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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.

By Tony Parinello

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When was the last time you called the CEO of your very bestaccount? If you're like most of the people I work with, you hadto think twice about your answer-or, even worse, youdon't even know the CEO's name! This state of affairs, inmy experience, is an excellent way to set up the humblingphenomenon known as "losing your biggest source of revenue theinstant your competitor targets it." Feeling a little sheepishnow? Good. That's a necessary prerequisite. Keep reading.

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

So, you have to call these people and build therelationship. But how do you do it? Answer: By taking into accounttheir greatest fears.

What would you imagine a CEO fears most? When I ask salespeoplethis question, I hear answers like, "Constant change and therisk that it brings," "Competitive pressures likely toaffect their customer base and market share," "Thepossibility of labor disputes and the production schedule impactsthey could have," "Shifts in the economy" or"Letting down the shareholders." You know what? Mostaccomplished CEOs are ready, willing and able to face all of thosepotential headaches.

CEOs, in actuality, have two distinct fears:

1. Wasting time. Time is the most important resource atany CEO's disposal. When it's invested wisely, the CEOsolves 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 makesother people wish they had called in sick to work. CEOs will dovirtually anything to avoid being placed in a situation where theyhave no choice but to waste time.

The fear of wasting time is so strong that top officers go outand hire people whose sole job is to help make sure thatunproductive squandering of the boss's time never, everhappens. These people, of course, are called"gatekeepers," and, contrary to popular misconception,they are extremely powerful. These are the folks who have beengiven the duty of making every conceivable attempt to protect (andin some cases even manage) the CEO's time. They may well knowmore than anyone else in the organization (sometimes even the CEOthemselves). They just know how to work efficiently withoutbroadcasting that fact. (This relates to fear No. 2, whichwe'll get to in a moment.)

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

2. Admitting they don't know something. Beingwell-informed keeps the CEO and other top officers out of hotwater. It's one of their duties: knowing the trends and factsthat may affect the business. They will rarely, if ever, willinglyengage in or initiate a topic of discussion that displays theirignorance. As for getting them to come clean and actually admit tosharing with the rest of the human race the occasional act of beingclueless: Forget it.

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

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

Understand this: CEOs will look at the upside and downside ofeach and every situation and instantly make up their minds aboutwhat (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 avoice-mail message, we must do so by using words and phrases thatwe are certain they will understand. While doing so, we must makeit clear that there is some tangible benefit to interacting withus.

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

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

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

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

A final point: Get in the habit of providing top executives withthe entire picture by expressing both the upside and the downsidepotential. Here's an example of a statement that would not getthe attention of a top officer: "We have a proven way in yourindustry of increasing revenues by as much as 25 percent."But, what would the cost be? If you stop and think about it, anytop officer can figure out how to increase revenues by 25 percent.Increase commissions to ridiculously high levels, and salespeoplemight well be motivated to book more orders, thus increasingrevenue. But would you be making more money? Or perhaps approve a150 percent increase in the advertising budget. It doesn't takea genius to realize that while you may be increasing revenues, youare 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 theattention of a top officer, because it accounts for both downsidesand upsides: "We have a proven record of increasing revenuesin your industry by as much as 25 percent while at the sametime reducing fixed expenses by as much as 50 percent. In onecase, our team did this in just under 90 days!"

The impact on the top, middle and bottom line is clear: Wheneveryou make it easy to see exactly how you can help them improve theirbusiness, the top officer's imagination will take over and"fill in the blanks" for his or her operation. Most CEOsdream 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 TopOfficer. For additional information on his speeches and hisnewest book, CEOs who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO or

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.

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