“Wait, you want me to call the president or CEO of the company? Oh, no way. I’m a salesperson. I talk to purchasing agents and buyers or managers, not presidents or CEOs.” That is the reaction many sales professionals have when they hear about top-down selling.
They don’t think they are deserving of the leader’s time, but the reality is, if you believe in your product or service, you are absolutely worthy of their time. Nervous or intimidated? Tried it anyway. Here’s how to do it and why it’s worth it…
End in the Middle
Odds are, you are going to finish your sales cycle in the middle. That’s where most deals are closed, so why bother starting at the top in the first place? There are two main reasons: Firstly, CEOs and top decision-makers think differently, and that can be a real advantage for you, particularly if you have a less established product or big, outside-the-box idea. Secondly, if you are referred to middle management by the CEO or leader, those in the middle are sure to give you the time and respect you deserve.
Leaders Think Differently
There’s a huge difference between the way senior executives think and the way middle management thinks, and most of it boils down to fear. In the middle, employees feel like they are being constantly reviewed. They are guarded, thinking, “I’ve got to get this right to get the recognition or promotion I want” or “If I don’t spend the money wisely or buy the right product, I may get demoted or worse.” That fear makes them overly caution, particularly when it comes to unusual ideas or less established products. Most of them will take the safe route every time to guarantee they don’t fail. Whether it’s advertising or IT services or new desks, cost is often more important than value to them. “How do I cost justify this expenditure?”
The owner or CEO, on the other hand, is rarely if ever guarded and is able to be open-minded because they don't worry about being reprimanded by their superiors. That mentality makes it much easier to sell because you don’t have to fight that objection or fear. They are typically a lot more focused on increasing revenue or solving a problem — big-picture thinking. “Will this solve a problem?” “Does this sound like a good value proposition for us?” Those are the kinds of questions you want people asking themselves as you try to sell to them, and leadership will do just that.
If the CEO, owner or president feels that your product or service does, in fact, solve a problem and is a good value, he or she will typically send you to middle management to hammer out the details.
Once you’ve been referred by the decision-maker at the top, you can call the middle management with confidence, knowing that you’ll get the meeting or call you want. Let them know that “I was just talking to the CEO. She asked me to call because she really thought this would be a great opportunity.” If you were able to make a personal connection with the CEO over something — your kids both playing field hockey or an affinity for a certain sports team, for example — mention it to show that you have an actual relationship/rapport with the CEO. This ensures that you’ll get the respect that you might or might not have received if you had started at the middle.
Getting Past the Gatekeeper
Now that you’re convinced (hopefully) that starting at the top is the way to go, let’s look at how you actually go about doing that. Getting a meeting with CEOs, presidents, owners and leaders is often harder, than it is to get the right meeting with someone in the middle, and I’m sorry to say that I have no easy, works-every-time solution, but I do have a couple of tips:
- Try unusual times. I’ve had more success calling after business hours because you can push buttons and get through. Oftentimes, especially at larger or publically held companies, the top folks are working way more hours than everyone else, so if they’re in town and in the office, they’re much more likely to be there at 6 or 7 p.m. than their assistant. I’ve also had some success calling early in the morning for the same reason.
- Do some research. It’s much easier to find information online about senior management than it is about middle management, and sometimes you can glean something from LinkedIn, a news post, recent article or interview that will give you a hook to help you get through. Instead of calling and telling the gatekeeper that you’ve got a great opportunity to talk about, you can call with something along the lines of: “I was following up because I noticed that John McCEO was a recent recipient of the James Winner award, and I’d like to talk with him specifically about that award as it relates to something we may be doing with our company.” It’s not a guarantee, but now it tells the gatekeeper that you know something a little more personal and aren’t just an average call in. Anything that sets you apart from the crowd helps.
At the Meeting
Once you’ve got the executive on the phone, think like a leader. If you were the CEO, what would you be focused on? Stay out of the detail-oriented weeds and focus on high-level, problem-solving, revenue-generating, big-picture conversations.
This is not the time to talk about awards you’ve won or how cost effective you are or how you can make them look better to their peers, it’s time for: “I have an opportunity that I’d like to present that can help you increase revenue by X%, and I can guarantee it based on past experiences. Do you have a minute for me to talk to you just briefly about how we do that?” Those numbers and that guarantee will get attention.
Be extremely respectful of their time (be extremely respectful of anyone’s time, but pay special attention here). I always try to say, “I know you’re swamped and promise not to take much time… unless you require it, in which case I’ll be on the phone as long as you need me. I just want to ask a couple of quick questions about X” or “… I just want you see if you all would like to see a significant savings in BLANK.” Then be true to your word and keep it brief.
Once you’ve done a few of these top-down sales calls, you’ll come to realize that these people are not at the top because they’re mean, ugly, rude people. In fact, they are usually very open, friendly and talkative so there is even less need to be intimidated. Give it a try and let us know how it goes. We’d love to hear your sales stories.