The Ten Golden-Rules of Selling the Way CEOs Sell

    October 7, 2003

Can I have a Minute of Your Time?

Some of the most advanced sales tactics I’ve ever seen were demonstrated during a weekend seminar given by two purposeful, motivated, passionate salespeople who truly know how to build relationships with executives. These two pros are persuasive and relentlessly positive.

Like millions of other professionals in their field, they get up every day and head out the door with a firm sense of the value message they need to convey to their prospects. And like millions of their colleagues, they don’t carry a briefcase, a business card, or any formal presentation materials as a matter of fact they sometimes need help selecting and putting on their clothing. They’re children and the two seminar leaders, Anthony and Nicholas are my nephews and they truly are masters at the art of enthusiastic persuasion and presentations. Let me explain:

Anthony and Nicholas wanted an hour of uninterrupted playtime from me. And they got it. How, exactly, did they get what they were after? By using two of the “golden rules” of CEO’s that sell (I’ll give you the other eight in a minute). Specifically, they followed rule number one: being honest about the situation, even when it hurts and they repeatedly embraced rule number two: Redefinition of the word “NO”. They used a personal approach that allowed them to start off their “relationship” with a new “prospect” (me) by sending the correct initial authentic message: “we’re going to have a blast together-you just watch!”

That, it turned out, was the message I needed to hear. It was a significant motivator for me to find a way to “work” with these two seasoned sales pros.

As you read about the ten golden rules of CEO selling you’ll find that Anthony and Nicolas were as close to the bone as you can get when it comes to embracing a CEO selling style. When they read this article they’ll become totally unstoppable and so will you!

The ten “golden-rules” of Meeting and Selling the CEO:

As you read what follows I suggest you ask yourself at the end of each one of the “golden rules” how closely you adhere to the meaning of the rule. Of course you’ll have to adapt each of your first meeting situations to each rule but as you do this you must keep the rule’s integrity. In other words don’t change the rule just adapt how and when you use it.

Rule #1: CEO’s are Honest, Even when it hurts:

This is one of those rules that you should carry (although, it may not be easy) into your day-to-day interactions with everyone. Never, ever lie to a CEO or anyone else (including yourself). If you don’t believe in what you’re selling enough to tell the truth about it at all times, find something else to sell. CEO’s can’t afford to tell a lie. Why? Because there are too many ears listening to what they are saying. Stockholders, the media, employees, suppliers, customers, etc. CEO’s know and so should you that problem accounts just like problem relationships are those that someone over-promised and under-delivered on. CEO’s and those of us who sell to them must be totally ready, wiling and able to stand behind every word that we write or that comes out of our mouths. If that means “walking” on a short-term opportunity today, so be it. You can always come back tomorrow. And when you do come back, you will be remembered as a person of integrity.

Rule #2: CEO’s Touch People in a Special Way:

CEO’s who sell have a “signature” that’s all their own. They create a look and feel that others identify with them that’s as unique and the logo that’s on their products. Here are two examples of salespeople who adopted an authentic signature way of selling that’s memorable:

Nancy Allen: AKA: the “cookie” lady.

One Friday of each month, Nancy delivers home made (in her Kitchen) chocolate chip cookies to her best customers. Why? Because she wants to show her gratitude in a way that’s remembered. If you ever want to see grown-ups fighting over a cookie follow Nancy on her next Friday’s run.

Roxanne Deluca, gave a new meaning to the words: “Lunch and Learn” twice a week-every Tuesday and Thursday-she makes three baskets and hand-delivers each to people with whom she’s called ahead to make a telephone “lunch date.” (Would you turn down such an offer? Would you ever forget the person who went through such lengths for your) She manages to schedule and conduct three meeting on these days: 11:45, 12:15, and 12:45 giving ample time to let her prospects enjoy their lunches. By the way you must be a top executive to receive one of her baskets which by the way areyou guessed it hand made and red the color of “prosperity”.

