Best Practices for Gaining Access to Executive Decision Makers (Training Magazine)

By John Holland and Frank Visgatis, CustomerCentric Selling® – The Sales Training Company

Article Author: John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling

According to the 2016 CCS Index, the overwhelming majority of salespeople report gaining access to higher levels is still the top selling challenge. This has been the top challenge for three years in a row, according to the CCS Index published by CustomerCentric Selling. Failure to get to the right levels often means sellers must rely upon internal people doing the selling to get decisions made—never an optimal situation­.

As I see it, there are two ways to initiate new opportunities:

Reactively by waiting to be contacted. Inbound “buyers” are usually at lower levels doing product evaluations, have looked at multiple vendor Websites, and believe they have a good idea of what their requirements are.
Proactively by trying to uncover latent needs of buyers who weren’t looking. While a challenging task, sellers have the ability to and should target high levels because not looking means there is likely no budget. Sellers will have to get to people who can reallocate existing budget.
Competent, top sellers will gain access to the people who will be involved in buying, funding, and implementing offerings. The vast majority of sellers erroneously assume access to Key Players is gotten via lower levels, one person at a time.

Tips for Handling Inbound Inquiries

The first challenge is to get an understanding of what high-level requirements have already been established.
Next is to uncover the business outcomes organizations are hoping to improve. This often has to be done “by proxy,” meaning the inbound contact must speak on behalf of his or her organization as to areas of potential value to offset whatever the cost of the offering being discussed will be.
My rule of thumb is that when calling on Key Players, sellers should avoid asking questions buyers can’t answer as they run the risk of being delegated to lower levels. That said, when at non-Key Player levels sellers can and should ask questions that buyers can’t answer. If this happens, sellers can ask: Who can WE schedule a call with who could answer this/these questions?
If/when a non-Key Player shares a desired business outcome, sellers should ask what capabilities they’ve seen that would enable the goal to be achieved. At that point, sellers should do a thorough diagnosis to ask questions to try to uncover new capabilities (to expand/enhance the buyer’s vision). By doing so, the seller has an opportunity to become “Column A.” If they fail, they’ll merely be a vendor that’s in the mix.

If a seller can bring the buyer to an expanded vision, the next step is to try to quantify the potential value. My suggestion is not to ask for access during the initial call. As an alternative, summarize the goals and capabilities needed in an e-mail that documents the buyer’s expanded vision. In that e-mail, ask for access to the Key Player titles that would be involved and may have unique goals that could add to the value.
Note: There are situations where the initial inbound contact will not have the ability to get you introductions to buying committees. A common mistake I see is sellers running as far as they can with non-Key Players and issuing proposals for offerings. Few Key Players will take the time to read proposals that are mostly about products rather than business outcomes.

Proactively Gaining Access to Key Players

When sellers proactively initiate buying cycles with Key Players:

Sales cycles can be shorter.
Transactions larger.
Win rates higher.
To start as Column A, sellers must proactively:

Take Key Player levels from latent to active need (identify buyer goals).
Diagnose the barriers to achieving them.
Articulate the specific capabilities that empower the buyer to achieve the desired results.
Access to Key Players can be dangerous if sellers aren’t prepared to talk about business outcomes rather than offerings. These initial Key Player discussions should be 180 degrees from inbound calls. This approach aligns with the way senior executives want to buy.

Key Player calls are dangerous because sellers usually get only one shot. If meetings end with no follow-up, it’s over as quickly as it began. If there are follow-up steps, the buyer perceives potential value, and buying cycles begin. Beyond that, it is unlikely other vendors will be evaluated concurrently. Key Players don’t have the time.

If the initial Key Player call goes well, the seller may find access to other Key Players (downward or laterally) is volunteered without asking for it, a sure sign the call went well and the seller is Column A.

Caution: In proactively trying to initiate conversations, many sellers set their sights on entry points that are too low. When trying to cause prospects who weren’t looking to consider your offering, it’s necessary to get to levels that can cause unbudgeted initiatives to be funded.

A few things to remember about asking for access:

It can be granted downward, laterally, or upward (listed in ascending order of difficulty).
Consider using a quid pro quo approach in exchanging resources for access.
Sellers must earn the right to ask for access by establishing themselves as Column A with buyers.
It is easier for buyers to grant access if they participate in Key Player calls.
Access is often necessary to provide the answer Key Players crave: Is buying an offering a good business decision based upon projected payback?
An e-mail summarizing the goals and capabilities can arm Champions to articulate why Key Players should take the time to meet with sellers.
Sellers can wait for inbound contacts, but should be aware there’s a lot of work to do and relatively low win rates. Beyond that it amounts to “in-basket” selling in taking whatever prospects come to you.
“Rowing out” is more challenging, but the ability to target companies that fit ideal profiles and Key Player titles should yield higher close rates and transactions sizes.
A seller’s entry point into an organization goes a long way toward determining success or failure in buying cycles.

John Holland is Chief Content Officer at CustomerCentric Selling, which offers sales training to improve sales performance through sales workshops that deliver the sales process and selling skills to increase revenue. For more information, visit