I hear it over and over from the top officers that I personally know and from the interviews on my weekly Entrepreneur Sales & Marketing show: "Salespeople don't take the time to find out what's going on in my world before they give me their pitch."

Maybe, just maybe, that's why it's getting increasingly more difficult to land appointments with the person at the top of the business totem pole, the person I affectionately call "VITO," the very important top officer. Before you can even think of pitching the top officer of a company, you have to undertake a little due diligence to find out everything you can about the VITO's company. In other words, what are his or her priorities today and over the next quarter? There are a few ways of finding this out:

1. Go on the web. Plunge your browser into www.hooversonline.com or any of the other reputable services currently available that will give you names, numbers, e-mail addresses and other important company information. By the way, don't automatically assume the information is totally accurate. Change is a way of life at the top, and individuals tend to move around without public notice. Always verify all information before you send any correspondence or make a telephone call (more on this later). A simple Google search of your prospect and his or her company will also yield valuable information.

2. Study the reports. Put plenty of paper in your printer, and go to www.edgar-online.com. In my opinion, this is by far the most complete and up-to-date source you'll ever find for direct access to all annual and interim reports for publicly traded companies. Once there, I suggest you pay close attention to the quarterly "manager's reports," which give you a wealth of information about how your target prospect's company is doing in regards to accomplishing what they set out to do at the beginning of the year.

3. Get involved. Join and participate in the professional associations your target VITO's executive staff would typically belong to. For example, if you sell an accounting software program that you know CFOs will get the most use out of, join an association that your VITOs' CFOs would belong to. Go on Google, and spend a little time investigating the top associations (the ones with the biggest membership and largest annual conventions), then sign up and actively participate in them. Be sure to read their newsletters and listen to the various recordings of past sessions and meetings.

4. Start reading. Get subscriptions to the trade magazines and publications your target prospect reads--and read them. When in doubt, start with the The Wall Street Journal.

By doing your research, you'll definitely be well armed when approaching your prospect. However, don't forget that your competition has these same tools available to them! I'm not knocking the resources I just referenced, but if you want the real competitive edge--if you want to lock down that first telephone conversation or in-person appointment with any top officer in your sales territory--you'll have to do the following: Ask! The absolute best way to find out what's important to VITO is to ask. But don't ask VITO--ask their administrative assistant, who probably knows them best.

Here's what you do: Get VITO's name and company phone number from that prospect list you just accessed on the internet. Then pick up the phone and specifically ask the company's gatekeeper/receptionist a few very important questions. Here's how it might sound:

Them: "VITO Incorporated, how may I direct your call?"
You: "Good morning> Does your president, Ms. Importanta, spell her last name with one 't' or two?"

Them: "It's with one."
You: "Thanks. By the way, what's Ms. Importanta's assistant's name?"

Important conversation crossroad: At this point the receptionist has two choices.

Choice Number One
Them: "It's Tommie."
You: "Thanks. Have a great rest of the day. Goodbye."

Choice Number Two
Them: "Why do you want to know?"
You: "I'm going to send a special correspondence to Ms. Importanta, and I'd like to address it to her assistant."
Them: "It's Tommie."
Or
Them: "Hold on. I'll connect you and you can find out for yourself."

Either way, you win. And here's what happens when the receptionist/gatekeeper puts you thru:

Tommie: "Ms Importanta's office, Tommie speaking. How may I help you?"
You: "Tommie, thanks for taking my call. This is Will Prosper with Finder Enterprise. May I ask you to do me a personal favor?"
Or
You: "Tommie, thanks for taking my call. This is Will Prosper with Finder Enterprise calling to ask you an important question."

Tommie (perhaps in a rather suspicious and standoffish tone of voice): "What's on your mind, Will?"
You: "Could you tell me which one of the following three strategic initiatives are of importance to you and Ms. Importanta between today and the end of this week, month, quarter, half, year: shorter time to market, lowering of expenses, full compliance with existing regulations?

Notice that you're treating the assistant as though they had equal business stature with VITO. (By the way, they usually do.) It's been my personal experience that if you speak to the assistant just like you'd speak to VITO, you'll get the information you need to craft your initial written message and your opening remarks to VITO when you call back for that all-important conversation with the person with the ultimate veto power who can and will say yes to your value proposition.

Important note: Don't be taken off guard if VITO himself picks up the phone when the gatekeeper/receptionist puts your call through to the assistant. It happens more often than you'd think. If that does happen, you must be ready with your opening remarks to VITO. What will that sound like? You'll find out in next month's column.