One of the most spirited debates among salespeople swirls around where in a prospective customer’s organizational chart initial contact ought to be made. Some believe the point of entry should be as high up in the organization as is accessible. Others prefer a path of least resistance—a.k.a. anyone who will grant them an appointment—and work their way up the chain of command.
Since this particular dialogue has been raging for years with no consensus, many sales professionals settle on the premise “it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you finish.” Hopefully, the finish line is across the decision-maker’s desk with a signed purchase order in hand.
Depending on the type of sign and/or graphics business you’ve built and the description of your ideal customer, the ultimate decision-maker at a prospective client indeed may be the owner, president or chief executive officer. However, more times than not you’ll conclude it’s someone else within the company who has been empowered by upper management to make purchasing decisions.
Nevertheless, the sales professional that can comfortably, confidently and willingly make sales calls on companies’ top brass will reap the benefits. Generally, they will be accounts with substantially higher revenues, superior profitability and greater longevity than the accounts of a salesperson that can’t or isn’t willing to take that risk. What, then, does it take to become adept at calling on the top? Let’s explore….
Calling high up in an organization’s command center requires discipline. It’s far too easy for a sales rep to rationalize why a business owner will not give him or her the time of day. You need to convey to whoever does your selling the importance of pre-call planning for every contact with a prospective customer’s Top Dog. If you cannot convince your salespeople to do this religiously, you may be faced with wrestling a large collection of “C” accounts when “A” and “B” accounts are just as readily attainable.
Try this. For the next 30 days, have your sales people try these 10 cardinal rules for prospecting and cold-calling at the top:
- Dedicate 30 minutes to one hour of every sales day to prospecting and/or doing research on accounts that have yet to be approached.
- Set up a points system in which credit is awarded for particular sales activities—such as, one point for getting a qualified lead or referral, two points for getting an appointment to meet a known decision maker, and so on. Continue to work until the minimum number of points has been amassed. If your goal is to accumulate eight points a day and you identify four good prospects and booked appointments with two others, consider the day a victory.
- Have a written sales objective for each sales call—one that’s observable, measurable and involves customer commitment. Answer the question “what do I expect to happen at the end of this sales call?”
- Make a list of questions you want to ask and refer to it during the call to be certain you don’t forget anything.
- Call during off-peak hours—especially early mornings, late afternoons and on Fridays. One good thing about those times is you won’t run into any of your competitors and you may just catch the decision-maker when he is most vulnerable…er, I mean agreeable.
- Vary your call times by day and by time of day. Don’t try to make contact with a key prospect every Monday at 10 a.m. There’s a good chance she’s leading her weekly staff meeting at that time or has some other regular time commitment.
- Develop, refine, practice and role-play your response to “Right now, we work with ABC Company, your competitor. How is your company different?” Until you can respond to this question in a smooth, confident and meaningful way—one that communicates added value to the prospect—you will be shot down each time you make a call at the top.
- Plan to choose from more than just one closing strategy. Perhaps you’ve only mastered the assumptive close. Don’t expect it to work with everyone. Learn new ones, perhaps from other accomplished sales professionals on your team.
- Expect the worst and hope for the best. Anticipate customer concerns, objections or surprises and have a strategy for handling each.
- Don’t give up. Persistence is often recognized and rewarded by accomplished executives. If you turn tail at the first sign of adversity, what are you going to do if you land the account and then encounter problems?
The nature of the beast
Most business executives ascended to their lofty positions in life by earning them (even if that means they convinced a retiring parent, who founded the company, to hand it over). For every contact at a prospective account, there are three kinds of professional needs—finance, performance and image. Your sales team’s job is to ascertain which of these three are strongest for each decision-maker they contact.
Ninety percent of the time, the sales rep can determine the strongest professional need by the prospect’s job title. Of the three needs, purchasing agents, buyers and CFOs usually express a strong need to satisfy the company’s financial needs—contain costs, get the most attractive discount or payment terms, and the like. Accordingly, a sales rep should set aside most of the technical data on the product line’s features and benefits and be prepared to talk about price, deliverables, volume discounts, terms and conditions.
Now, if your sales reps shine when demonstrating products—highlighting the exclusive benefits of your goods and services and rolling up their sleeves to achieve greatness on the sales call—then send them into meet with production managers, shift supervisors and marketing directors. Those kinds of positions will typically have a strong professional need and appreciation for performance. Although while these people may be decision-makers on a certain level, they oftentimes don’t have the authority from above to act on behalf of the company and commit to large purchases.
The higher up one goes in an organization, the more salespeople will encounter the strongest professional need for image. Top management assumes responsibility on behalf of the company in terms of its industry, employees, community/neighbors, shareholders, customers and suppliers. The weight of this accountability furthers the need for a reputable and proud image. Besides, that’s why most business owners and managers, presidents and executives hire others to deal with the day-to-day finance and performance needs. It allows them to focus on other considerations such as acquisitions and capital expenditures, risk reduction, increasing profitability, improving company value for stakeholders, and enhancing the enterprise’s standing in the community.
Ask perfect questions
Generally, business leaders will invest time and consult with mentors, peers and those special people that can deliver value to their companies. They cannot afford to ignore good information resources and turn to suppliers, more than ever, for input into current market challenges. Accordingly, if your sales rep is able to gain the attention of an upper-echelon decision maker, they should position themselves as an industry expert and work to earn the prospect’s trust and confidence as a business partner.
If the salesperson can forego the same tired, old, over-rehearsed sales pitch for a moment and concentrate on asking intelligent questions, he or she just may be able to get somewhere with the prospect. Add these seldom-asked questions to your fact-finding strategy:
- Who are your primary customers and how well do you meet their expectations?
- If you had $100,000 to improve some aspect of your company, how would you invest it? What kind of return-on-investment would you expect?
- What is your business’s position in your target market in terms of image, reputation, market share or visibility? How do you expect it to change over the next three to five years?
- Does your company publish an annual report and/or vision or mission statement?
- Who are your top three vendors? Why are they the best? Do you have a “Vendor of the Year” award? What are the award criteria?
- What companies are your direct competitors? How do you stack up against them? What is something they do that you would love your company to do also?
- Are you looking for certain benefits from your suppliers that have been difficult to obtain in the past? What are they?
- If you could get your salespeople to do one thing different or better, what would it be?
- What is your company’s biggest time or money waster? What, if anything, have you tried to do to correct the situation?
- What do you already know about my company and the unique benefits we offer?
View from the top
When you can align your company with a client’s growth, success and profitability, you will be less likely to be cut during tough times. This alignment starts by making a memorable impression with the movers and shakers in the prospect account. Consider that if you are fortunate enough to strike a memorable chord with a business owner, the odds that you will be introduced to and meet with other key contacts throughout the organization are extremely good.
Now, what are the chances you will be introduced up the command chain and get to rub elbows with the top brass at the suggestion of an underling? Not so good, right? If you want to improve your batting average in landing appreciative, loyal, quality customers, learn to become comfortable with calling at the top. Good luck!