Meeting with the top guy

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

ONE OF THE weaknesses of my sales team is that they sell within their comfort zone.

The younger members of the team (who are under 30) feel very uncomfortable selling to senior personnel. Firstly, they consider the person they are meeting far above their station (and usually considerably older). They also think he probably belongs to a higher social class. And lastly, they are inclined to believe that senior people know considerably more than they do.

In some respects, they might be right. Nonetheless, this is no reason to target junior people, just because you feel more comfortable meeting with them.


Before I provide some strategies to overcome this reluctance to meet with the real “decision-makers,” let me detail some of the consequences of meeting with junior people. Firstly, junior people have relatively little flexibility or power. For example, purchasing decisions made by a junior manager or supervisor will tend to be small and almost invariably favor an existing vendor.

I am more than happy to have my administration assistant order stationary, office cleaning supplies, and tea and coffee for the pantry. She knows where and whom to buy from, and in reality, I do not expect her to deviate from our usual vendors or brands.

The other day, I walked in to the office to find her in the conference room talking to a couple of visitors. It turned out these individuals were from a stationary supplies company and were offering a number of new products.

After the meeting, I asked her why she was entertaining these visitors. She told me they had asked her for an appointment and were describing the products they could offer. In fairness, she had collected a couple of brochures and passed these to me to have a look at. However, she could think of no reason we should buy from this company. She had established prices that were pretty standard for the industry; payment terms were cash-on-delivery (instead of the 30-day terms we currently enjoy), and she really didn’t like one of the salespeople.

Why am I pointing this out? Well it serves as a reminder of what happens when you, as a salesperson, meet junior personnel. They rarely have the power to make decisions, and even if they do, they are unlikely to run the risk of changing to a new supplier. So, at best, they will refer the matter upwards (to someone more senior). At worst, they will have wasted their own and the salesperson’s time.

The second issue is meeting with people who are of a different social station. One hates to be a snob, but class does exist, and there are those who are highly sensitive to people’s education, social background, and wealth. Having said this, it is very unlikely that someone in business will jeopardize his ability to make money by shooing out a salesperson because he went to the wrong school or doesn’t live in the right subdivision. In truth, social anxiety is felt more by the less socially elevated. In business, it really doesn’t matter.

I would comment however, that a senior executive from a large corporation may shy away from meeting with salesperson or give him relatively short shrift. This has little to do with class, just the fact that senior people are busy and really cannot spend all day discussing minor purchases with individual salespeople.

The third factor is the feeling that more senior people know more than the salesperson. This is often the case. They may have a wealth of experience; they may be professionally trained. Nevertheless, a salesperson should always have sufficient product knowledge and a good understanding of his product’s application.

As long as a salesperson takes time to ask questions and carefully considers how his product might be used by or help the client, before blurting out a long-winded description, he should not find a lack of experience or knowledge an issue.

A personal meeting with a decision-maker is always the most effective way of selling. Every salesperson should try to deal with the most senior people he can. If this is not practical because decision-makers don’t have time, make sure you know who they are (by name) and copy them in on all correspondence.

I was once told by a client that I would never have won the business had it not been for the fact that all of my correspondence (proposals, follow-up letters, reminders, etc.) were copied for the big boss. I didn’t get to meet with the decision-maker. However, he knew who I was, what I was proposing, and who I was talking to in the company. My contact told me that he probably wouldn’t have bothered to read through my proposal; the possibility that his boss might ask him about it was enough to get him to sit up and take notice of what I was offering!

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.