Today, many books, articles, and consultants have focused on the virtues and effectiveness of top down selling, or selling to the CEO. Indeed, it has been very effective for the individuals and organizations that promote the concept. They are probably the only ones making money with the concept! It, by itself, doesn’t work except in rare circumstances. It is an effective tool that can be used to actually receive an order AFTER the selling process is complete. This contrary position is based on the simple fact that CEOs have the power to “tell,” but seldom are able to “do”; they must rely on others within their organizations to carry out their wishes.
It is a common belief that CEO’s, as the head of an organization, have incredible amount of control over their organizations. This is probably true for setting long-term visions and goals, as well as managing tactical activities at a very high level. Except for very small companies, they need to become full time managers instead of individual contributors. Many stay involved in the sales process, but seldom actually act as the account representative. Instead, they spend their days working through other people with the highly successful ones, managing by consensus. This does not mean that they do not have strong personalities and maintain firm control. What it means is that they realize that other people need to pick up the ball and carry through on activities on their own. Although some of their direct reports and others in the organization will blindly carry out their “orders,” successful CEOs realize that to be most effective, others must be motivated to perform their assignments with more than a simple “check the box” approach. Blindly following orders may work well in the military, but not so in the corporate world.
Based on the premise outlined above, focusing only on the CEO and expecting he or she to drive the purchase of a product or service may seem to work in the short term, but may also result in either obvious, or worse, subtle pushback from others. In the article in this series, “There Are Only Two Kinds of People,” the distinction was made between critics and creators. When people are told what to do, they can easily become critics. On the other hand, when people are asked for their opinions, they most likely become creators and support the activity in question. Even the person who was asked for their opinion and it was not followed, usually still becomes a creator and supports the plan, appreciating the fact that they were asked. A far better approach than focusing on top down selling is to first socialize the sale and gain a consensus of the value of the product or service with individuals (not departments) before approaching the C Suite. This helps to build consensus so when the CEO says, “What do you think about purchasing the solution from Ajax company,” there is a consistent positive response. The articles in this section, “One Question, Multiple Parts,” and, “Buying Motives,” discuss some of the issues to address before starting the top down selling approach.
Gaining consensus needs to be done well before the CEO asks the question or makes the directive. Critics can be created quickly. Once individuals put an initial stake in the ground and form and express their opinions, it is difficult to persuade them to change their minds. “Do it because I said so” may seem to work, but usually results in less than optimum results.