Wooing the C-suite

While prowling around LinkedIn to check on the conversations in the sales groups, I recently saw questions and advice about ‘selling to the C-Suite. Some salespeople espouse starting only at the CEO, CFO or COO level. Their logic is sound and simple; if you can generate some traction at that level, you’re off to a good start. Even if you only get another name in the organization from the CEO’s assistant, it’s probably the right person. When you make that call, you can say, “I was referred to you by your CEO.”

It also might be a good way to get nowhere. Most of the time, these people are busy. Taking calls from sales people, especially cold calls, is probably not something they do often. You might end up making two calls a week for a month, while your competition is working a personal referral further down the food chain, and never get a call back.

I get the feeling many of the salespeople on LinkedIn who ask the question are looking for the magic formula to engage board level businesspeople. Some of the folks who answer, insisting they only start at the C-suite, may have a dose of ego leaking into the conversation. (Just using the term C-suite makes the whole conversation a tad puffy.)

What are the circumstances under which contact at the CEO level makes sense, and when does it not make sense? When is it useful, and when is it foolish?

Here are some criteria questions to consider:

1) Is this particular purchase something the CEO would likely know about?

2) Is it a high cost item? Five million on annual revenue of a hundred million would certainly be on the CEO’s radar; a ten thousand dollar buy, probably not.

3) Does the CEO have expertise in this area? Is it something that might impact the business model, or require significant changes in staffing, like outsourcing HR? An IT solution, electronic calendar system or new cleaning services at the plant might not be CEO-influenced since expertise on those matters probably resides elsewhere in the organization. Go where the expertise is.

4) Is the product or service likely to impact a core process of the business, like new chips for Apple Computers?

5) Is it a product or service that the CEO is likely to use, like the company jet, executive software or a venue for the senior manager’s retreat?

6) Does it require a change in culture in the organization? Flexible work hours, casual dress, or a Six Sigma initiative are examples of this.

If you can answer yes to at least one of these questions, perhaps starting at the CEO, CFO or COO level is appropriate. If you can’t, consider that maybe there is a place in the organization where you are more likely to get more traction, faster.

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