Aug 15, 2022 • Podcast

How do I start a conversation with CEOs and Executives?

Paul offers tips to help you initiate contact with high-level decision makers (HLDMs).

Show Notes

Ninety percent of salespeople DO NOT call at this level. That’s good news for you!

Work on getting a referral from within the industry. Tap into your LinkedIn network.

Focus your message on what’s important to HLDMs. Identify a problem you can solve for them.

Go where the HLDMs go.

Don’t forget the “high-level schmooze.” Tune in to find out what that means.

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How do I start a conversation with CEOs and Executives?

(Transcribed from podcast)

And on today’s episode, I’m actually going to answer a question that someone sent to me on LinkedIn. So, if you don’t want to go to the Q and A Sales Podcast website, you can reach out to me on LinkedIn: Paul Reilly. That’s easy to spell—R E I L L Y. You can send me a message. Send it to me somehow, any way you want to do it. Reach out to me, I’ll answer the questions that way.

So, this question came from Summers and it’s all the way from China. And he is an international salesman for a component distributor—without giving up too much information. And he’s been in international sales for several months, and here’s the basic. He’s starting to sell to CEOs and VPs, some high-level decision makers, and he knows what their concerns are. He said he’s read Value-Added Selling to get a deeper understanding of what those high-level decision makers think about. But he wants to know, “How do you get the conversation started with these high-level decision makers? How do you initiate contact? How do you get that meeting? What words do you need to use?” Well, that is the question I am going to answer on today’s show.

Before we get into that, the past few weeks we just found out we are in a recession. So we are in a recession. Now, it may not feel like a recession just yet in your industry; it can be kind of mixed. But now is the time to pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times. We don’t know how long this recession is going to last. It may not be a big one, but what you want to do is prepare. In Selling Through Tough Times, I detail exactly how to sell during these tough times. So pick up your copy of Selling Through Tough Times. It’s available, wherever you get your books.

All right back to that question: How do I initiate a conversation with these high-level decision makers? Well, first things first, Summers. I want to, I want to give you some hope. Now, our research shows that 90% of salespeople—90% of salespeople—do not call at this level within an organization. NINETY PERCENT. That means there’s a good chance that your competition isn’t even calling on these high-level decision makers, which is good news. That means that there is less noise at this level. There are fewer people reaching out. Now the less noise level, I would say that gives you a greater opportunity. Your message will be able to fall on ears that are open versus closed off. So keep that in mind.

So the worst thing we can do is do nothing. Don’t be part of the 90% that simply do not even attempt to call on these high-level decision makers. And we know why. The number-one reason why salespeople do not call on these high-level decision makers is because they flat-out don’t know how to sell to them, or they’re afraid; they’re fearful. They think these high-level decision makers eat their young, that they fire people to win, they kill deals as soon as they can. And also, the false belief that they hate salespeople. I’ve heard that one before: “Oh, that CEO, he won’t meet with me. He can’t stand salespeople,” or “She won’t meet with me. She’s an executive. She can’t stand salespeople.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, every CEO that I’ve worked with—that I know—loves salespeople. Because salespeople are the rainmakers within their own organization. So, dispel this notion that they don’t want to meet with you, that they don’t like you. That’s going to help build your confidence.

Now, back to the question: how do you initiate conversation? I can tell you the number-one way to get in with one of these high-level decision makers is to have a referral from someone in the industry that they know, that they trust. Work on gaining that referral. So, Summers, here’s what I would do. It sounds like you’ve been calling on these high-level decision makers for a while. I would focus your prospecting effort on your current high-level decision maker’s network. And what I mean by that is simply go to some of your key customers and ask them, “Hey, who else in the industry should I be meeting with? Who are some of your colleagues that may also benefit from what we have to offer?” Or better yet, do some research on LinkedIn. Summers, you’re obviously savvy on how to navigate LinkedIn and all that. Look at your current network and figure out who you have in common and begin leveraging your referral network. A referral’s going to be the easiest way to get that door to open.

So that is number one. Rather than making a bunch of cold calls, I would figure out a way to get referred. In fact, the Journal of Marketing Research shows that 12 cold calls is the equivalent of one referral. So unless you especially enjoy the pain, the frustration, the anxiety that goes along with cold calling, I would work on getting a referral.

