One of the questions I'm most often asked by CEOs is how to hire sales people. 

I've written a lot about recruiting and hiring at startups including my controversial post on whom not to hire and my rapid response to the flame war. I've also written extensively on sales and on which sales execs to hire and how to think about the different kinds of sales leaders.

One of the questions I used to ask in any recruiting meeting for a senior hire or even a junior sales rep is as follows:

"When you run sales campaigns do you prefer to 

A. Call high, and get passed down or;
B. Call low, get a pilot project with data running internally, and then present the findings to a senior executive"

Of course there's no "right" answer but I'd like to persuade you that "calling high" will help you greatly shorten sales cycles and help you avoid wasting a lot of time on sales efforts that are not likely to close in the first place.

If you don't have a good sales methodology already in place in your organization you might try reading that last link.

Call High

Calling high means reaching the highest level appropriate person in an organization that you can reach to hear your pitch. In a small to mid-sized organization this is likely the CEO or perhaps a COO or SVP. Clearly in an enterprise customer this is unlikely.

The senior person you meet is unlikely to be the person actually making the decision. They are likely somebody who would hear about the purchase but may or may not weigh in on the decision.

The most likely outcome if you manage to interest the senior exec (for the sake of this post let me call her the CEO) is that she will refer you down the organization to somebody who would be involved in the decision.

The benefits of this are clear:

1. High priority / more attention: A person passed down from the CEO tells the person making the decision that they ought to prioritize this.

2. No gate keeper: One of the most destructive forces in a sales campaign is when mid-level manager blocks you from meeting her boss. When you're passed down the organization this isn't an issue. You have already established a direct connection to the CEO and have earned the right to contact her on an as-needed basis.

3. You avoid time wasters: Occasionally when you meet senior executives they will give you negative feedback on your prospects.

"We don’t have budget for that this year"

"I don’t believe in social media advertising."

"I'm already in a pilot with one of your competitors."

"There’s no way we’re going to partner in this area. It’s too strategic. We will have to build (or buy) technology in this area."

Whatever this issue is. The thing is … what I see many sales execs do is burn up countless hours on mid-level campaigns that get torpedoed when the go up the organization due to lack of budget, a desire to own that core IP or other more pressing organization priorities. You need to align your selling cycle with a buyers purchasing cycle otherwise you’re wasting your time and theirs. If they're not buying you need to be marketing to them not selling to them.

So as much as it sucks to hear, "We don't have budget for (or interest in) your product" it's far better to hear it early and move on to your next qualified lead.

4. Learn the internal politics: You'd be surprised what the CEO would tell you about her organization. She might gladly tell you who gets decisions made, who is a pain in the arse, who is super technical, etc. Once you've reached a level in a company where you're less worried about daily politics above you people are much more relaxed about sharing information. Not always, of course. But more than junior people.

5. Sales & post-sales support: One of the most important roles the CEO can play is to help you in the sales cycle and even in post sales. After you have found a business buyer often you need to get through procurement, legal and technical reviews (aka "sales prevention"). Having senior executive air cover is invaluable to help streamline these leg-breakers. Following the sale having a CEO relationship can help you greatly to make sure you product gets the training, implementation and rollout support it needs to be successful. Not to mention it would be nice to have the CEO on your marketing reference list!

The Case for Calling Low

When you hear the case for "call high" it intuitively feels obvious. I have met several sales execs who argue the exact opposite strategy. Their view is that without "proof points" the senior leadership teams are likely to be cynical about the benefits of your product.

In the "call low" camp they advocate:

1. Find a business unit leader who would be positively impacted by success of your product

2. Run a short, quantifiable pilot

3. Have that business unit leader champion you to a senior exec with data and proof in hand

4. Land bigger deals with more assuredness.

The mantra of this school is, "keep your head below the parapet and avoid getting shot. You can rise up once you have your armaments."

While I understand the logic, I personally believe you need to provide enough evidence through case studies to talk with the CEO and if she can't convince herself that it’s worth exploring being a buyer then you could recommend you do a pilot internally to prove yourself.


While the logic of calling high is clear I can tell you that most people -- leaders and sales execs -- opt for the more comfortable territory of the next layer down in the organization.

I have seen countless organizations waste time peddling to companies that have no intention to buy or to prospects who have no authority to purchase.

Whether you’re selling your product or selling your company - there is nothing more valuable than having

  • A champion who will help you take ownership for your success
  • The air cover of a senior executive
  • A buyer who has IA - influence & authority (Avoid NINAs)

I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments section.

Photo credit on 500px to Roof Topper. Check out his other photos. He's insane. And brilliant.

This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.