Why Selling to the Top Can Leave You At The Bottom

If you’re in sales, you may have heard that you want to get to the top.  Why bother with people who can’t make decisions?

And then you attend a sales training session where you hear of the latest clever selling tactics.  How to get around the gatekeeper.  How to bypass everyone else and get right to the CEO.

You’ve heard some of it before:

  • Call just before or after business hours in the hopes the assistant isn’t yet on duty and the phone rings in the executive’s office.
  • Sweet-talk the executive assistant.
  • Be vague, misleading or yes, even lie in order to make it to the CEO or the highest executive you can.

I’m filled with empathy for the sales profession.  After all, my first corporate job was in sales.  (I was also a lawyer, so that may have made me the most hated guy around: a lawyer salesman?)

Whenever possible I enjoy answering my own phone, especially if I know it’s a sales call.  I’ve stunned sales people who are stammering on the other end of the line.  One guy was so ready to give his misleading lines to an assistant that he literally hung up when he realized he already had me on the line.

But, this post isn’t about how to sell to the CEO.  This is about when to sell to the CEO and when not to sell to the CEO or C Suite.

Here’s the problem with the “sell to the top” theory that most trainers don’t understand:

It can be a waste of time.

You can spend all kinds of time trying to reach someone in the C-Suite instead of identifying the person most interested in your product or service.  Let’s say I’m the CEO at a large company, and you call me about office supplies.  The fact is that there’s likely someone in charge of this area, and it isn’t the CEO.  Do you think that the CEO is going to listen to your presentation and then command the purchasing department to override all protocols and buy staplers and highlighters from you?

It can hurt your chances.

If you irritate someone in the C Suite, the chances of you closing a deal anywhere in the company drop precipitously.  This is especially true if you mislead or lie.  One phone call or quick email to the purchasing department about a company or salesperson, and you are shut down.  For good.

It can damage your reputation.

Lying and manipulation are never good tactics.  Your reputation is most important.  What if you end up at a different company, selling something else?  You can be successful if you’re known as someone with integrity.  You’ll never make it if you’ve destroyed your reputation.

It can annoy everyone.

When I’ve talked about this in a training session, someone inevitably says, “Skip, wait.  The good thing is that the CEO can tell me exactly who to call.”  Really?  You think the CEO (or anyone in the C-Suite) wants to listen to your pitch just to be a reference service?  You’ve wasted valuable time.  There are other ways to find out whom you should call.  Use them first.

It doesn’t always help.

Maybe controversial, but I believe that there are many people in organizations who will resist pressure from the top.  What do I mean?  I will give two examples.

  1. Let’s say that a CEO recommends a person for a job opening.  The candidate is ecstatic, thinking “hey, I have the IN!  The CEO is in my corner!”  The hiring manager, however, may think this way, “If I hire someone who knows the CEO, I have a spy on my team.  Every little thing I do or say will be reported all the way up.  I don’t need that kind of trouble.”  Think it doesn’t happen?  It does.  You say, “That shows a complete lack of confidence and unhealthy paranoia.”  Well, yes, I do agree.  But, I’ve seen it.  It doesn’t always happen, but be aware of the potential so you can work around it.
  2. Early in my career, I was taught to go directly to a C-Staff member.  A department manager in the firm was in charge of the relationship between our two companies.  She always signed the purchase orders.  After one training program, I worked my way to the lead partner.  Now, I didn’t manipulate; I was positive and honest.  The result?  The manager was so angry that I “bypassed” her that she cut us off.  I had not only lost the potential for increased business.  I also lost what we had.  It took me a year of apologizing to win her and the business back.  It’s a cautionary tale to be sensitive to everyone’s position.

As someone who has worked on all sides of this issue—on the sell side as the sales person, the sales trainer, the Vice President of Sales–and on the buy side as the VP, SVP, COO, CEO, I have an opinion on selling to the top.  And, it’s just my opinion, so feel free to disagree with me in the comments.  Here it is:  When selling to the top, the first goal should be to develop a relationship. Your first goal is usually not to sell.  That’s right.  When someone takes the time to build a relationship, which is longer-term, unexpected doors may open.  Try to manipulate or bully your way, and you may win, but it will be a short-lived win.  (This is not true if the CEO truly is the buyer and the decision-maker, but that is VERY rare.)

Selling to the top of an organization can be smart.  It may short-circuit the process.  You may indeed find it beneficial.  There are many times selling to the C-Suite is the right way to go.  There are also many times when you should do more homework.  The power is not always at the top.  And, above all, don’t lose your integrity in the sales process–because no sale is worth damaging your name in the marketplace.

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