Face-to-Face with a VITO

It's easy to freeze when confronted with a Very Important Top Officer. Here's how to keep your cool and make an offer they can't refuse

Let's face it -- selling to top executives can be intimidating. As a reader named Peggy wrote to me, "Recently, I was at a formal dinner and coming toward me was the CEO of a Fortune 100 corporation. He didn't have an entourage, and it would have been quite easy for me to introduce myself. Instead, I said 'Hello,' and kept walking! This happens to me quite often, and I've been trying to come up with a way to start a conversation. I probably won't have but a few seconds to speak."

Relax, Peggy. We've all seized up, but congratulations for looking ahead and planning for the next time you run into a VITO -- Very Important Top Officer -- as author Anthony Parinello calls them. Remember, part of success is learning from your mistakes and preparing so you don't repeat them.

Peggy went on, "I'd thought about saying something like: 'Mr. X, I'm Peggy Smith, and my latest book and seminar help busy professionals conquer e-mail overload and save an hour a day. May I send your assistant a copy to forward to the appropriate person in your organization?'"


  No matter what you sell, whether it's time-management books or gourmet chocolate-chip cookies, my advice would be the same. When you go to an event that will probably bring out people of influence, remember the Boy Scout motto and "Be Prepared." Bring a few copies of your book or product with you, not tucked under your arm, but perhaps in an elegant bag or case. Then if an opportunity arises, you can offer the item personally with your business card inside. With this strategy, you circumvent all their highly trained handlers and gatekeepers.

Trust me, they'll take what you offer. Everyone loves free gifts, regardless of their career or economic status. For example, look at all the media coverage on the bags of goodies at awards shows (see BW Online, 2/11/05, "Shmoozing Celebs is a Whole New Bag"). These stars can afford to pay full price for all the bling and gadgets inside, but they fight over the freebies anyway.

This sales strategy works in more situations than just formal events. In fact, if you sell a small product, you should always carry a few clean samples with you or in your car. You never know what key executive you'll meet at your local Starbucks, dry cleaners, or youth soccer board meeting. Putting your product directly into their hands, while they're looking at your smiling face, is worth a thousand cold calls.


  Sheila Alldredge of Alldredge Productions also wrote me on the topic of selling to upper management. She recounted how she had been asked by another woman, "How do you handle walking into a room full of suits?" Sheila wisely replied, "Remember to look above the suit to the face of each gentleman around the table and know they are all someone's son, someone's brother, uncle, cousin, or dad. Then remember that salespeople know how relationships work."

While Sheila's question was about women selling to men, it really applies to either gender. Generally speaking, if you can forget about other people's differences in status and focus on what you have in common, it takes a lot of pressure off your selling. Remember, people universally want to feel important, intelligent, and successful.

I should warn you that there are some differences between selling to upper-level management and those further down the chain of command. While most customers at any level care about increasing sales and decreasing expenses, those in the upper ranks have additional concerns:

• The effect on personnel. Top executives care whether your offering helps them attract top achievers or retain those already on board. Let's say you sell a state-of-the-art factory-control system. Installing such a system may help your client hire the cream of the crop, because top talent always wants to work with the latest and greatest equipment. Your system may also help a company keep their best performers from leaving to use such a system at a competitor. Therefore, don't forget to mention the impact your offering can have on personnel companywide.

• Legal worries. Another issue is decreasing their liability, both corporate and personal. In these increasingly litigious times, one lawsuit, whether of merit or not, can severely affect a company or crater a career. The loss to the company isn't just monetary but also a dilution of focus, resources, and even opportunities. It has been said it was the indictment of accounting firm Arthur Anderson that destroyed the company, not the conviction.

This lesson hasn't been lost on most VITOs. As a result, remember to stress how your proposal reduces all types of liability.

• The bottom line. In many companies, an upper manager's bonus plan, including bonuses, stock options, stock grants, and other rewards can exceed their salary. This intensifies their focus on measurable results. The more they can meet or exceed their quarterly plan, the bigger their reward. So have your radar on for ways you can make your client look successful in quantifiable ways, so they can show their boss their results. Don't forget that everyone has a boss, even presidents. They report to their boards of directors and perhaps to their bankers too.

Sure, we've all heard that even presidents of top corporations put their pants on one leg at a time, just like we do. That's true. But I hope discussing Peggy's and Sheila's letters give you some ideas on selling to Mr. or Ms. CEO -- so when you meet or call on them, you say something much more powerful than just "Hello." Happy selling!

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.