How to Shorten Your Sales Cycle and Avoid Wasting Time

Posted on Dec 17, 2013 | 40 comments


One of the questions I’m most often asked by CEOs is how to hire sales people.

I’ve written a lot about recruiting and hiring at startups including my controversial post on whom not to hire and my rapid response to the flame war.  I’ve also written extensively on sales and on which sales execs to hire and how to think about the different kinds of sales leaders.

One of the questions I used to ask in any recruiting meeting for a senior hire or even a junior sales rep is as follows:

“When you run sales campaigns do you prefer to 

A. Call high, and get passed down or;
B. Call low, get a pilot project with data running internally, and then present the findings to a senior executive”

Of course there’s no “right” answer but I’d like to persuade you that “calling high” will help you greatly shorten sales cycles and help you avoid wasting a lot of time on sales efforts that are not likely to close in the first place.

If you don’t have a good sales methodology already in place in your organization you might try reading that last link.

Call High

Calling high means reaching the highest level appropriate person in an organization that you can reach to hear your pitch. In a small to mid-sized organization this is likely the CEO or perhaps a COO or SVP. Clearly in an enterprise customer this is unlikely.

The senior person you meet is unlikely to be the person actually making the decision. They are likely somebody who would hear about the purchase but may or may not weigh in on the decision.

The most likely outcome if you manage to interest the senior exec (for the sake of this post let me call her the CEO) is that she will refer you down the organization to somebody who would be involved in the decision.

The benefits of this are clear:

1. High priority / more attention: A person passed down from the CEO tells the person making the decision that they ought to prioritize this.

2. No gate keeper: One of the most destructive forces in a sales campaign is when mid-level manager blocks you from meeting her boss. When you’re passed down the organization this isn’t an issue. You have already established a direct connection to the CEO and have earned the right to contact her on an as-needed basis

3. You avoid time wasters: Occasionally when you meet senior executives they will give you negative feedback on your prospects.

“We don’t have budget for that this year”

“I don’t believe in social media advertising.”

“I’m already in a pilot with one of your competitors.”

“There’s no way we’re going to partner in this area. It’s too strategic. We will have to build (or buy) technology in this area.”

Whatever this issue is. The thing is … what I see many sales execs do is burn up countless hours on mid-level campaigns that get torpedoed when the go up the organization due to lack of budget, a desire to own that core IP or other more pressing organization priorities.  You need to align your selling cycle with a buyers purchasing cycle otherwise you’re wasting your time and theirs. If they’re not buying you need to be marketing to them not selling to them.

So as much as it sucks to hear, “We don’t have budget (or interest) in your product” it’s far better to hear it early and move on to your next qualified lead.

4. Learn the internal politics: You’d be surprised what the CEO would tell you about her organization. She might gladly tell you who gets decisions made, who is a pain in the arse, who is super technical, etc. Once you’ve reached a level in a company where you’re less worried about daily politics above you people are much more relaxed about sharing information. Not always, of course. But more than junior people.

5. Sales & post-sales support: One of the most important roles the CEO can play is to help you in the sales cycle and even in post sales. After you have found a business buyer often you need to get through procurement, legal and technical reviews (aka “sales prevention”). Having senior executive air cover is invaluable to help streamline these leg-breakers. Following the sale having a CEO relationship can help you greatly to make sure you product gets the training, implementation and rollout support it needs to be successful. Not to mention it would be nice to have the CEO on your marketing reference list!

The Case for Calling Low

When you hear the case for “call high” it intuitively feels obvious. I have met several sales execs who argue the exact opposite strategy. Their view is that without “proof points” the senior leadership teams are likely to be cynical about the benefits of your product.

In the “call low” camp they advocate

1. Find a business unit leader who would be positively impacted by success of your product

2. Run a short, quantifiable pilot

3. Have that business unit leader champion you to a senior exec with data and proof in hand

4. Land bigger deals with more assuredness.

The mantra of this school is, “keep your head below the parapet and avoid getting shot. You can rise up once you have your armaments.”

While I understand the logic, I personally believe you need to provide enough evidence through case studies to talk with the CEO and if she can’t convince herself that it’s worth exploring being a buyer then you could recommend you do a pilot internally to prove yourself.

Summary

While the logic of calling high is clear I can tell you that most people – leaders and sales execs –  opt for the more comfortable territory of the next layer down in the organization.

I have seen countless organizations waste time peddling to companies that have no intention to buy or to prospects who have no authority to purchase.

Whether you’re selling your product or selling your company – there is nothing more valuable than having

  • A champion who will help you take ownership for your success
  • The air cover of a senior executive
  • A buyer who has IA – influence & authority (Avoid NINAs)

I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments section.

