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The 10 Golden Rules of Selling Like a CEO The simplest rules of selling are right under your nose. All the more reason for you to find out what they are and get to work boosting your selling power.

By Tony Parinello

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Some of the most advanced sales tactics I've ever seen were demonstrated during a weekend seminar given by two purposeful, motivated, passionate salespeople who truly know how to build relationships with executives. These two pros are persuasive and relentlessly positive. Like millions of other professionals in their field, they get up every day and head out the door with a firm sense of the value message they need to convey to their prospects. And like millions of their colleagues, they don't carry a briefcase, a business card or any formal presentation materials--as a matter of fact, they sometimes need help selecting and putting on their clothing. They're children, and the two seminar leaders, Anthony and Nicholas, are my nephews. They truly are masters at the art of enthusiastic persuasion and presentations. Let me explain.

Anthony and Nicholas wanted an hour of uninterrupted playtime from me. And they got it. How, exactly, did they get what they were after? By using two of the "golden rules" of CEOs who sell (I'll give you the other eight shortly). Specifically, they embraced the following: "Be honest about the situation, even when it hurts," and "Redefine the word 'no.' " They used a personal approach that allowed them to start off their "relationship" with a new "prospect" (me) by sending the correct initial authentic message: "We're going to have a blast together--you just watch!"

That, it turned out, was the message I needed to hear. It was a significant motivator for me to find a way to "work" with these two seasoned sales pros. As you read about the 10 golden rules of CEO selling, you'll find that Anthony and Nicolas were as close to the bone as you can get when it comes to embracing a CEO selling style. When they read this article, they'll become totally unstoppable, and so will you!

As you read what follows, I suggest you ask yourself at the end of each one of the "golden rules" how closely you adhere to the meaning of the rule. Of course you'll have to adapt each of your first meeting situations to each rule, but as you do this you must keep the rule's integrity. In other words, don't change the rule--just adapt how and when you use it.

The Golden Rules 1-5

1. CEOs are honest, even when it hurts. This is one of those rules that you should carry into your day-to-day interactions with everyone. Never, ever lie to a CEO or anyone else (including yourself). If you don't believe in what you're selling enough to tell the truth about it at all times, find something else to sell. CEOs can't afford to tell a lie. Why? Because there are too many ears listening to what they are saying. Stockholders, the media, employees, suppliers, customers, etc. CEOs know, and so should you, that problem accounts (like problem relationships) are those that someone over-promised and under-delivered on. CEOs and those of us who sell to them must be totally ready, willing and able to stand behind every word that we write or that comes out of our mouths. If that means "walking" on a short-term opportunity today, so be it. You can always come back tomorrow. And when you do come back, you will be remembered as a person of integrity.

2. CEOs touch people in a special way. CEOs who sell have a "signature" that's all their own. They create a look and feel that others associate with them that's as unique as the logo on their products. Consider Nancy Allen, aka the "cookie" lady. One Friday of each month, Nancy delivers homemade (in her kitchen) chocolate chip cookies to her best customers. Why? Because she wants to show her gratitude in a way that's remembered. If you ever want to see grown-ups fighting over a cookie, follow Nancy on her next Friday's run.

3. Know what you want, and keep it simple and straightforward. CEOs are incredibly simple in their approach. Every single CEO I interviewed was able to quickly and accurately articulate what they want. Can you? Let's do a quick exercise: Write down, in 30 words or less, what you want from the CEO of your largest prospect. For example: "Your opinion on how to use my proven ideas to increase the size of your entry point orders, compress your sales cycle and get add-on business from your existing customers."

4. Show your feelings. How are you today? Oh, I'm fine. No, actually I just got word that my cholesterol level is dangerously high and I must go on a very restrictive diet. How many times do you tell someone how you really feel? How many times when you take that step are your feelings acknowledged by the other person? CEOs who sell show their own feelings and respond to others' feelings, and they are always in the present moment and time. Most of us think that doing this takes too much time. Actually, you'll save a lot of time if you take the lead from the CEO, and here's why. If you take the time to make every interaction you have with everyone on your way to the CEO's office memorable, your return trip will be much easier. Your calls will be accepted, voice-mail messages returned and ideas entertained. In other words, you'll get top-of-mind. Making yourself and your interactions memorable isn't that hard--all you have to do is show your feelings in a sincere way and acknowledge the feelings of others in a sincere way.

Let's look at that conversation again: How are you today? Oh, I'm fine. No, actually I just got word that my cholesterol level is dangerously high and I must go on a very restrictive diet. What types of food must you avoid? Fried food, some dairy products, any types of snacks that have more than 4 percent fat, for starters. Sounds like you'll be eating pretty healthy! Maybe I should look at this diet!

After this conversation, you send the person a recipe book on low-fat cooking and sign it with a message that comes from your heart: "To your health!" or "Here's to healthier eating!" or "Put this to the taste test!"

5. Say you're sorry when you mess up. Too many salespeople (heck, too many people) seem to assume it's bad etiquette to admit you've made a mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth! CEOs know the importance of taking personal responsibility, and so should you. That means saying and meaning those dreaded words "I'm sorry" when something goes wrong or is about to go wrong. You, not anyone else, should be the person to deliver this message, and here's why: Someone else may have a different agenda than you.

