How to Get to First Base with the C-Suite


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selling to the c-suite

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How many people in Sales do you know that do not want to reach the decision-maker with their pitch?  The rhetorical answer is…zero, of course.  When it comes to complex sales of technology, consulting, or other high-value yet high-ticket services in a B2B setting, those decision-makers reside within the C-Suite of your target prospect organizations.  CEO, COO, CIO, CMO – depending upon the responsibility domain of whom best benefits from your stuff; your focus is at this level. But as many of you know, cracking the defenses of the executive wash room crowd is no picnic, so just how do you go about even getting to first base, much less make a sale?

Eating the Elephant

The first thing to remember is that there is a first base in large, high-value business sales.  That implies there are in fact other bases to reach, and even though every now and again you hit the long ball, the bases come in order, and if you skip even one of them, you get called out.  I’m sure you’ve heard that in order to eat an elephant, you have to do it one bite at a time (lest you get sick and perish from over-consumption).  Years ago I took a Huthwaite course called SPIN Selling that in large part I still practice today as part of my consultative process.  In SPIN, these bites of the pachyderm are called advances.  String enough advances together and a sale is the inevitable result, and the first advance is getting the notice of and positive response from your C-level executive.

Avoid the Bum’s Rush

It never ceases to amaze me how many times every week I get an email, phone message or LinkedIn message that goes something like this:

“Hi Karl!  You don’t know me and we’ve never had a conversation before, but I represent XYZ company, and want to establish a relationship to…”

Really?  You haven’t even met me and you want a relationship?  The reason I cut off the example was not only that everything afterward is generally irrelevant and sounds the same, but it’s also where I stop reading or listening before hitting the kill button.

If you call on or meet a C-suiter, whether in person, on the telephone, or on a social media site like LinkedIn, giving her the bum’s rush will only serve to increase barriers to getting what you want.  It’s too soon in the process and you’re trying to go home without touching all the advance bases.  You haven’t yet earned the right to make your presentation.

Take an Interest

This is straight out of Dale Carnegie, and demonstrates a genuine interest in the exec you’re targeting.  It is simpler to do in social settings during a conversation by asking what the person does, likes, is challenged by, etc.  If you’re using a social site like LinkedIn as a prospecting tool, you already know something of this person from their online identity or profile.  In these cases you may be limited on words until an official connection is made that opens the door ever so slightly to a subsequent dialogue.  You might just say that you are always looking to connect with terrific contacts in a given common element (geographic area, specific market or technology, interested in XYZ), and that his or her background fits that description.  A little sincere flattery shows you have screened the person based on what he has made publicly available and lowers defenses to a degree.  If the profile doesn’t fit your goal, don’t bother connecting.

Titillate, then Pivot

Now that you’ve earned the right to share your elevator pitch, your piece of the dialogue, your primary purpose should be to generate enough curiosity and interest from Mr. C to get him to make a minor, non-threatening commitment.  This is the advance you’re looking for, where the prospect provides a tidbit that you can run with.  In one sentence you should be able to tell what you do in terms of the outcomes you provide for those you do business with.  In the next breath, tell him the first stage of what you’re seeking, and that is a name.  Even if you believe with all your conscious thought that you’re talking to the decision-maker, assume in the dialogue that you may need to go somewhere else and simply ask for that name.

“I usually work with executives that are tasked with effectively managing vast amounts of business data.  Would you happen to know who handles that at your company?”

This pivot moves the conversation away from a direct sales pitch and eases that discomfort for the prospect, giving him something very simple to provide, usually from memory.  If that person is in fact who you are speaking with, he’ll tell you, and that admission is the implied permission to carry the conversation further.  Many times, he’ll provide the name of a subordinate in the organization, and that is pure gold for you.

Leverage the Leader

Since your initial connection is with the C-Suiter, you may feel a bit bent out of shape that you’re now being pushed elsewhere, sometimes down the chain of command.  Don’t be.  Complex sales require satisfying multiple levels in an organization, and the top brass likely isn’t involved in the details of screening potential solution providers.  Have no fear.  You’ll be seeing her again soon enough.

You now have warm context to penetrate other necessary areas of the firm.  The difference between calling on this secondary contact as directed by the CXO or without that referral is the difference between shooting skeet with a shotgun or by throwing rocks.  He will take your call and at least listen.  If there isn’t a need now, you won’t be getting business anyway, but you have now gotten on the radar screens of two or more contacts within the company that you can incorporate into your sales process and keep in front of.

By the way, trying to shortcut this process and throw the name of the top dog around without having first had that conversation is both unethical and a risk not worth taking.  Most of the time the person you were referred to will check back with the CXO about your call, and if you’re lying you can kiss off ever doing business with this company again.


Regardless of your success with the secondary connection, after you make it, always boomerang back to the C-Suiter who referred you with both a thanks and an update.  It imprints your name a second time at this VIP level, and if you’ve indicated a next step (like a meeting with the VP), the exec will not only appreciate the courtesy update, but may even start to follow up about your with the aforementioned VP, serving to accelerate your advances through the sales process.

So in the end, a great way to get to first base with the C-Suite is to make initial contact with her, show a genuine interest in her role without launching into your pitch, and then willingly seek direction elsewhere.  This actually shortens the sales cycle for large and complex sales and provides you just the little competitive edge you may need to make sales magic.  The rest is up to you.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Karl Walinskas
Karl Walinskas is the CEO of Smart Company Growth, a business development firm that helps emerging technology firms build competitive advantage and move the sales needle. His Smart Blog covers sales, office technologies and SEO, leadership, business communication, and has been named by Buyerzone as a top business blog, with credits including, Selling Power, and many more.


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