So, the second tip. When you are reaching out to these high-level decision makers, we have to have a message that focuses on what is extremely important to them. When we research this in Value-Added Selling (the latest edition), through our research, we identified what’s important to high-level decision makers. We constructed a buyer survey, and in this buyer survey, we were able to separate how high-level decision makers responded to other decision makers.

One of the questions we asked was, “Why would you be willing to meet with a salesperson?” And the number-one response was, “I would meet with a salesperson because it appears they can solve a business problem that I’m currently having.”

Summers, here’s what I would do. Go to your top customers. Ask those executives, “What are the biggest problems and challenges that you are facing right now?” Ask that question, get the answer, and then use that information to open up doors within your prospects. Because whatever your current customers are experiencing in the way of problems or issues, your prospects are likely experiencing the same thing. Reference that problem in the opening of your email.

Which here’s a bonus tip. When we ask these high-level decision makers, “How do you want salespeople to initiate contact?” email was the number-one response. Email was number one. But we know we’ve got to use multiple sources here. So I would use LinkedIn. I would use the phone, of course. Heck, you might even type a letter; send that to them. Also use email. So again, this is how we initiate contact. We want to identify those problems to solve.

Now, if you really want to go above and beyond, you need to go where your high-level decision makers go. You need to surround yourself with them. You need to surround yourself with the people that you want to be successful like.

Jim Roan, the famous motivational speaker, said that you’re the average of the five people you surround yourself with. So, Summers, if you want to sell to high-level decision makers—executives—you need to surround yourself with this crowd. Find out where they go to networking events. A CEO of a $300 million company, they’re probably not going to BNI networking events. They’re networking at their country club; they’re networking at the Admirals lounge at the airport; they’re networking within their circle.

In fact, there was one salesperson who went through our training where three of his key prospects were all members of the same country club. So this salesperson actually spent the money to join that country club just so he could have an opportunity to rub elbows with those key customers. Now, I know that’s borderline stalking, but we’ve got to remember, all is fair and love and sales we’ll call it(?) I don’t know. Anyway, you’ve got to go where they go. You’ve got to network where they network.

A more practical way to do this—go to trade shows. It’s amazing how many high-level people you will meet at a trade show. And what’s even more exciting is how approachable these high-level decision makers are at these trade shows. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen salespeople go to their trade shows, go to networking events, and just walk right up to CEOs and say, “Hi. I wanted to introduce myself.” They walk through their little elevator speech, hand, ’em a card. They get the other card. They ask for a meeting, and they get. You know, you’ve got to remember these high-level people, they appreciate self-starters that are willing to come up and take a chance. So, network where they network.

And then, finally, Summers, one last thought. It’s time for a high-level schmooze. Now you mentioned that you’re an international salesperson, so you’re a high-level salesperson. Now, I’m sure you also have an executive within your company, or you’ve got a VP of sales, or you’ve got someone that is high up on the board at your company. When you’re trying to get in there and meet with another high-level decision maker, invite your CEO to go with you. Invite your high-level decision maker to go with you.

And there’s a couple reasons as to why. Number one, the bigger the title usually will help open up bigger doors. Bigger titles open bigger doors. So just by the sheer fact of having your CEO join you, that’s going to help open up bigger doors. Not only that, right now, we are in recession, which means your prospects that you’re going after, those high-level decision makers, those CEOs are trying to make decisions in an uncertain world. And they’re also making those decisions within the vacuum of their own company. They’re eager to gather insight and data from outside sources, from other business leaders. And you may be able to tee it up by saying to your prospect, “I’d like to schedule a meeting to share some insights with you on what we’re seeing with the current economy. And also, I’m going to invite our CEO to join us so that you two can share perspectives, at your levels, on what’s going on and how you can navigate this uncertain world.”

See what you’re doing there is you’re providing insight, not only at your level, but a level above. Again, these leaders are going to be eager to learn from each other because they can’t rely on some of their management team. Because they’re the leaders, so they’re going to be eager to learn from other leaders.

All right, Summers, those are the tips. I hope you found these useful. Once again, if you want to reach out to me on LinkedIn and ask me a question that way, it’s simple enough. Just search Paul Reilly. Reilly is spelled R E I L L Y.

You can also go to While you’re there, you can ask me a question. I’ll turn it into a future show, just like this. Also, make sure you hit that follow button, share this with your colleagues. But most importantly, make it a big day.

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