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We Have To Call At The Top!

by David Brock on August 4th, 2010

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?”

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  1. Great article David,

    This is something we discuss a lot at our company, who is it that we should sell to?
    The fact of the matter is the higher up the “food chain” you go, the less they care about the problem but the more power they have.

    You have to find the right person, because just like in your example, the CEO doesn’t care about every detail, he cares about delegating those jobs to the right people.

    I work in recruitment and there we see the example so plainly.
    If I talk to a project manager and he is looking for a new employee he knows that if he doesn’t find one, it is he who has to work extra and take the pains, therefore he REALLY wants our help.

    But if he hasn’t got a budget to spend and I have to go all the way to the top recruitment manager hiring thousands of people a year, he doesn’t care about this poor project managers job, it isn’t the recruitment manager who is going to have to work a double shift.

    It is important to find the right person, the one who cares and has the authority to do something about it.

    Thanks for a great article, keep up the good work.

    • It seems like such an obvious concept, but I’m surprised by the number of experienced sales people who don’t understand it, consequently spend too much time trying to get into the top–with little success.

      • The big problem is that not many people have the skill to step back and look at what they do objectively.

        If they could they would quickly see that talking to the top person, isn’t always right.

  2. David Olson permalink

    Another GREAT post David. Common sense advice that applies to all business transactions not just sales. If you have an unpaid Account Receivable start with and care about the Account Payable clerk that has to get outstanding invoices paid – just one, everyday example.

    Thanks, as always, for the down to earth observations!


    • We tend to make things more complicated than they need be. Simple and direct always works! Thanks for the continued comments David, it realy adds to the discussion.

  3. Nice one David. You addressed the myth extremely well. Along the same lines goes the accompanying myth that “I just need to convince the top guy and I’ve got the sale” mentality. When convincing is probably the furthest thing away from what is needed. “Finding, identifying and asking questions of the appropriate person” at the right level will uncover opportunities and sales revenues without the need to convince anyone of anything (least of all the C suite). Sales are not closed at the end of any process – they are closed at the beginning. Consummate Professionals close at the qualification stage – in my humble opinion.

    • Great comment Dan. I tend to think sales are won and lost during the qualification and discovery process. Viciously disqualifying–focusing on the right customers gets high quality opportunities. Understanding what the customer needs and how they will make the decision during the discovery is critical–the customer lays out what you need to do to earn the business. All you have to do afterwards is execute the roadmap they have laid out (sounds like a blog post coming on 😉

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