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.

By Tony Parinello

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

There are three elements necessary for a CEO sale: knowledge,action and currency. Every time I conduct an interview with anotherCEO, I reacquaint myself with a simple fact: When a CEO enters thebuying process, his or her final decision is always filteredthrough these three factors. If you don't make the grade in allthree of these areas, and if the CEO is involved in the salesprocess, you won't get the sale. And guess what? The CEO isinvolved in your selling process even when that doesn't seem tobe the case. Think back, and you won't have any difficultycoming up with at least one time when everything seemed to be inorder--the buy signals were all there from your decision maker, andthen, for no discernible reason, the sale stopped dead in itstracks. That impossible-to-explain pause was, I would be willing tobet, the buying organization's CEO or other Very Important TopOfficer (VITO.) exercising the ultimate veto power behind thescenes. 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 yourplan reflects the right knowledge. I'm not talking aboutproduct knowledge here, although that is certainly important. Butmost CEOs don't spend their day focused on that kind ofknowledge.

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

Yes, it's true. In order for you to sell your stuff to theCEO, you have to be sure that what you offer matches the CEO'sbig-picture goals for selling his or her stuff! CEOs must know, forexample: Will focused direct-mail campaigns be used? Willadvertising support the mail campaign? Will telemarketing play arole in identifying potential customers? Will automatic voice-mailmessaging be used in the business-to-consumer model? Will e-mailcampaigns support all these efforts? Will the organization investin trade shows and conventions? If so, who will attend? Will apartner 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 ofinformation about their customers or prospects. If you'retargeting a CEO, though, you must know the strategic plan of his orher organization. In order to sell like a CEO, you have to thinklike a CEO; you have to face up to the same challenges your targetmarket faces and look at the tough questions in the same way thatthey do.

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

The strategic plan may be difficult or easy for you to trackdown from the outside. The point is, whatever value proposition youor your team ultimately make to the CEO or other senior decisionmaker/approver, it should be rooted in your knowledge of the targetcompany's strategic plan. Whether you get that knowledge fromnews 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 yourplan supports their company's actions to implement theirstrategic plan. What, specifically, is the target company going todo to turn its strategic goals into reality? If you have the answerto that question, you can build your approach around the action theCEO's target company plans to take. Again, if you want to selllike a CEO, you must have an understanding of the overall tacticalplan so you can find a way to support that plan.

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

If, on the other hand, you start out by calling the VP ofmarketing and asking for a copy of the tactical plan, you may spenda month swapping voice-mail messages, and even then may not gethalf the information you need. Admit it. Why should they give it toyou, 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 nodoubt noticed, this is something most salespeople don't botherto do. But those who do work their way down from the top, and getall the action information they need, sell bigger deals and closethem quicker than those who don't.

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

Each and every successful CEO has a set of priorities for dailyaction supporting the strategic plan. When someone proposes an ideathat is a perfect match with a current priority of the CEO, thatidea tends to get implemented quickly. When someone proposes anidea that falls into a gray area--or that actually conflicts with aCEO'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 isnow a conflict...and what appears to be a conflict is now a perfectmatch.

Here's how to protect yourself and your sale from theclassic "conflict/match" shift. At the onset of yoursale, someone at the selling organization must place a call to thebuying CEO and say something along the following lines: "Itlooks like our teams will be spending a lot of time togetherpursuing some ideas for your organization. These ideas have thepotential of helping you overachieve in A, B or C. Could you do meone personal favor? When you make the decision. either for oragainst my company, would you grant me the honor of an in-personvisit with you?" When the CEO of the buying organizationagrees (which is much more likely than you imagine), make a note ofthe exact day, date, time and place and put that note into theaccount file.

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

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

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

If you've done your job correctly up to this point (whichincludes keeping in touch with this CEO throughout the entire salescycle), you should have no trouble getting a positive response ofsome kind to your request. You'll then have the opportunity tolearn what's really going on within the buyingorganization.

Don't get nervous about making this call! CEOs are the mosthonest 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 andtime from your notes.

All three of these keys are important, but if I had to pick onefactor to understand in any given sale, it would be currency.Currency connects with the full worth of an organization as the CEOdefines that worth right now. Currency includes, but is notnecessarily limited to, financial performance, image, reputation,brand awareness, market niches, human assets, industry standingsand/or awards, competitive strategies and so forth. All theseelements can and do shape the CEO's priorities at anymoment.

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

Anthony Parinello is the author of the bestselling book Selling to VITO, the Very Important TopOfficer. For additional information on his speeches, SalesSuccess Kits and newest book, CEOs who Sell, call (800) 777-VITO orvisit

Tony Parinello

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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