---- M.D., Frederick, Md.
A: This is a common sales question that experts say reflects a basic misunderstanding about the way purchases are made. Many sellers start with the belief that, if only the CEO can be made to listen, they can sell their services or products. In most cases, that assumption is false.
"CEOs aren't typically in the business of looking at new products or ideas. They're in the business of pleasing their board of directors. They have [staff] to find, evaluate, and present new opportunities," says Al Van Maren, president of Sales & Marketing Executives International, an industry group based in Atlanta. One of the reasons jobs like "secretary" and "assistant" were created was to keep salespeople away from the boss.
In many companies, the CEO has to approve major purchases, as well as those likely to have a major impact on processes. So, if your product is "significant," you'll eventually find yourself in front of the CEO. But be warned: While the top corporate officer may well approve the final decision to buy, it's far more likely that the process will begin much further down the chain of command.
SELECTING YOUR TARGET. Seasoned sellers know they must find the "gatekeeper." Says David Cichelli, a sales and marketing consultant based in Scottsdale, Ariz.: "Somewhere within the target company is a person who is responsible for researching, examining, and recommending your product solution. It's this person you need to find." Moreso than a CEO, gatekeepers are likely to respond to sales pitches for the simple reason that it's their job to do so.
The first potential problem is that your product may not be on the gatekeeper's list of top priorities. The second is that you may have trouble identifying the gatekeeper. "Here is where some creative marketing comes to bear," Cichelli says. "You need to promote your product to the gatekeeper -- identified or not -- to get a response. Direct-sales calls, mailings, and advertising are all part of the marketing mix. Ask the CEO's assistant to identify who is responsible for the topic. He or she should refer you to the right person."
If you approach assistants and receptionists properly, most will be willing to become your ally, Van Maren says. "Talk to him or her as an equal and ask if she/he could review your material and tell you who in the company might be most receptive and most willing to alert the CEO about this incredible find," he recommends.
In a very small company, the gatekeeper may also be the CEO -- the only person in the organization who will consider reviewing new products. If that proves to be the case, you'll find that getting past the chief's protective assistant may well be next to impossible.
CULTIVATING INSIDERS. Your best approach in this situation is to "empower" the assistant to put your product or service in front of the CEO, Cichelli says. "Use these words: 'I know Mr. Big is very busy. I don't know if he would have an interest in this topic. To protect the use of his time, could you please ask him if he's interested in the subject? If he says 'no,' then you can tell us. If he says 'yes,' then you can advise us on how to use his time effectively." This approach places the responsibility on the assistant.
Scott Bailey, a sales coach based in Irvine, Calif., recommends two books about the best ways to reach gatekeepers and decision-makers: Selling to VITO (The Very Important Top Officer), by Anthony Parinello and Denis Waitley, and Selling to the Top, by David A. Peoples. Says Bailey: "The latter gives specific marketing strategies and sales tactics designed to penetrate the corporate veil." Have a question about running your business? Ask our small-business experts. Send us an e-mail at email@example.com, or write to Smart Answers, BW Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information; only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally.