Is “Call on the CXO” a Winning Strategy for Salespeople?


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Do these sales tenets sound familiar?

“Focus your efforts on reaching C-level executives.”
“Get in front of a decision maker.”
“Get around the gatekeeper!”
“It’s a numbers game. The more calls you make, the better your chances are for a sale.”

They’re tired and no longer true. Why are they passé? Because they depend on shaky assumptions. For example:

  • C-Level executives are influential
  • Job titles reliably predict whether an individual will be valuable in the sales process
  • An organization transfers value through formal hierarchies
  • Within an organization, decision rights are consistent, enforceable, and understood
  • Sales is the most important connection point between vendor and prospect

Besides, selling isn’t a numbers game. It’s an intelligence game. But if these sales-ism’s aren’t true, then how do top sales producers develop, use, and manage selling networks?

Meet “Mr. Barcode”

I stumbled into part of the answer to this question in the early ’90’s, when I sold barcode technology. My prospect, a Fortune 100 manufacturer, purchased on a departmental level, but I wanted an enterprise-wide sale. I didn’t know where to begin my campaign. Operations? Information Technology? Materials Management? Finance? As I placed calls into various departments, my inquiries were rewarded with a consistent answer: “When we have questions about barcoding, we go to Jim. We call him ‘Mr. Barcode.'” I didn’t know Jim, but encouraged by the moniker his colleagues assigned, I called him.

These key influencers are not self-anointed—they achieve their status through peer recognition.

Jim was an unassuming man who worked in a windowless office in the middle of a cramped cube farm on the fifth floor of the Information Technology building. He had no decision-making authority, and his position was so low it didn’t merit a spot on a published org chart. But today, a Social Network analyst would call Jim an Information Broker, a role of crucial importance for salespeople. I quickly learned why: no department made a barcode-related decision before he was consulted. I also learned that Jim already had many connections to my company’s engineering team, and that by encouraging more connections, I improved the probability of achieving my goal. With Jim’s involvement, along with some luck, our team won an enterprise-wide SAP project the following year.

What makes this story remarkable isn’t that low-ranking Jim played such an important role. It’s that most enterprises worldwide have many Jim’s—and sales executives pay little or no attention to reaching them. Why? Because finding Jim’s isn’t easy. Their titles don’t convey their importance. Their identities aren’t readily mined from data warehouses. They don’t hang out together in the same bars. Most significant, these key influencers are not self-anointed—they achieve their status through peer recognition. For a salesperson selling into a large enterprise, that fact alone makes identifying a Jim a task of near-monumental proportion.

Finding the First Mouth

But once identified, the rewards can be great. A paper by Raghuram Iyengar, Christophe Van den Bulte, and Thomas W. Valente Opinion Leadership and Social Contagion in New Product Diffusion, and discussed in an article The Buzz Starts Here: Finding the First Mouth for Word-of-Mouth Marketing explains how Social Network Analysis can be applied to this challenge.

The researchers conducted their work for a pharmaceutical company and found their Jim, referred to as Physician No. 184,on a Social Network Map. “Researchers had tracked how prescriptions of a new drug spread from one physician to another, depending on who talked to whom and referred patients to whom. Mapped out on the screen, the story became clear: The medical community was actually divided into two sub-networks split apparently by ethnicity, with one sub-network dominated by physicians with mostly Asian names and the other with mostly European names. Connecting the two, like a spider suspended on a thread between two webs, was the dot for Physician No. 184—a doctor the company’s marketing department and salespeople barely knew (my emphasis).

The article shared further insight: “Not only did the study indicate that word-of-mouth had been affecting physicians’ prescription behavior . . . but it also showed that converting the right individual could have a dramatic impact. And for executives in the conference room, it revealed something else: They had been overlooking some of the networks’ most important social hubs. ‘That was the biggest a-ha! for the company,’ said Van den Bulte. Physician 184 ‘was not the most important in the number of connections he was getting, but he was vitally important in linking the networks.'”

And there’s more. Whereas traditional market research asks people “Are you an opinion leader?,” network research asks “Whom do you turn to for advice about …?” According to the article, “the different approaches can produce widely different results…asking people how important they are is not the best measure of how important they really are. Just because people think they’re important doesn’t mean it’s true. And some people are actually more important than marketers believe, or even they themselves believe.”

Great opportunity awaits salespeople who develop relationships with Jim’s and Physician 184’s. But the first challenge is in knowing who you’re looking for. So put titles and organization charts aside. If your sales team finds that concentrating effort on getting C-level appointments doesn’t bear fruit, and if it’s frustrating to “get around gatekeepers,” maybe it’s time to ask some questions beyond “how can we better reach the CXO?” Those questions could start with “what do the selling networks of top sales producers look like?”

Like the study that discovered Physician 184, your best path to a sale might be through people your competitors don’t even recognize.


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