Here are two ideas for you to consider:

Always sign your business card: whenever you hand your business card to any CEO always take the time to personalize it with your signature and a special slogan:

“Here’s to your continued success!” “To greater results!” “To a brighter and more beneficial future!”

When you give your card to the CEO be prepared for he/she to say something like:

CEO: “why did you sign your card?”

YOU: “I personalize everything I do for my prospects and customers. Signing my card is one way of showing you that I will put my personal commitment on everything I do for you and your organization.”

If this sounds awkward it’s only because these are my words not yours. Put it in your own hand and mold it to your style.

Give the CEO a pen: take the time and spend the money to get a nice (not a “knock-off”) pen with your logo on it. This should cost you about twelve-bucks a piece. After you sign your business card, look at the pen in your hand and say:

“Ms. CEO, here this is for you. When it comes time for you to sign our first contract please do me the favor of using this pen.”

Don’t be surprised if the CEO reciprocates by giving you one of their logo pens.

As time passes don’t forget to send this CEO a new cartridge. It’s a great way to stay in touch and guess what? The pen will serve as your silent sales assistant in your absence.

Always, I repeat always send a hand-written thank you note after each and every telephone and/or in-person meeting with a CEO. If you should have a meeting with one of the CEO’s underlings then you will still send a thank you note to the CEO. You may want to consider writing something like: “Thanks for having someone as capable as Phyllis Casisa heading up your marketing department. She really has a firm understanding of where you’re taking your company and how our solution may be able to help.”

Have thank you notes with the postage in your briefcase, glove compartment, desk, and home-office and send them the same day as your meeting.

Rule #3: Know What You Want & Keep It Simple & Straight forward:

Know What You Want

CEO’s are incredibly simple in their approach. Every single CEO that I interviewed was able to quickly and accurately articulate what they want. Can you? Let’s do a quick exercise: use the space below to write down what you want from the CEO of your largest prospect. Before you pick-up your pen you can take as long as you want to complete this exercise but, you cannot take more than thirty (that’s 30) words to articulate it. Ready? Go!

Here’s what I want from my prospect’s CEO:

“Your opinion on how to use my proven ideas to increase the size of your entry point orders, compress your sales cycle and get add-on business from your existing customers.” (that’s 30 words)

Keep It Simple & Straight forward:

A true story for edification:

I was working to sell a large computer system to a company that once installed would have the ability to automate the entire manufacturing process. I had the President visit our office for a demonstration on one of the system’s unique capabilities; its “relational data base” which as you can imagine is very complex. And I hope you forgive if I don’t try to explain it to you here. The President was sitting shoulder to shoulder with my systems engineer; my manager stood behind them and I sat off to one side. John started his demo and as he went on and on I noticed that the President was getting more and more confused about exactly what was taking place. How could I tell? He got more and more quiet! He totally stopped asking questions about twenty minutes into the demo.

We reached a point where John had to take a deep breath and during that pause the President looked at me and asked; “Tony, how much memory does this machine have?”

I think he asked me that because it was the only question he felt comfortable posing-and notice he didn’t pose it to John, but to me! I looked at the President and said: “Grady, this machine will never forget anything you tell it.” he smiled and said, “finally-something I can understand!” both the systems engineer and my manager looked extremely perturbed at my irresponsible answer. After the demo ended my manager called me into his office and read me the riot act! “We’re a technology driven organization. Whenever especially the President of an organization asks you a technical question you will give a proper technical answer. Next time, don’t be so cute.”

A few months later, when I’d sold that system to the President, I went into my manager’s office, slid the $265,000 purchase order right on his desk and said, “This is for the machine that never forgets.” I love moments like that.

