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Start With the Top Dog: A Sales Primer Learn how to approach the bigwigs, forge lasting partnerships with them and make sales even in a tough economy from the authors of <i>Five Minutes With VITO (Making the most of your selling time with the Very Important Top Officer).</i>

By Elizabeth Wilson

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In uncertain times, it's more important than ever to forge alliances with the right people, but with executive assistants guarding the gateway to the bigwigs, it takes a certain panache that can be hit-or-miss when it comes to making the grade and scoring a space on the executive calendar. That's where co-authors Tony Parinello and David Mattson come in with their time-tested techniques for getting a foot in the door, geared for entrepreneurs, salespeople and managers.

As Parinello and Mattson explain in Five Minutes With VITO (Making the most of your selling time with the Very Important Top Officer), a VITO is any person who carries a title like CEO, founder, owner, president or chairman. The pair emphasize that as long as three topics are brought to the table when approaching VITO--making money, saving money, increasing efficiency or effectiveness--VITO will be interested in forging an alliance.

Contacting VITO
Talking to VITO
Getting Past the Gatekeeper

Entrepreneur.com: How can small-business owners benefit by contacting VITO?

Tony Parinello:If you're an entrepreneur, you probably have a title that's a VITO, so it's like to like and that makes a whole lot of sense. You can jump through all the hoops with everybody else in the organization, but at some point in time, it's going to go to the approver for the approval. So why not start where it's eventually going to end?

David Mattson:They're [VITOs] not trying to save nickels, whereas managers--they get judged on their budget expenditures [VITO does not]. You also can increase your cross-sell ratio if you call the VITO. You can bundle a series of products that get set end results because the end result is important to VITO, not one or two specific products. It's easier to go deep and wide with that relationship.

Contacting VITO

Entrepreneur.com: What's the best way to first contact a VITO?

Parinello:Depending on the industry, it's probably best to have a wave of activity before you pick up the phone. Send a correspondence--be it a first-class piece of mail, a postcard, handwritten note, an e-mail or an electronic presentation of some sort--but the secret with any correspondence is that there's specific action that you are going to take that's very apparent in that document, whatever the document is. It has to be very specific about the date, day and time that you're going to call to follow up.

Entrepreneur.com: Is there a tip for what should go in the subject line?

Parinello:There is. The first thing you want to do, in any correspondence, is you want to salute the uniform of the private assistant. The private assistant's name has to be in any correspondence you send to VITO. That's so important. Next, if it's an e-mail, then you should take a thin slice of the action statement and put it in the subject line. For example, the action statement in a correspondence might say something like 'P.S. I'll call your office on Thursday, May 14 at 9:30 a.m. If this is not a good time, please have Tommie inform me as to a time I should make the call.' Now, Tommie is VITO's private assistant, so that's how you work Tommie's name into the correspondence. If it's an e-mail, you take a piece of that and you put it in the subject line: 'Re: our conversation 9:30 a.m. May 14.'

Entrepreneur.com: Do you think it's common for business owners or entrepreneurs not to try to contact VITOs at all?

Parinello:It's very common because they've been told or they've experienced in the past that it doesn't work. They've got gatekeepers. They won't talk to salespeople. They're never in. It's a bad day to call them. It's a bad hour to call them. Why bother when I'm just going to get voice mail? I mean the excuses go on and on, that's why during the last 21 years, I've trained more than 2 million people how to do this. So here's another secret: Focus on three words: equal business stature. You have the right to change VITO's thinking pattern, you have a right to show up on their doorstep with something they don't already have, or something that's better than what they already have. So as a seller or entrepreneur, I don't have to have an equal title or equal business structure or equal size company; all I have to do is have equal business stature.

Mattson:I think it is a common mistake. Most small-business owners, especially if they're calling on an organization that's larger than them, make a decision at some level that [they] don't deserve to be there. And I think that you need to go into it with equal 'personal presence': that you're a VITO of your organization; you could be a VITO of your own sales career; you need to talk to that other person as if you are another VITO. Because if I see myself as a 'small business owner' with a company of two and you're a company of 2,000, then you're going to act differently--your conviction is gone.

Talking to VITO

Talking to VITO

Entrepreneur.com: Do you need to adapt the way you try to talk to a VITO because of this bad economy?

