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Building a Relationship With a CEO? Woo the Inner Circle First. Come bearing gifts for assistants, event planners and interns.

By John Ruhlin Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


When building partnerships with other businesses, most entrepreneurs naturally target the C-suite leaders first. That's understandable: CEOs, after all, are the decision-makers, so naturally you and every other entrepreneur is going to clamor for a meeting with the top brass.

However, the problems you want to solve are not likely to be the same ones keeping those executives up at night. What's more, your constant calls and follow-up emails are actually a turnoff for CEOs. And your messages will probably just get buried in the 84, on average, other emails, that CEOs typically receive in a day. Getting the face time you need to close a deal is a challenge, all right.

This is why you should rethink identifying the "right people" to contact. Every business leader maintains a core staff that manages his or her schedule, advises on business decisions, coordinates events and acts as this leader's gatekeepers. For this reason, your only shot at landing a meeting with the CEO is to find an internal advocate who can prioritize the proposal and educate the boss about its value.

Your best strategy, then, is to develop a relationship with the company head's assistant or a well-placed manager, to dramatically boost your chance of making a deal. And the best way to do that is to give thoughtful corporate gifts.

Related: For Entrepreneurs, The Gift-Giving Season is Year Round

Who are your allies?

Gifts are a great way to connect with staff members who work hard for little recognition. Depending on the organization, you might find the best allies in division heads or assistants, event planners or junior team members looking for ways to get noticed. Showing appreciation and respect for their time helps earn their trust and assistance.

Assistants make especially powerful advocates. They're most likely to remember reps who send gifts or add thoughtful touches to their interactions, and they're willing to reciprocate by getting proposals in front of decision-makers.

Internal allies can also spot the right openings and say, "Now that you've wrapped up that project, do you want to spend a couple of minutes talking about company X?" That will be far more effective than sending the CEO 10 emails or calling every other week.

To make these connections, use the following guidelines to establish relationships with key influencers:

1. Treat them with respect.

When building relationships, many entrepreneurs talk down to everyone except the head decision-maker, and that's a big mistake. Employees in junior or administrative positions are far from insignificant, and treating the boss' team badly all but guarantees that your deal will fall through.

Give gifts to event planners, administrators and other support staff at the same caliber as you would executives. They'll appreciate it more than their bosses will (because these gifts are totally unexpected), and they'll often want to reciprocate by helping you get your proposal through. Don't overlook the people who surround your target prospect; they hold more power than you realize.

2. Develop the relationship.

It's not enough to send assistants nice gifts every once in awhile. Be helpful, with no strings attached. Help them in their job searches, or offer to be a connector when they're looking for new opportunities. I always oblige when clients' assistants ask for recommendations. These people frequently act as bridges to the decision-makers in their next jobs as well.

I was once wooing an NBA team head for a potentially massive account. As part of my regular interactions with his assistant, I sent her a quality knife set as a gift. She spoke so highly of my company after receiving it that, seven months later, she opened the door to six other divisions within the team, and we landed a six-figure deal as a result.

Related: The 4 Stages of Every Relationship -- And Sales Funnel

3. Appreciate decision-makers' families.

We all have someone in our personal lives who influences our opinions. So, establish relationships with other people's personal influencers. I like to send a special subscription gift, such as a custom leather tote bag or handmade cutlery, to my clients' spouses. They're always touched that I thought of them, and that goodwill deepens my company's relationship with the client.

Related: How to Win Face-Time With Tough Prospects

Surprising people with gifts isn't just a feel-good strategy -- it's sound business advice. When an assistant or spouse receives an unexpected present from a company, he or she develops a sense of loyalty to that brand. These people talk it up to the decision-maker and foster a positive association going into sales talks or negotiations.

So, in the end, CEOs may make the final decisions, but successful relationships begin with their inner circles.

John Ruhlin

Founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group

John Ruhlin is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of Giftology. More relationship and referral strategies can be found at Giver's Edge.

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