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Calling the CEO: It's More Important (and Trickier) Than You Think

Have you called your best CEOs lately? If not, you're handing business over to your competitors.

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When was the last time you called the CEO of your very best account? If you're like most of the people I work with, you had to think twice about your answer-or, even worse, you don't even know the CEO's name! This state of affairs, in my experience, is an excellent way to set up the humbling phenomenon known as "losing your biggest source of revenue the instant your competitor targets it." Feeling a little sheepish now? Good. That's a necessary prerequisite. Keep reading.

It is absolutely essential to get-and stay-in touch with every single president, CEO or owner of every company you are currently doing business with. The only possible exceptions: Those companies you really don't feel like building high-margin add-on business with and/or don't really feel like protecting from your competition. For most of us, that's a small or, perhaps more accurately, a nonexistent group.

So, you have to call these people and build the relationship. But how do you do it? Answer: By taking into account their greatest fears.

What would you imagine a CEO fears most? When I ask salespeople this question, I hear answers like, "Constant change and the risk that it brings," "Competitive pressures likely to affect their customer base and market share," "The possibility of labor disputes and the production schedule impacts they could have," "Shifts in the economy" or "Letting down the shareholders." You know what? Most accomplished CEOs are ready, willing and able to face all of those potential headaches.

CEOs, in actuality, have two distinct fears:

1. Wasting time. Time is the most important resource at any CEO's disposal. When it's invested wisely, the CEO solves lots of problems and makes measurable progress toward goals. When time is wasted, the CEO loses ground, and is, as a result, likely to change physical and emotional states in a way that makes other people wish they had called in sick to work. CEOs will do virtually anything to avoid being placed in a situation where they have no choice but to waste time.

The fear of wasting time is so strong that top officers go out and hire people whose sole job is to help make sure that unproductive squandering of the boss's time never, ever happens. These people, of course, are called "gatekeepers," and, contrary to popular misconception, they are extremely powerful. These are the folks who have been given the duty of making every conceivable attempt to protect (and in some cases even manage) the CEO's time. They may well know more than anyone else in the organization (sometimes even the CEO themselves). They just know how to work efficiently without broadcasting that fact. (This relates to fear No. 2, which we'll get to in a moment.)

Even with such a protector in place, the CEO fears and loathes time-wasting activities in general and the time-wasting individual (for instance, a salesperson) in particular. Gatekeepers will announce the caller by saying: "Ms. Importanta, Will Perish, salesperson, is on the line to speak with you." Odds are that the CEO is already thinking about strategies for not taking the call. Failing that, he or she wants to make it as short as possible by "shunting" this caller to a lower-level person after a few seconds on the phone.

2. Admitting they don't know something. Being well-informed keeps the CEO and other top officers out of hot water. It's one of their duties: knowing the trends and facts that may affect the business. They will rarely, if ever, willingly engage in or initiate a topic of discussion that displays their ignorance. As for getting them to come clean and actually admit to sharing with the rest of the human race the occasional act of being clueless: Forget it.

During a phone call, you'll know when you get close to a top officer's uncomfortable zone when she or he says, "I've got people on my staff that look into these issues for me; here, let me connect you." At that point, the conversation is over. In my experience, that is all it takes to trigger fear No. 2-and initiate this kind of instant conversation-interrupt.

So put their fears to rest. There is only one effective strategy for squelching both of these fears. You must know exactly what you have to offer this particular top officer. By that I mean that you should be able to articulate what you offer quickly, accurately and in a way that CEOs can easily understand.

Understand this: CEOs will look at the upside and downside of each and every situation and instantly make up their minds about what (if anything) is of importance to them in that situation. Therefore, whenever we approach a top officer by mail, e-mail, during a telephone conversation, in-person or when leaving a voice-mail message, we must do so by using words and phrases that we are certain they will understand. While doing so, we must make it clear that there is some tangible benefit to interacting with us.

First, let's talk about the words they understand. Forget anything that even remotely resembles a product name or number, industry jargon or techno-babble. Also on the list of no-nos are business acronyms. Forget the "buzz" that you and/or industry insiders may be familiar with. Keep your vocabulary simple.

What do you say? When in doubt, think about the five most important results all top officers want:

  • Increased revenues
  • Improved efficiencies and effectiveness
  • Protection of the existing customer base
  • Acquisition of add-on business from those existing customers
  • Eradication of non-value expenses

Build one or more of these into your message, and keep the terminology simple.

A final point: Get in the habit of providing top executives with the entire picture by expressing both the upside and the downside potential. Here's an example of a statement that would not get the attention of a top officer: "We have a proven way in your industry of increasing revenues by as much as 25 percent." But, what would the cost be? If you stop and think about it, any top officer can figure out how to increase revenues by 25 percent. Increase commissions to ridiculously high levels, and salespeople might well be motivated to book more orders, thus increasing revenue. But would you be making more money? Or perhaps approve a 150 percent increase in the advertising budget. It doesn't take a genius to realize that while you may be increasing revenues, you are also increasing fixed or variable operating expenses.

Here's an example of a statement that gets to the point, focuses on one of the five benefit areas, and would get the attention of a top officer, because it accounts for both downsides and upsides: "We have a proven record of increasing revenues in your industry by as much as 25 percent while at the same time reducing fixed expenses by as much as 50 percent. In one case, our team did this in just under 90 days!"

The impact on the top, middle and bottom line is clear: Whenever you make it easy to see exactly how you can help them improve their business, the top officer's imagination will take over and "fill in the blanks" for his or her operation. Most CEOs dream of growing the company's value, and to accomplish that, they need all the great new ideas they can get their hands on.

Anthony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer. For additional information on his speeches and his newest book, CEOs who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or visit www.sellingtovito.com.

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Tony Parinello has become the nation's foremost expert on executive-level selling. He's also the author of the bestselling book bearing the name of his sales training program,Getting to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer, 10 Steps to VITO's Office,as well as the host of Club VITO, a weekly live internet broadcast.