Parinello: Oh, yeah. Now, more than ever, the VITOs are watching everything and thinking about risk and mitigating the risk. You've got to look at the whole cost of implementation: Is additional training required? Is changing the way products are handled required? Also, VITO is looking at cost of implementation divided by time: time to value, time to result.

Entrepreneur.com: Should you craft an opening pitch to try and address those money-related pain points or anxiety points a VITO might have?

Parinello:I think VITOs don't like to be pitched. VITOs like to be approached by someone who is knowledgeable in their industry, and maybe not so much about their company, because no one knows more about their company than VITO. I mean, it's good to do some research before you go in, but to earn the right to get a minute of VITO's time, you've got to know the industry they're in.

I should take the time as the seller approaching VITO to understand how other VITOs in the industry create revenue, contain costs and increase effectiveness and efficiencies of revenue-generating employees, and how other VITOs in the same industry maintain compliance and stay out of jail. If I do those four steps right there, I will become a thought partner. It's not about pitching VITO, it's about adding something to their day that they need. They're all looking to increase something or decrease something else. They're in a constant state of urgency to get this done; so when it comes to pitching, I think it's more about understanding the VITO's world that they're operating in, and how I could offer an idea they haven't yet thought of.

Entrepreneur.com: How do you become familiar with such a wide variety of industries?

Parinello:Let's say your prospects are in four or five different niches; maybe they're manufacturers, distributors, hospitality, health care, pharmaceuticals, whatever. All that the entrepreneur has to do is join the biggest association that caters to that industry. Let's say it's the American Furniture Manufacturers Association. There are bazillions of associations that service these industries, but pick the one that's the most popular. And all you've got to do is join and read their newsletter. Get their audio tapes that they sell at conferences. So to educate yourself in a market it's more about understanding what's going on in that market and what association or associations are serving that market and what they're saying.

Entrepreneur.com: How many VITOs should you be calling?

Parinello:You can't really pick a number, because everyone's pipeline and everyone's revenue plan is different. I could tell you this: You will save so much time by going to VITO first rather than calling on more available individuals low in the organization--they'll spend time with you, but they can't make a decision to buy. It's senseless. It's an epidemic that needs to stop. And no one is better suited to stop it than the entrepreneur, the owner of the company who can take the steps necessary to call on a level where approvals are made.

Mattson:I would say in today's environment you need to double the amount of VITO-type contacts you [make], because it's harder. Create what I call a 'prospecting plan,' which is to determine how many new opportunities [and] how many new conversations you need in a month. Then the question is: Where do they come from? How many of those should be referrals and how many of those should be from XYZ sources, whatever they are? Then you determine how to get them. You get much better results that way.

Entrepreneur.com: How do you learn how to speak at the same level as VITO?

Parinello:Here's what I want you to take out of your vocabulary: The first step is to never, ever use technobabble, industry jargon or buzz with the VITO. Never use an "F" word with the VITO, and the "F" word is a feature or function. Now if you just stop there and look at every bit of literature you've ever created for your company, every bit of marketing and campaigning and look at it, you're going to go, "Oh no, oh we have 'F' words in it, we have technobabble in it, we have acronyms, buzz words . . ." Get rid of all of that stuff and replace it with simple, easy-to-understand language that speaks to VITO and what they want to achieve. And there are only four economic metrics that VITOs want to achieve. First, make more money; second, work smarter rather than harder, increase efficiencies and effectiveness; third, cut or contain costs; fourth, stay out of trouble, stay out of jail. So it's pretty simple and, when in doubt, if you just default to any one of those four--you're on thick ice; you're safe with VITO.

Entrepreneur.com: What do you do when the VITO tries to get you off the phone as quickly as possible?

Parinello:Let them do it. VITO's in control, they've got huge egos. We're not going to tell VITO what to do; they're running the company. The response would be: "Great, go back to doing whatever you're doing. When we finally catch up, let's make sure we talk about 'yap yap.'" And the yap yap you're going to give VITO right now is the best reason in the world for VITO to have a conversation with you. Which is, "Hey, the next time we get together, let's make sure we talk about the three ideas we have to increase revenues while at the same time cutting expenses, and we can pull it off in about 90 days. Have a great day." If you say that to any VITO, they're going to say, "Wait a minute, what did you just say? Increase what while at the same time . . . how the hell do you do that?" And all of the sudden, everything else goes on hold.

