How to Sell to the Corner Office
Here's the bad news. You know all that "consultative selling" stuff that you've heard about? It doesn't work with CEOs.
Here's the good news. If you're selling something worthy of the attention of a top CEO, you can probably get a face-to-face meeting... if you go about it the right way.
Consultative selling consists of questioning techniques, needs analysis, and product positioning. It's intended to help professional purchasers and lower level managers sort out and select products based upon features, functions, and price.
CEOs, however, are interested in corporate strategy, revenue, and profitability. Unless they're running a very small company, CEOs hire lower-level managers to worry about tactical solutions to business problems. Therefore, the moment you try "consultative selling" with such a CEO, you'll be bounced down the chain to whoever is responsible for that particular function.
On the other hand, if you're proposing something higher level, such as a long term corporate alliance or strategic relationship that will affect the company's stock price or valuation, the CEO will definitely be interested in what you've got to say.
The trick is landing that kind of face-to-face meeting where a high-level discussion can take place. And that's what this post is about. According to Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, co-authors of the excellent book, Beyond Selling Value, there are four ways to land a "strategic" face-to-face meeting with a CEO.
1. Have a prior relationship with the CEO.
This probably seems a bit obvious, but the easiest way to get a meeting with a CEO is if you already have a positive track record working with that CEO. In this case, you can simply request a meeting. However (and this is important), your request must be carefully couched so that it motivates the CEO to meet with you personally rather than delegate the meeting downwards. For example:
Ineffective: "I want to talk with you about your framistat needs." (CEO response: Talk to Bill in Purchasing")
Effective: "I want to discuss the possibility of a strategic alliance that might increase your overall revenue.
2. Obtain a personal introduction to the CEO.
This entails working your contacts (either inside or outside the CEO's firm) so that somebody who has a relationship with the CEO recommends that the CEO meet with you. However, before you ask your contact to set up a meeting, you must coach your contact to position the face-to-face meeting in a way that enhances your credibility. For example:
Ineffective: "Sue wants to talk to you about your framistat supply chain." (CEO response: Have her talk to Joe in Manufacturing.)
Effective: "Sue has some intriguing ideas for a long-term strategic alliance."
3. Use an event as a segue to a meeting.
If you attend a meeting where the CEO is present (e.g. such as a presentation or a conference), you can ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss issues that are of particular interest to the executive. For example, if you're making a sales presentation to a group of managers in the firm, and the CEO is present, you can request a meeting with the CEO to discuss larger business issues, such as a strategic partnership.
4. Make a written request for a meeting.
As a last resort (only), write a letter describing why you would like to meet with the CEO personally. This letter must be crafted to communicate the case that your firm can provide enough value to warrant the executive's personal attention. Send it via Fedex rather than e-mail. Also, explain to the CEO's admin that you are about to send the letter and solicit the admin's help in seeing that the CEO opens and reads your letter.
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