Rule #4: Show your Feelings:

How are you today? “Oh, I am fine. No, actually I just got word that my cholesterol level is dangerously high and I must go on a very restrictive diet.” The reason for my call

How many times do you tell someone how you really feel? How many times when you take that step are your feelings acknowledged by the other person? CEO’s who sell show their own feelings and respond to other’s feelings, and they are always, I repeat always in the present moment and time. Most of us think that doing this takes too much time. Actually, you’ll save a lot of time if you take the lead from the CEO and here’s why. If you take the time to make every interaction you have with everyone on your way to the CEO’s office memorable your return trip will be much easier. Your calls will be accepted, voice-mail messages returned and ideas entertained. In other words you’ll get top-of-mind. Making yourself and your interactions memorable isn’t that hard all you have to do is show your feelings in a sincere way and acknowledge the feelings of others in a sincere way.

How are you today? “Oh, I am fine. No, actually I just got word that my cholesterol level is dangerously high and I must go on a very restrictive diet.” What types of food must you avoid? “Fried food, some dairy products, any types of snacks that have more than 4% fat for starters.” Sounds like you’ll be eating pretty healthy! Maybe I should look at this diet!

After this conversation you send the person a recipe book on low fat cooking and sign it with a message that comes from your heart:

“To your health!” or, “Here’s to Healthier eating!” or, “Put this to the taste test”

Rule #5: Say You’re Sorry When You Mess Up:

Too many salespeople (heck, too many people) seem to assume that it’s bad etiquette to admit you’ve made a mistake. Nothing could be further from the truth! CEO’s know the importance of taking personal responsibility and so should you. That means saying and meaning those dreaded words “I’m sorry” (or “I apologize” or “That’s my fault/responsibility” or any of their appropriate variations) when something goes wrong or is about to go wrong. You not anyone else should be the person to deliver this message. And here’s why: someone else may have a different agenda than you. For example, let’s say that you’ve been doing business with BigCo for two years but you’ve never met the CEO. (I bet you’ve go a few BigCo’s in your current customer base) anyway, your product causes a production delay or some other big problem. If you allow someone else to get the word to the CEO it may not be an accurate as you want it to be. It may be burdened with other “baggage” that have been plaguing the production line. What the heck, nothing wrong with finding a “scapegoat” once and a while. There are two other reasons that you want to be the person to deliver the “we messed up” message to the CEO:

1. A CEO is the most forgiving person in the organization. They know they aren’t perfect and they know that their own organization has messed up and they themselves have had to take the heat. In other words, they’ve walked in your shoes. Therefore, you’ll best serve the CEO, your cause and your company by meeting with the CEO and asking for their advice: “Ms. CEO, if your organization was to make a mistake similar to this one how would you make it right with your best customer?” after you say that classic statement sit very quietly and listen intently to what the CEO tells you. Then simply do it!

2. You’ll strengthen your business relationship with the CEO because problems when promptly corrected will always show your organizations better side and commitment to their customers, marketplace and integrity.

Rule # 6: Look at People When You Talk to Them:

About half of the interviews I conducted for this book were done in-person. In every case the CEO always gave me a generous amount of eye contact. Why? Making appropriate (not invasive!) eye contact is a necessary ingredient of effective listening. Besides, if you know what to look for watching someone’s eyes can tell you a lot about their feelings of what’s being said. Generally speaking, the right kind of eye contact demonstrates a sincere purpose. Let’s say that during a conversation with a CEO they are giving you a consistent amount of eye contact. When you get to your third call objective (Do you see any reason that you wouldn’t do business with us?) as they answer it they break their eye contact. This is what I would call “out of integrity”. It could very well be that there might be a reason that this CEO does not want to share with you at this time as to what may be going on (mergers, acquisitions, buy-out, their personal “bail-out” etc) that he/she may not be at liberty to discuss with you. And the opposite of this is also true. Watch your eye contact when you give responses to questions. The best way to get your eyes to match your words is to always speak the truth. Remember simple this truth: Eyes don’t lie words do.