Entrepreneur.com: Can you give me an example of how you can turn a call into less talking about the product you're offering the VITO and more talking about how VITO's company can benefit from your product?

Parinello:We've been taught to ask all the right questions of the wrong people and all the wrong questions of the right people. Whenever you want to take VITO's temperature or you want to find out what's important to VITO, you add one word to a question: "personally." And then you add time: "During the next month, or between now and the end of this year, what is important to you personally about blank."

Mattson:Here's a good exercise. We call it the "feature benefit exercise." Here's how it works: Take your product and service and put it into some columns. For example, in a column labeled "Product A," write out all the features of what you're selling and all the benefits. At the end of the column, write out all of the problems that it solves. Ask yourself, "What's the pain that product solves for VITO?" Then the next step is to create a list of questions that will get VITO thinking and saying to themselves, "Ah, I want to hear more about that."

Don't start out saying, "Let me tell you how good it is."' Instead you say, "Hey, we work with a lot of VITOs like yourself." That's a credibility statement, and VITOs want to know what other VITOs are doing. And then you say, "Here's what we have found--we have found that they're struggling with XYZ," and then here's the start of your question: "I don't suppose that's something you're also struggling with?" And shut up and let them talk.

Entrepreneur.com: Do you think that if you address something that's a pain point for them that will be more effective than just saying, "This product is going to make your business make more money?"

Mattson:Absolutely. Because people want to buy for their own reasons. You've heard of the saying: "People hate to be sold but love to buy." People need to buy for their own reasons. So their own reasons would boil down to: How do you put it in such a way that VITO says, "Oh, I like that, I want to do that" vs. "We have the following 32 functions on our software . . . " They don't care about that.

Getting Past the Gatekeeper

Getting Past the Gatekeeper

Entrepreneur.com: Can you describe what a gatekeeper is and explain the two types of gatekeepers discussed in your book?

Parinello:One word: God. The gatekeeper is God. There's a huge difference between a receptionist gatekeeper and VITO's private assistant. Ninety-seven percent of receptionist gatekeepers are not professional receptionist gatekeepers. They took the job because the degree they have in marketing, the position wasn't open yet in the company, so they're cooling their jets as a receptionist gatekeeper. Their job is to take the call and direct it to the person the caller sounds the most like. If you find yourself constantly getting shunted to a place I call linoleumville--when you're constantly shunted down to the IT department, janitorial staff or factory floor--you are being shunted to the person you sound the most like. So don't say, "Can . . . can you connect me to your president, Ms. Importanta?" And the gatekeeper responds, "Well what's the call about?" "Well, it's about our new widget 2300 Alpha that can contain more containments and absorb more liquids than any other absorbent in the industry." "Hold it, you don't need to speak to our president at all, go talk to the head janitor." That's the receptionist gatekeeper's job.

Tommie's job, VITO's private assistant, is to make sure you get through to VITO if you deserve it. The way you deserve it is, first of all, when Tommie picks up the phone, forget VITO exists and focus on Tommie, because Tommie is VITO. Don't ask if VITO's in, don't ask if this is a good time, don't ask if Tommie would take a message to VITO, don't do any of that lame stuff that we've been taught how to do.

Entrepreneur.com: So you want to stroke the ego of the private assistant to get to VITO?

Parinello: It's a little bit different than stroking ego. When VITO retires, their private assistant retires; when VITO moves from company A to company B, their private assistant moves--they're a matched set. So the private assistant knows almost more than VITO knows about what's going on in the company. So here's the deal: If any private assistant picks up the phone, all you need to do is bounce your idea off of them and treat them like VITO.

Entrepreneur.com: What are some key things to say to the personal assistant?

Mattson: They should engage them, say, "Hey we're working with these CEOs, here's what's going on, I'd like to have 10 minutes of their time." Tell them what you've done, how you've helped others and ask for their help to get in front of VITO. Because when you ask people for help just basic buying psychology says that if you struggle a little bit, but you're upfront, "I'd like your help to get to VITO," they will help. When you push and try to be slick, they feel good about themselves for trying to get rid of you.

