gallery, or give you a grant. You can bet your bottom dollar that in every committee there are different agendas, and you probably don’t know what they are. Sometimes you will not even receive real feedback, but just mumbo jumbo (see “limbo” and “death knell” in previous paragraph.)

Educational institutions are other places where committees thrive, along with corporations and nonprofit organizations. You might be able to supply your own list too, if you’ve faced this challenge.

So, what to do when faced with that dreaded committee decision? Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t take it personally

You cannot know what personal agendas, egos and group dynamics are going on in the committee. Decisions may have a lot more to do with those personalities than they do with you. If you get rejected, learn from the interaction, and move on.

Don’t pitch people who have no power

Find out quickly who you are dealing with, and act appropriately. If you are dealing with someone who has no say, save your breath. Find out who the real decision makers are and put your focus there.

Be patient

Practice having the patience of Job, because you may need it. Sometimes sales take months, or even years, depending on what you are doing. Get a handle on the length of your sales cycle, and plan ahead so that you understand going in what the timeline is, and when you may get an answer.

Be ready with a sharp presentation

Cover all your bases, especially those concerns that your customers have about what will affect them. Anticipate questions going in, and have those answers clear in your mind and in your notes.

Maintain any control that you can

This may be that you don’t leave phone messages that will only go unanswered. Instead ask, “When is a good time to call back?” Leave the ball in your own court. Try to get as much direct access to committee members as possible for individual conversations.

Don’t always take “No” for an answer

If you didn’t make it through the gauntlet this time, that doesn’t mean you are banned forever. The needs of decision makers change (and so do the decision makers). If you felt you gave a great presentation and that you’d like to try again, ask for feedback to learn why you were declined. Use that knowledge to make changes in your next pitch, application or approach.

Work around the committee when possible

This is my favorite tactic. If you can get a conversation with the real decision maker, they may override any need for a committee. Or, pursue opportunities that don’t involve committee decision. Gather as much information as you can when going in. Quite often you can find out by simply asking.

The next time you face a committee decision, it doesn’t have to be quite as bad as making a pitch on “Shark Tank” or going in front of the firing squad. You might even find a friendly, efficient committee – and despite my rant, there are actually some that do a good job. This is my wish for you. But if you do have to run the gauntlet with a tough committee presentation, take heart and be prepared. You may win them over and seal the deal after all. Good luck!



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  1. Aha… Thanks for this entertaining article which came just at the right time. Three of my oil paintings are currently sitting on the floor, I guess, of a powerful art association here in Boston. Having read your article I will now give them a call and then follow up without feeling that I’m rocking the boat.

    I once heard it said that, on paper, a camel is a horse drawn by a committee….

    Cheers, Bunty Bisharah

    • Love that definition of a camel, Bunty – and good luck setting a fire under that committee! Committee decisions can come in many forms, usually resulting in a lot of frustration, in my experience. I hope yours turns out for the best.

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