Cracking the code

May 21, 2018

Gaining access to executives is not easy, but there’s plenty of opportunities to show value, establish credibility, and, in the end, make the sale.

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, if 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 my 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 you contact 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 have to either use a sponsor or treat the gatekeeper as a resource to help you schedule a meeting with the executive.

The techniques that can be used to access those executives include the following:

  • 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 that 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 – the relevant executive 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 can cost 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 can’t get past the gatekeepers and meet the relevant executive, it may be prudent to walk away and not only save the cost of a sale you can’t win, but enable yourself to pursue an opportunity you have a much better chance of winning.

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 that you can obtain the meeting with the executive. Once around a roadblock, a salesperson will be quickly tested. CXOs told me that salespeople who get past their roadblocks on a cold-call receive five minutes to show they can add value.

Here are some tips that you can use to demonstrate your value:

  • Raise relevant questions and share business perspectives that are new to the executive.
  • Suggest something provocative and compelling – this gives the executive a hunch that you might have something to which it’s worth listening.
  • If you’re an incumbent salesperson, point out potential limitations of your solutions in light of changing demands, with ideas to make improvements, thus enhancing your credibility. If, after meeting with the executive, she sends you down 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 than you having to call them cold. You can also leverage the fact that 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 reconnect 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. The lesson to be learned: Being sent down to lower-level executives can gain you credibility with them and, in return, it can gain you credibility with the executive who sent you down to them!

The bottom line is that executives are looking to build relationships with salespeople who deliver significant business value and are responsive and accountable to them. Those types of salespeople are demonstrating both capability and integrity, and when that’s done, the salesperson is able to establish credibility with the executive.

Dr. Steve Bistritz is the founder of SellXL and has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management, and training management experience. He just released the second edition of his best-selling sales book, Selling to the C-Suite. Visit his website at

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.