We Have To Call At The Top!


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Conventional sales “wisdom” encourages us to “call at the top.”  Sales people constantly seek the “C-Level” executives, looking for anyone that has a “Chief” in their title–surprisingly customers are accommodating us with CMO’s, CIO’s, CFO’s and so forth.  We’re taught to call at the top–things move faster, we don’t have to worry about all the users, just find the top executive, pitch them, and everything will go fast.

I often coach sales people on their deal strategies.  Always, I hear, “We need to figure out a way to get to the CIO,”  or “If only we could get to the CEO, we could push this deal faster.”  When I ask, “Why do you want to do this?”  They look at me as if I had two heads, responding, “We have to call at the top–we want to focus on people with the power.”  To which, I respond, “Why do you want to do this?”  They’re now starting to think, “What’s up with this guy?  He’s supposed to be the guy to coach me?  Doesn’t he get it?”

After an uncomfortable pause, they are trying to figure out how to get out of this meeting, I try to clarify, “Why do they –or should they care about what you do?”  The response is, “Well they are the top guys.  They are important to us?”  I usually am forced to ask, “Why do they — or should they care about what you do?”  And we start that same old cycle over.

What we really need to be focusing on is, “Are we calling on the right levels?”  An old colleague used to call this right-level selling.  Right level selling is about engaging everyone involved in the decision who “cares” about the solutions we represent or the problems we solve. 

Let me give an example. a number of years ago a bright sales manager, I’ll call him Bill, came to me and said, “Dave, I understand you know Frank, the COO of ‘Mega-corporation.  I’d like you to arrange a call we can make on him.’”  I responded, “I do know Frank, he’s a great guy.  Why do you want to do this?”  Bill was ready for me, “Mega-corporation is our larges customer.  We do millions every year with them.  I’d like to understand how we can support them better, how we can grow our relationship, ultimately increasing our sales.?  I said, “But why is it important for us to talk to Frank about this?”  Bill was ready, “Well he’s the top guy.  We really need to reach him if we are going to realize our full potential at the account?”  You can guess my next question, “Why does he care?”  Bill was persistent, “They spend a lot of money with us, we really need to talk to Frank, he’s the top guy.”  I stopped there.

I called Frank asking, “Frank, I think I need your help…..”  I explained to Frank what was happening.  I told him that Bill was a very high potential sales manager, but he needed a “coaching experience.”  I asked Frank if he would mind helping me out.  I really wanted to create a compelling experience for Bill and develop him to his full potential–so that he could develop his people to theirs.  Frank laughed and agreed to a meeting—though he did extract promise for me to take him to a very expensive private dinner on the evening of the appointment.

Now let me explain a moment.  Frank was COO of Mega-corporation.  He had over 75,000 people working for him, was responsible for 10′s of Billions in revenue, and Mega-corporation’s rank in the Fortune 500 was in the low double digits.

The appointed day came.  Bill had researched everything about our current relationship.  He had analyzed the customer.  He had prepared for the call, wanting to make a major step forward with this customer through building a relationship with Frank.  As we got off the elevator on the “executive floor, ” the air was already rarefied.  An assistant met us and escorted us down executive row.  We struggled a little–the carpeting was so thick and plush, we could have used snow shoes.

At the end of executive row, we went into Frank’s office–or I should say suite.  I could tell, Bill was a little overwhelmed–I was too, and I had been there before.

Frank was as gracious as anyone could have expected.  Bill opened the call, he thanked Frank for his time.  He explained to Frank the long history between our organizations and how important his company was to ours.  Bill asked Frank what his priorities were and how we could better support he and the entire organization in achieving their goals. 

Frank responded, “Let me think about that a moment.”  He paused—I’m sure to Bill it seemed like hours passed, it was only about 10 seconds.  Frank went on, “These are the things I spend my time on……..  This is what keeps me awake at night……”  To Bill, who was focused on our products, I’m sure it sounded as though Frank was describing how to achieve world peace or solve world hunger.  Frank asked, “How can you help me do this?”

Bill’s face turned white.  He didn’t know what to say.  The truth was, the problems we solved were important to people somewhere in Frank’s organization, but they weren’t important to Frank.  They weren’t anywhere on his radar screen.

