A higher calling Featured

9:45am EDT July 22, 2002

I have heard that I should call at the top of an organization and avoid the purchasing department. However, my counterparts tell me that if purchasing finds out, they will block me from getting business in the future. What should I do?

While attending a conference of CEOs, I was reminded of the importance of calling high in an organization. Salespeople are paid for two things: talking to strangers and gaining commitments. Everything else falls into the category of customer service.

Who makes the decisions in an organization? Executives do. The ability to make decisions is the one thing that differentiates executives from everyone else. Middle-level managers are often paralyzed into indecision by fear of making the wrong decision. Executives aren’t. So why don’t salespeople call at this level?

The first impediment to calling high is a salesperson’s self-concept. A salesperson will only call as high in an organization as he or she feels comfortable. Too many don’t call on the CEO because they don’t believe in their product or service or in themselves. They don’t feel worthy of — and therefore comfortable — calling on the CEO. Trust me, if Jack Welch of GE gave up his position to sell janitorial supplies, he would not call on the purchasing agent. He would call on the CEO, because he feels he belongs at that level.

That doesn’t mean every CEO makes the decisions for every product or service his company buys. More than likely, the CEO delegates that to someone. However, when you start at the top and are delegated to someone, you have the power and clout of the chief executive’s office behind you.

Salespeople need to learn to talk another language — the language of executives, which revolves around concepts such as ROI, incremental revenue and aggregate cost reductions. Executives don’t care about features and benefits — they care about capturing market share, reducing operating costs and improving their return on investment.

What about purchasing agents? Forget it. Purchasing agents have one purpose — to drive a better bargain. They rarely look at the big picture. If you start at the top, with the appropriate issues being addressed, purchasing agents are relegated to the role of clerks who simply document the deals.

Granted, it’s rare for a purchasing agent to stand in the way of a deal that will genuinely make an impact on the organization. However, if you start with a purchasing agent, that agent often morphs into a German shepherd guarding the gates, only letting you pass if you hand over a juicy bone in the form of a healthy discount.

Show me a salesperson who calls on purchasing agents and I’ll show you one who sells on price. Which begs the question — what if purchasing objects to you going around them?

I credit my dad, one of the best salespeople I know, for this important lesson: It’s sometimes easier to beg for forgiveness than to get permission in the first place. If you have done your job well, most real decision-makers will appreciate your guts as well as the value you have brought to them.

They may even try to hire you.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm specializing in sales development and training. Send comments and questions via fax to (724) 933-9224 or e-mail Lewis at LTLewis@totaldevelopment.com. Reach him by phone at (724)933-9110.