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The 3 Keys to the CEO Sale

When CEOs are making a buying decision, they've got 3 things on their mind. Learn them, and learn them well.

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There are three elements necessary for a CEO sale: knowledge, action and currency. Every time I conduct an interview with another CEO, I reacquaint myself with a simple fact: When a CEO enters the buying process, his or her final decision is always filtered through these three factors. If you don't make the grade in all three of these areas, and if the CEO is involved in the sales process, you won't get the sale. And guess what? The CEO is involved in your selling process even when that doesn't seem to be the case. Think back, and you won't have any difficulty coming up with at least one time when everything seemed to be in order--the buy signals were all there from your decision maker, and then, for no discernible reason, the sale stopped dead in its tracks. That impossible-to-explain pause was, I would be willing to bet, the buying organization's CEO or other Very Important Top Officer (VITO.) exercising the ultimate veto power behind the scenes. The moral: It pays to learn the keys to the CEO sale... even if you don't think you're selling to a CEO!


If a CEO is going to buy from you, he or she has to see that your plan reflects the right knowledge. I'm not talking about product knowledge here, although that is certainly important. But most CEOs don't spend their day focused on that kind of knowledge.

The kind of knowledge I'm talking about is knowledge about the strategic goals that determine where a CEO's organization is heading in the market. This information is usually reflected in the strategic plan, which is an overview of the approach that will be used to get the company's products, services and solutions out to customers. This document offers "big-picture" answers to the question, "What are we trying to do here?"

Yes, it's true. In order for you to sell your stuff to the CEO, you have to be sure that what you offer matches the CEO's big-picture goals for selling his or her stuff! CEOs must know, for example: Will focused direct-mail campaigns be used? Will advertising support the mail campaign? Will telemarketing play a role in identifying potential customers? Will automatic voice-mail messaging be used in the business-to-consumer model? Will e-mail campaigns support all these efforts? Will the organization invest in trade shows and conventions? If so, who will attend? Will a partner or re-seller channel be developed? Is one already in place? Who else will support the direct sales force? How?

Most salespeople don't bother finding out this kind of information about their customers or prospects. If you're targeting a CEO, though, you must know the strategic plan of his or her organization. In order to sell like a CEO, you have to think like a CEO; you have to face up to the same challenges your target market faces and look at the tough questions in the same way that they do.

How do you learn about all this stuff? For starters, take your own company's VP of marketing out to lunch. Even better, spend some time in his or her world. Sit in on a few marketing brainstorming sessions. Be a fly on the wall. Take lots of notes. Afterwards, when the meeting has ended, ask some intelligent questions.

The strategic plan may be difficult or easy for you to track down from the outside. The point is, whatever value proposition you or your team ultimately make to the CEO or other senior decision maker/approver, it should be rooted in your knowledge of the target company's strategic plan. Whether you get that knowledge from news reports, independent phone research or (my favorite) face-to-face meetings with CEOs, just get it somehow.


If a CEO is going to buy from you, he or she has to see that your plan supports their company's actions to implement their strategic plan. What, specifically, is the target company going to do to turn its strategic goals into reality? If you have the answer to that question, you can build your approach around the action the CEO's target company plans to take. Again, if you want to sell like a CEO, you must have an understanding of the overall tactical plan so you can find a way to support that plan.

The details of a target company's tactical plan are usually hard to get if you start your sales work at the middle or bottom of the organization--but ridiculously easy to get if you start at the top, with the CEO. This is one of the reasons that sales cycles tend to be so much shorter for CEOs who sell (and salespeople who model their techniques). When a CEO has a meeting with another CEO, the first meeting typically results in the buying organization's top person picking up the phone, calling the VP of marketing and saying something like: "I'm talking with Jane Smart, CEO of Brilliant Co. I want you to fill her people in on everything we're doing to penetrate the consumer market." If the top person takes your organization on as an ally, you get the information you need--fast!

If, on the other hand, you start out by calling the VP of marketing and asking for a copy of the tactical plan, you may spend a month swapping voice-mail messages, and even then may not get half the information you need. Admit it. Why should they give it to you, anyway?

So, to win the action part of the equation in a timely fashion, you have to be willing to start at the top--or, at the very least, get your own CEO to help you start at the top. As you've no doubt noticed, this is something most salespeople don't bother to do. But those who do work their way down from the top, and get all the action information they need, sell bigger deals and close them quicker than those who don't.


This idea goes well beyond the "currency" you carry in your pocket. If a CEO is going to buy from you, he or she has to agree that your plan is part of a current priority for implementing the strategic plan. This is the tricky one.

Each and every successful CEO has a set of priorities for daily action supporting the strategic plan. When someone proposes an idea that is a perfect match with a current priority of the CEO, that idea tends to get implemented quickly. When someone proposes an idea that falls into a gray area--or that actually conflicts with a CEO's current priority--ominous silence tends to ensue. Here's where the real problem begins--because, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, what was a perfect match a while back is now a conflict...and what appears to be a conflict is now a perfect match.

Here's how to protect yourself and your sale from the classic "conflict/match" shift. At the onset of your sale, someone at the selling organization must place a call to the buying CEO and say something along the following lines: "It looks like our teams will be spending a lot of time together pursuing some ideas for your organization. These ideas have the potential of helping you overachieve in A, B or C. Could you do me one personal favor? When you make the decision. either for or against my company, would you grant me the honor of an in-person visit with you?" When the CEO of the buying organization agrees (which is much more likely than you imagine), make a note of the exact day, date, time and place and put that note into the account file.

If the CEO of the buying organization declines your request for the meeting, say: "My organization will be investing some very significant time and resources over the next several months. Meeting your criteria is of the utmost importance to us. If we fail to earn your business, my company has to continue to learn from our mistakes. This will really be the only way we would be able to justify making this investment."

My own experience is that, if the work leading up to this point has been done properly, the CEO will almost always agree to the request for a meeting, especially when you frame it in these terms. Now here's when you will use the competitive advantage that your request has established.

If, at any point during the extended sales cycle, you detect any signals that you're losing, call the CEO for that promised face-to-face meeting. "Back on (quote the exact day and date), you promised me the privilege of an in-person visit, whether your decision was for or against my organization. Will you honor your promise and grant me that visit tomorrow?" Note: This "visit" could be a telephone call to save time and expense.

If you've done your job correctly up to this point (which includes keeping in touch with this CEO throughout the entire sales cycle), you should have no trouble getting a positive response of some kind to your request. You'll then have the opportunity to learn what's really going on within the buying organization.

Don't get nervous about making this call! CEOs are the most honest people in any organization. When they make a promise, they'll keep it. (They may not always remember their promises, however, which is why it's important to quote the day, date and time from your notes.

All three of these keys are important, but if I had to pick one factor to understand in any given sale, it would be currency. Currency connects with the full worth of an organization as the CEO defines that worth right now. Currency includes, but is not necessarily limited to, financial performance, image, reputation, brand awareness, market niches, human assets, industry standings and/or awards, competitive strategies and so forth. All these elements can and do shape the CEO's priorities at any moment.

Here's the good news: If what you propose matches up with the CEO's currency, it will probably already match up with the knowledge and action components. You will know not only about the goals and the steps necessary to turn those goals into reality, but also about the way the CEO is now looking at those goals and those action steps.

Anthony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important Top Officer. For additional information on his speeches, Sales Success Kits and 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.