Mega-corporation was an important account for us–they were our largest customer.  I jumped in and asked Frank to help us understand his organization and who we should be working with  (fortunately, Frank and I had talked about this beforehand).  We went into the conference room, on one wall was the organization chart.  Frank went on to explain, “This vice president—five levels below me— is the highest level person that cares about the problems you solve.  You need to really be focusing on him and the people in his organization that are impacted by what you do.  While, what you do is important to our company–it isn’t important to me because I count on these people to do their jobs and to do the best thing for our organization.”  Frank continued, “We spend a good amount of money on you.  I’ve checked with our people, you have supported us well, they like your solutions and service.  I’m happy about that.  However, I have no reason to get involved in what they do, they do their jobs well and I’ll support them.  I really don’t have the time or care to be involved in what you are doing because it doesn’t have a direct impact on what I worry about.”

Frank was (and still is) a very gracious executive.  He gave Bill one of the greatest development opportunities possible.  Bill had the opportunity to “call at the top,” and learned–a little painfully–that calling at the top is not what is needed. 

Right-Level Selling is critical to our success as sales professionals.  We need to call on the people who are responsible for the problems we solve.  We need to focus on those people who “care” or have a vested interest in what we can do for them.  We need to call on the users, problem owners, recommenders and influencers.  Yes, we should call high–but only as high as the problem is important.  If we cannot answer the questions “Why should they care about us” in a compelling manner, they aren’t the right people for us to call on.  If the problems that we solve aren’t their top priorities, then we are wasting their and our time.

Are you calling at the Right Level, or are you trying to call at the top?  Are you investing your time in the people that really care about what you can do, or are you just following “traditional wisdom?”

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: yes! I feel your pain about that sales call. But there is one level that comes before “care”: believe. You can’t care about something if you don’t believe the situation exists. Which is why many projects and initiatives have their genesis at the grass roots, and not at the top. People who work with outdated systems, materials, and processes know, but executives don’t–sometimes.

    There are two problems with the “Call on the CXO/VP!” edict:

    1) assumptions are made that CXO/VP’s are influential, respected, or even connected in their organizations. But I’ve seen enough organizational pariahs to know that a salesperson can’t assume anything. Salespeople often use title alone to expect that an individual has sway or “decision making authority” on a project. Don’t want to sound harsh, but that’s lazy and short-sighted. It’s an attempt to make a shortcut where one typically doesn’t exist. “I don’t need to develop a network of key contacts or even understand the culture of the organization. If there’s a “C” or “VP” in the title, that’s my Point of Contact!”

    2) . . . and I know I harp on this: When the senior executive is the right point of contact, salespeople are under-equipped business skills-wise and poorly mentored to hold a conversation. I’ve seen many salespeople go to meetings trembling, weak-kneed and wobbly thinking they haven’t earned the right to meet because they’re “just a sales rep.” And this is how we prepare them? “Call on the CXO, but we’re not giving you a clue how to hold the conversation.” That’s a recipe for failure that has to change.

    A blog I wrote on this topic might be of interest to your readers:
    Is ‘Call on the CXO’ a Winning Strategy for Salespeople?

  2. Andrew: Thanks for the comments. Absolutely agree, particularly on the second point. The issue is not “executive calling skills,” but the ability to have a business relevant conversation with the executive. The difference may be subtle, but is important in connecting in a relevant manner with the executive.

    In my example, “Bill” had no fear of calling on “Frank.” The call was executed well, but the major disconnect was that Bill could not have a relevant business conversation with Frank.

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. Great post, Dave. Certainly aligns with my experiences in my IBM days.

    Calling at the right level is critical, but I’d make that plural. Sales reps or their teams need to call at *all* of the right levels. This can be difficult when people lower in the org don’t want reps going over their heads. Which is why I think a team-based approach can work well, matching up different people to different levels in the organization.

    Maybe the problem in the scenario you described was that the rep should have arranged for an appropriate level executive from his organization to call on that COO. Someone who could actually connect on the issues that COO really cared about.

    Reps can’t be the “lone ranger.” Sure it’s great to call at “the top” but the most effective reps orchestrate the call strategy to create strong relationships at every level.

  4. Bob: great points! Too often, sales people focus on the “high level” people. They need to call at all of the “right levels,” engaging the right people, regardless of title. When I worked at large corporations as an Exec, I had lots of sales people trying to focus on me–even though I told them they needed to talk to the people responsible for the project. Inevitably, the sales people who convinced those people they had the best solution won!

    The story I told is actually part of a longer story–I’ll save that for another post.


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