According to research from my book, "Selling to the C-Suite," the most effective way to gain access to CXOs is through a recommendation from someone in the executive's company. Many executives said they would grant a meeting to a salesperson—provided that recommendation came from a credible source within their own organization.
This highlights the importance of building company-wide relationships that ultimately open doors to the executive suite. From our research, 84 percent of executives said they would usually or always meet a salesperson if recommended by someone internally, indicating that establishing relationships at lower levels of the organization is critical before trying to access a senior executive's calendar.
One CEO explained he would grant a meeting "when I see or hear something that might be applicable in my world, or at the request of some of my cohorts around here." These "cohorts" are part of the executive's influence network—those people who may be a friend of someone in the executive's inner circle, an outside consultant, or a lower-level employee within the organization who has credibility with the inner circle executive.
In some companies, getting calendar time with a senior executive may only take place if a salesperson contacts the executive assistant or the executive's secretary. You simply can't get on the executive's calendar by contacting them directly. In that case, you may either have to use a sponsor or treat the gatekeeper as a resource to help you schedule a meeting with the executive.
How to do it? Among the techniques that can be employed to access those executives:
• When there's an organizational change in your company, suggest having a meeting to explain the new structure.
• Suggest a meeting with an equivalent level executive from your organization (like-rank selling).
• Accept redirections to meet other executives or people of lower rank…but always ask for an introduction to be made, and request a follow-up meeting to review the outcomes.
• Schedule a meeting with an executive to communicate past value delivered or to confirm your ongoing value.
• Contact the executive when there's any significant event in the customer's market unrelated to the current sales campaign. Executives like to know you're thinking about them, even if there's nothing for you to sell.
The stakes are high if you cannot access the relevant executive for the sales opportunity—defined as the executive who stands to gain the most or lose the most as a result of the application or project associated with the sales opportunity.
Some of the latest data from companies whose sales cycles are nine months or more indicates that it costs more than $200,000 to pursue an opportunity, whether you win or not. That's a significant sum to bet on selling to low-level managers. If you don't have the chance to get past the gatekeepers and meet the relevant executive, it may be prudent to walk away and save the cost of sale.
There's one other word of caution that bears mentioning at this point. Don't attempt to circumvent the gatekeeper unless you have a high degree of confidence you can obtain the meeting with the executive. As one savvy salesperson put it, "Hell hath no fury like a gatekeeper scorned." Once around a roadblock, a salesperson will be quickly tested. CXOs told us that salespeople who get past their roadblocks on a cold-call receive five minutes to show they can add value.
Here are some additional tips you can utilize to demonstrate that value:
1. Raise relevant questions and share business perspectives that are new to the executive.
2. If you're an incumbent salesperson, point out potential limitations of your products in light of changing demands, with ideas to make improvements, thus enhancing your credibility.
If, after meeting with the executive, she refers you to a lower-level executive within her organization, don't push back—but make certain you do the following:
• Ask the executive for an introduction to the person, because this is far better that you having to call them cold. You can also leverage the fact their boss sent you to talk to them.
• Ask them what they hope you will achieve with their subordinate, and what additional people are suited to have the discussion with you. Turn it into a networking opportunity.
• Ask to re-connect with the executive to review how what you hear from their subordinates compares to the level of readiness in other companies you've solved the same problem for. Executives typically like to know how their company benchmarks, so use the occasion to demonstrate your value as someone with insight beyond their silo walls.
Being referred down to lower-level executives can gain you credibility with those people—and in return, it can gain you credibility with the executive who sent you down to them.
Stephen J. Bistritz, Ed.D., is co-author of "Selling to the C-Suite," as well as president and founder of the global sales training and consulting firm SellXL. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.