For example, let's say you've been doing business with a company for two years but you've never met the CEO, and one day your product causes a production delay or some other big problem. If you allow someone else to get the word to the CEO, it may not be as accurate as you want it to be. It may be burdened with other "baggage" that's been plaguing the production line. What the heck, nothing wrong with finding a scapegoat once and a while. There are two other reasons that you want to be the person to deliver the "we messed up" message to the CEO:

  • A CEO is the most forgiving person in the organization. They know they aren't perfect, and they know they've walked in your shoes before. Therefore, you'll best serve the CEO, your cause and your company by meeting with the CEO and asking for their advice: "Ms. CEO, if your organization were to make a mistake similar to this one, how would you make it right with your best customer?" After you say that, sit very quietly and listen intently to what the CEO tells you. Then simply do it!
  • You'll strengthen your business relationship with the CEO, because problems, when promptly corrected, will always show your organization's better side and commitment to their customers, marketplace and integrity.

The Golden Rules 6-10

6. Look at people when you talk to them. About half the interviews I conducted for my book were done in person. In every case, the CEO always gave me a generous amount of eye contact. Why? Making appropriate (not invasive) eye contact is a necessary ingredient of effective listening. Besides, if you know what to look for, watching someone's eyes can tell you a lot about their feelings of what's being said. Generally speaking, the right kind of eye contact demonstrates a sincere purpose. Let's say that during a conversation with a CEO, they're giving you a consistent amount of eye contact. When you get to your third call objective--do you see any reason that you wouldn't do business with us?--they break their eye contact while answering. This is what I would call "out of integrity." It could very well be that there's something going on (mergers, acquisitions, buy-outs, their personal "bail-out," etc.) that he/she may not be at liberty to discuss with you. And the opposite of this is also true. Watch your eye contact when you give responses to questions. The best way to get your eyes to match your words is to always speak the truth. Remember, eyes don't lie--words do.

7. Get commitment early-on. I don't mean that you should invent meaningless questions or statements designed solely to get buyers bobbing their heads up and down like mindless dashboard dolls. What I am talking about is that a CEO will always get early "buy in" from anyone who is to perform a task or mission for them. It's a way of transferring ownership so responsibility is unquestionably with the other party. Since this is a strong leadership and selling style of a CEO, you can rest assured that when you ask for it, they will understand exactly what you're doing and what part they are to play. It's always good business to balance the responsibility so you as the selling organization don't get too far ahead of the commitments of the buying organization. "Mr. CEO, our organization will be investing over $30,000 of pre-sales expenses working with your evaluation team. If you were in my shoes, would you feel responsible making that decision?" Bold? Yes. Why? Because remember at all times whom you're interacting with.

8. Ask and you shall receive. This rule is closely associated with rule number 7. Whenever you ask a CEO for anything, you will get something in return. It may not be exactly what you asked for, but you will get something. I've built a successful sales career on the simple belief that the more you ask and the sooner you do so, the more and sooner you will sell. Here's a short list of what you should make a habit of asking CEOs for:

  • Ask about opinions and impressions. "What are your thoughts so far?" "If you had to make up your mind right now, what would it be?" "Based on what you've heard/seen/experienced so far, would you become one of our customers?" "If you had to sell your organization my ideas, how would you go about doing it?"
  • Ask about ideas for improvement: "What would you do if you were given the opportunity to make our ideas even better?" "How would you go about making our offering even more inviting to your organization?"
  • Ask about other members of this CEO's team: "Who else needs to take a look at our ideas?" "Who do you trust the most to give this initiative to?" "Who in your organization will have the responsibility for putting our ideas into action?"

9. Redefine the word no. I have an ironclad policy about the word no--I never accept, at face value, any interruption that contains the word! You shouldn't either. Instead, you should ask yourself "Exactly what is this person saying no to?"

Government agencies, school districts, county, state and municipalities and certain nonprofit organizations are governed by strict laws and policies that they must buy the lowest-price provider of any service they are in search of. Of course, there are ways around these requirements, such as being the only provider of a particular service--what's typically called "sole-source" contracts. But generally speaking, if you're not the lowest-price provider you don't make the short list. And if you don't make the short list, you can't make the sale.

CEO: "No, we can't do business with your organization. We've got to adhere to the governing board's policy of buying the lowest-price provider, and your organization is the highest-price proposal we have. Thanks for your efforts, but no thanks."

You: "Ms. CEO, would you please define 'price' for me?"

This is a classic way to change the playing field and get this CEO to look at what the real cost of ownership is. For many years of my sales career, I sold (very successfully I might add) the highest-price computer systems into the "lowest-price wins" world using this response to the word "no."

10. CEOs always issue a call to action, and you should, too. This is the part of the first meeting where the rubber meets the road. Some salespeople take a laid-back approach when it comes to specifying commitments. As you have learned so far, that's not the approach of a CEO. CEOs love the word action. They constantly ask it of their own team, so therefore; you can ask it of them. The action that I am referring to is one that puts everything in the proper order for the CEO--the steps that are necessary for results to happen in this CEO's organization, not what you need to have happened to sell your stuff. Some sample calls to action:

  • "Mr. CEO, typically what are the steps that have to happen in your organization to implement new ideas that have the potential of favorably impacting your take-to-market strategy?"
  • "Ms. CEO, what steps did you take the last time you changed your raw-material supplier for your Phoenix manufacturing facility?"

Don't feel uncomfortable if you're having difficulty creating your call to action. There's plenty of help on the way in my monthly columns!

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

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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