Ever notice that some sellers and suppliers seem to be considered first when a company is looking to buy something? That's because they've got the inside track. They've made themselves part of their customer's strategic planning process. Here's how it's done:

1. Be more than a salesperson.

If you're an entrepreneur, this step is easy, because selling is only a part of your overall business responsibilities. Even if you work in a sales group, though, you can become more than a salesperson by learning everything possible about your customer's industry, market position, and (especially) your customer's customers.

2. Listen, learn and research.

Rather than focusing on the segment of your customer's business that your product or service addresses, expand your areas of interest and expertise to your customer's goals, problems, and needs that are outside the scope of what your firm offers.  You want your customer to think of you as a "big picture" person and not just an expert in your field.

3. Build extensive contacts.

It's not nearly enough to have a wealth of contacts inside your customer's firm and inside your own firm.  You want to be able to put your customer in touch with people who can help every part of their business. Most importantly, create and cultivate contacts inside your customer's target market.

4. Create independent credibility.

Using your knowledge, research, and contacts, help the customer achieve something that has nothing whatsoever to do with your own offering. The gold standard here is finding your customer a new customer.  The silver standard is helping your customer find a better deal in their own supply chain--for a product or service unrelated to your own.

5. Attend planning meetings.

When you've accomplished all of the above, you'll now be seen as an unofficial member of the customer's team rather than an outsider.  As such, you'll be invited to internal meetings where people discuss their strategy and tactics to grow their business.  When it comes to your product or service, buying from you will be the proverbial no-brainer.

Because you now have the inside track, you and your firm will be considered first, and you'll probably be brought into the decision-making process before the customer has even scoped out what they really need.

Where did I learn all this? From watching IBM salespeople repeatedly get the inside track on large computer purchases and computer services contracts in the 80s and 90s. I never really understood why until I had a conversation about the inside track with Sam Reese, CEO of Miller Heiman.

Back in those days, only huge companies could afford this level of customer engagement. Today, however, even a small company can get on the inside track because the majority of customer interaction takes place via email, teleconferencing, and web conferencing.  You don't have to be onsite to get into the big meetings.

More importantly, today's lean and shrinking staffs have an ever-greater need for outside help and are more than willing to bring somebody outside (that would be you) into key meetings if you truly have something valuable to contribute.

Check out my new book on how to cut through the BS at work: Business Without the Bullsh*t.