Rule #7: Get Commitment Early On:

I don’t mean that you should invent meaningless questions or statements designed solely to get buyers bobbing their heads up and down like mindless dashboard dolls. What I am taking about is that a CEO will always get early “buy in” from anyone who is to perform a task or mission for them. It’s a way of transferring ownership so responsibility is unquestionably with the other party. Since this is a strong leadership and selling style of a CEO you can rest assured that when you ask for it from them they will understand exactly what you’re doing and what part they are to play. It’s always good business to balance the responsibility so you as the selling organization don’t get too far ahead of the commitments of the buying organization. “Mr. CEO, our organization will be investing over $30,000 of pre-sales expenses working with your evaluation team. If you were in my shoes would you feel responsible making that decision?” bold? Yes. Why? Because remember at all times whom you’re interacting with.

Rule #8: Ask and You Shall Receive:

This rule is closely associated with rule number 7. Whenever you ask a CEO for anything you will get something in return. It may not be exactly what you asked for but you will get something. I’ve built a successful sales career on the simple belief that the more you ask and the sooner you do so, the more and sooner you will sell. Here’s a short list of what you should make a habit of asking CEOs for.

Ask about opinions and impressions. “What are your thoughts so far?” “If you had to make up your mind right now what would it be?” “Based upon what you’ve heard/see/experienced so far would you become one of our customers?” “If you had to sell your organization my ideas how would you go about doing it?”

Ask about ideas for improvement: “what would you do if you were given the opportunity to make our ideas even better?” “How would you go about making our offering even more inviting to your organization?”

Ask about other members of this CEO’s team: “who else needs to take a look at our ideas?” “Who do you trust the most to give this initiative to?” “Who in your organization will have the responsibility for putting our ideas into action?”

Rule #9: Redefine the word No:

I have an ironclad policy about the word “no”-I never accept, at face value, any interruption that contains the word! You shouldn’t either. Instead, you should ask yourself, “Exactly what is this person saying no’ to?”

Government agencies, school districts, county, state and municipalities and certain non and not-for-profit organizations are governed by strict laws and policies that they must buy the lowest price provider of any service they are in search of. Of course there are ways around these requirements such as being the only provider of a particular service what’s typically called “sole-source” contracts. But, generally speaking in many procurement actives if you’re not the lowest price provider you don’t make the short-list. If you don’t make the short list you can’t make the sale.

CEO: “No, we can’t do business with your organization. We’ve got to adhere to the governing board’s policy of buying the lowest price provider and your organization is the highest price proposal we have. Thanks for your efforts butno thanks.”

You: “Ms. CEO, would you please define price’ for me?”

This is a classic way to change the playing field and get this CEO to look at what the real cost of ownership is. For many years of my sales career I sold (very successfully I might add) the highest price computer systems into the “lowest price wins” world using this response to the word “no”.

Rule #10: CEO’s Always Issue a Call to Action, You Should Too:

This is the part of the first meeting where the rubber meets the road. Some salespeople take a laid-back approach when it comes to specifying commitments. As you have learned so far that’s not the approach of a CEO. CEO’s love the word action. They constantly ask it of their own team so therefore; you can ask it of them. The action that I am referring to is one that puts everything in the proper order for the CEO. The steps that is necessary for results to happen in this CEO’s organization. Not, what you need to have happened to sell your stuff.

“Mr. CEO, typically what are the steps that have to happen in your organization to implement new ideas that have the potential of favorably impacting your [take-to-market strategy]?”

“Ms. CEO, what steps did you take the last time you changed your [raw-material] supplier for your [Phoenix manufacturing facility]?”

In the space below write a call to action that fits your products, services and solutions:


Don’t feel uncomfortable if you’re having difficulty creating your call to action. There’s plenty of help on the way in my monthly columns!

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Anthony Parinello is the author of the best selling book Selling to VITO: The Very Important Top Officer. For additional information on his Sales Success Kits and speeches and his newest book, Think and Sell like a CEO call 1-800-777-VITO or visit