July 08, 2009

Selling Higher: How it will both challenge and reward you

The reality is that in today's tough marketplace, the power to buy has been wrestled away from many middle and lower level managers. In budget strapped organisations only the most senior executives have the authority to make big buying decisions.

Although previosuly content to sign-off on the decisions, or recommendations of their lower level colleagues, senior executives are now actively involved in reviewing all key aspects of buying decisions and most importantly in the business decisions that are more ruthlessly driving them.

Selling higher, and by higher we mean to director, or C level (that is CTO, CEO, etc.), has its rewards, principally the prospect that your sales prospition will be embraced by the person (or people) that business priorities and budgets can as a result be changed in response to make it happen. However, it will also fundametally challenge your sales skills, approach and confidence.


In today’s organisations senior manager sign-off is required for the majority of buying decisions. Yet, many salespeople continue to sell to lower level managers in their target customer organisations. That means they spend precious time educating low-level managers who, while interested, simply don’t have the authority, or influence. The result is lower conversion rates and longer sales cycles.

Finding senior contacts in most databases is like looking for needles in a haystack. Just check through the pile of business cards in your drawer, the attendance list at a recent conference, or your database. For every senior executive you’ll find there are likely to be ten of a lower rank. That is because senior executives are too busy to go to most conferences, are reluctant to circulate their business cards and are least likely to be found on purchased lists.

It makes sense that the higher up you go in an organisation the more decision-making authority and influence a manager will have. Moreover everybody knows that it is much easier to work your way from the top down in an organisation, than the other way around.

The reality is that if we start at the junior ranks, our contact won’t have the power to influence or make purchase decisions. Furthermore 80% of the time, he or she probably won’t have the confidence or the credibility to refer us onwards to the person who can decide. So, if you start at the bottom, you probably won’t get to the top!

Job titles can be very confusing, but impressive sounding titles don’t necessarily mean the person you are talking to ‘calls the shots’ in respect of what you are selling. The fact that most people talk up their responsibility and influence doesn’t help. So, make sure you can map your contacts in their organisation and according to their role in the buying group.


Most sales people believe that they could sell more if they could simply get in the door at the right level in key target accounts. However they are handicapped by the belief that ‘getting to the CEO, CTO, COO, CFO, etc. is almost impossible!’

Today’s senior managers are well buffered from salespeople. They see only a handful of trusted salespeople every month, read very little unsolicited mail and return very few voice messages. While, they may be receptive to courting from industry giants IBM, Google or Oracle, it is true to say that they can be particularly slow to engage with smaller new suppliers.

Our research in the United Kingdom suggests it is 50% more difficult to access C level (CEO, CFO, or CTO) executives in major UK companies compared to just five years ago. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.

It is possible even for an upstart company to put its message in front of the CEO, CFO, or CTO of any Fortune 500 company in the UK, or the US. However it will require a more sophisticated and systematic approach.


However, access is not the only issue. After years of selling to the lower ranks, many sales people struggle to successfully engage with a C level manager. On one level it is a confidence issue, while on another it goes to the very heart of the salesperson's message and sales approach.

The air is thinner the higher up an organisation one goes and that means that the salesperson's features and benefits message won't survive very long - nor will the salesperson indeed.

The number one challenge at C level is not to appear as a salesperson. The task is to help, not to sell (although they are they both have the same end in mind).

Most salesperson cannot breath the necessary air into C level conversations. They can quickly get out of their depth in conversations about strategy, industry direction and so on. So, the typical salesperson must either become, or move aside for a business people who can sell - a peer of the prospect's that has the potential to become a trusted advisor.

Key to success is the ability to get the prospect to share his business strategy and objectives, adding valuable insights in the process and relating all of this to the solution that is being sold.


Review all the target companies and sales opportunities in your database and in particular the decision maker level for each. Identify the CEO, CEO, CTO as appropriate, for your company, searching out all the names and details. Research all of the target companies. Then send a letter and pick up the phone - as in so many other matters, fortune favours the brave and determined.

Our UK research suggests that if you dedicated yourself (or somebody else) fully to the task of making contact with senior managers, you should expect to talk to a CEO, CTO, COO, etc. every 1.6 to 2.8 days. Why the variation? Well, it depends on such factors as:
How compelling the proposition is
How well the proposition is communicated (often in just a matter of seconds by phone)
The effectiveness of supporting collateral (letters, brochures, etc.)
The value of reference sites, as well as your own brand name / recognition
Quality, or appropriateness of the target list
And, of course, the; skill, enthusiasm and professionalism of the person making the contact.

So now you can do the maths - calculating the number of days required to contact the first 10, or 20 senior managers from your target list. From there you can make assumptions regarding the proportion of those talked that might be interested (say 20%). It is clear that establishing contact and building relationships at senior level will require a significant commitment of time and resources. But to make that commitment pay, it will also require a plan.


Put a relationship management plan, or programme in place. Don’t just
pick up the phone once, or send just one letter, or email. Dedicate your team to a programme of ongoing and systematic contact with your target list. Send interesting articles, email customer case studies, invite the manager to events, do some networking, get introductions from mutual contacts, clip your recent PR and put it in the post, etc.

The first secret of going straight to the top and selling at senior levels is to put yourself psychologically on the same level as the executive you want to sell to. If you are going to sell to a CEO then you’ve got to see yourself as a CEO, or at least as important as the CEO you are talking to.

Don’t make apologies for taking up the manager’s time, for calling, or emailing. That puts you at an immediate disadvantage. You have got to feel that your reason for contacting the CEO, CTO, or CSO is important, as opposed to an interruption to his/her work. After the solution you are encouraging the CEO to explore has the potential to significantly impact on how he/she does he work and the results he/she gets.

See the gatekeeper as your friend! Most salespeople complain about PA and secretaries getting in the way of talking to key decision makers. However these same people can be your ally in reaching the top if they are approached in the right way. Recognise their power to influence what their manager sees and hears and help them to understand the potential value of your message to their boss.

CEO proof your message! When it comes to communicating with senior level managers bear in mind that time is precious and spans of attention are limited. That means that not only have you got to get your message across in double quick time, but you’ve really got to maximise its appeal too.

‘Tune into WIIFM’ that is ‘what is in it for him/her’ by defining how your solution help the executive directly, or indirectly cut costs, or increase revenues, etc, while looking good in the process.

Each executive likes to think that his, or her challenges are special, or at least different. So, tailor your sales proposition, or message, to each vertical sector you are targeting, as well as to each functional area involved in the decision (e.g. Financial Director versus IT director). Your pitch should sound something like this ‘we have done X, Y and Z (these being benefits relevant to the prospect) for A, B and C (those being company names familiar to the prospect) and I thought that it was something that you might be interested in finding out about’.

Look beyond this quarter, or even this year’s commission cheque. While most sales cycles take six plus months, the relationships that shape them take even longer to build. The investment in these relationships includes ongoing contact, the exchange of useful information, invitations to events and so on.

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