Also, voicemails are the worst enemy of salespeople; talk to the personal assistant, because they will talk to VITO for you.

Entrepreneur.com: Which should you do: Ask to call back later, or leave a message?

Mattson:Do a little of both, say, "Based on what you've heard, does it make any sense for me to get on the calendar?" Give them artificial decision-making power. I like to do that, if they say, "Can I take a message?" that's great, but I do ask, "Hey, when can I call back?"

You've got to have an action step with them as well. They're [VITO] never going to call you back, because they've got 10,000 people calling them.

Entrepreneur.com: What about rehearsing what you want to say? Is there a tip you can share for entrepreneurs to learn how to be prepared but not sound like they've done it 100 times?

Parinello:The worst thing you can do is rehearse anything. [Instead] you internalize your thought. It never comes out the same way twice. Be authentic, make a mistake--who cares? Get over yourself, it's not a big deal. The best thing that can happen is that I show up or the entrepreneur shows up the best person they can be. Speak with easy-to-understand language, be yourself, use filler words like "uh," "jeez," "OK," "What do you think about this?" "Does this make sense?" "Oh my God, just the other day." Be real, damn it, and forget about this stupid rehearsing stuff.

One of the biggest problems I think we have in sales training is that people think that they need to get it right, but guess what? In golf there's mulligans; you can never do anything that's so bad that you can't say, "Can I just do that again? That really didn't come out right. Maybe I didn't get enough sleep last night." For crying out loud, be real; and being real is not rehearsing stuff. That's not real."

Entrepreneur.com: But a little rehearsing can't hurt, can it?

Mattson: I think what we do as business owners and salespeople is we tend to wing it, we tend to say, "Hey, I know my product inside and out, so therefore I can just show up and it will happen naturally," and I don't think that's true. It shouldn't happen as a business owner just like I don't want my surgeon to show up and practice, it wouldn't be good for me, so I think you really do need to rehearse.

Entrepreneur.com: What would you say is the most common next step that the gatekeeper offers to an entrepreneur or salesperson who's trying to connect with VITO?

Parinello:This is a key to selling to VITO. The gatekeeper is most likely going to shunt you somewhere, and most likely that shunt is going to be to someone who's much higher than who you normally would have entered the account in to begin with. So here's a major, major secret. Let's say Tommie [the gatekeeper] just shunts me to the VP of sales. You're going to go do that. But that day, that very day that Tommie told you to go talk to somebody, you're going to write a handwritten thank-you note to Tommie. "Tommie, thank you so much for seeing the value in what we have to offer, and thank you for referring me to your VP of sales, I'll stay in touch!" Now take a sticky note and write on it, "Dear Ms. Importanta, thanks for having Tommie on your team. I'm on my way to your VP of sales, I'll keep you posted." Now that sticky goes inside the thank-you note that you just wrote to Tommie.

Now watch this:Take the thank-you note, put it in an envelope and address it to VITO. The next day, into VITO's inbox comes this handwritten card that looks like an invitation to a wedding or a graduation. Tommie takes it and puts it on VITO's desk. When VITO comes in and opens it, they see the thank-you note is for Tommie, but they see the sticky note inside it. They take the thank-you note, they walk over to Tommie, and they say, "Tommie, good job. Well done." You know, the last time Tommie heard the words "well done" is when VITO ordered a hamburger . . . Now here's what just happened: The salesperson or entrepreneur just established a wonderful, sincere kind of rapport-building step with Tommie, and the next time the entrepreneur or salesperson calls Tommie, it's going to be like a red carpet being rolled out.

Entrepreneur.com: Are there any tips you'd like to add?

Parinello:I think the most important thing an entrepreneur needs to do is show up in a different place, talking a different talk; because when they do that and the different place is VITO's office and the different talk is the opening statement that we've been yapping about here--[if] you present yourself a little bit differently than you've ever done before--it's going to drive a different result. And that's what we all need right now. We need to turn this economy around one VITO at a time. The only way to do that is to pick up the phone and make the calls; stop staring at the phone, stop looking at your prospect list and pick up the phone and call the right person. And I'm here to help them do that, whatever way I can.

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