Photo credit on 500px to Roof Topper. Check out his other photos. He’s insane. And brilliant.

  • wfjackson3

    Nicely done. And timely to a conversation I was having with another entrepreneur a few hours ago.

  • brian piercy

    My main concern is the “go”-to-implementation time. Getting your product integrated into a higher-level SKU or customer workflow is largely out of your control & highly variable. It throws a high degree of uncertainty into any forecasting.

  • joanne@nomorecoldcalling.com

    Get in at the top with a referral introduction. An exec will always take a meeting when someone is referred by a person they know and trust. You’ll have a business conversation and will get the inside scoop–priceless!

  • Terrence Yang

    Makes sense, thanks.

  • José Ignacio

    I’ve had better results by calling high, even with a cold email. By calling low it seems to get into their daily chores and its not a demand for them. People are more afraid to try because if they fail it’s their direct fault, but if their boss told them to do it (calling high and having the CEO delegate) they usually work better and faster.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I hope your answer was “call high” ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’m not 100% sure what you’re advocating for?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    +1000

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    exactly

  • Guest

    Maybe it’s a matter of definition. I’m used to working in hardware (mostly semiconductor) sales where you won’t see revenue from a design win until the PC board goes into production. There’s usually a huge variation in time lag and %confidence in end-market demand. Does this help?

  • brian piercy

    The comment is off-target from your subject, and I apologize for that.

    It’s just that I never see sales cycle posts mentioning the time lag between a “design win” and subsequent production orders. In my world (semiconductors), the time lag x % confidence of a customer’s end-market demand is much more variable than the account penetration strategy.

    I guess it’s a bit of a sore point. (Otherwise, I really do like your post.)

  • Peter karceski

    I guess this means it is time to hit the phones. Great pep talk!

  • Greg Mand

    Mark…I’ve seen it go both ways and have tried both approaches (sometimes at the same time!). One thing I’ve found is that Calling High, if successful, will almost 100% get the follow on meeting with the decision-makers. However, I’ve been on both sides of the table :) and as one who would often have to take those “CEO-referred-me-to-you” meetings I would then have to spend time meeting with companies whose product/service I knew going in was not a fit for our company’s goals, budgets, product road map, etc. But I couldn’t say no to the meeting given that the intro came from our CEO. Slight side note…I think a key factor in shortening a sales cycle as well is having a single “anchor” client (preferably a well-known name) to help with social proof, getting meetings, results, etc. I’ve found this gets people’s attention and that critical 1st meeting where I can do my listening and not selling.

  • Ofer Heijmans

    Thanks for the post Mark. I’m curious to know what you think about this: when you run a pilot with the person who’s supposed to benefit from the product (not too low but not a senior/ceo) and it’s that persons initiative they tend to be more fired up about it and usually “sell” it with passion and sometimes better than you to upper management. If it gets passed-down by the CEO the mid level manager sometimes sees it as a “to-do” and not as his/her “own” project. Would you agree? how would you factor that in?

  • timminer

    Greg, I completely agree with you. If an account is worth going after, then I would do BOTH. This singular profession of any one method is usually promoted by those who do not have extensive sales experience.
    Doing both gives you a viable out to avoid gatekeepers. When someone says “I will take care of your product here within our company, you don’t need to connect with the CEO”, then it is great to be able to say, “Oh, we are already in contact with the CEO”.

    When the top management level responds with “You need to speak to my IT department, this is not my concern”, you can come back with a retort, “We are already in speaking to your IT department, we wanted a to show you our business level from a top management perspective”.

    A true sale plays both sides and governs the communication between them. Governing and directing that communication is the job of a good sales guy (even if he has hopped a few jobs, sorry!)

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    I think this is an undeniable fact Mark.

    What’s interesting is that it’s been true for as long as I can remember. Even pre Internet day.

    How we sell into the enterprise has not changed. How we market to them has changed dramatically though.

  • wfjackson3

    Sort of. We were talking about whether or not they should be doing test sales with their market and they were worried about alienating the high level folks when they don’t have lots of data. I basically said they should try to do a pilot if they ask about data.

    In other words, call high was a given.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    It is undeniable that calling high is better than calling low. The only issue however is how to arrange a meaningful relationship with somebody high. If you are McKinsey or Accenture you have the network and the contacts.

    If you are small podunk software company? Not so much. Of course you network, you hustle, etc. But sometimes if your marketing is working you end up working with the people that are going to implement the product/project. Just a fact of life. Trying going around those people once they are in a buying process can really screw things up unless you have the serious contacts/relationships above.

    And yes hearing a quick no is helpful because then you can work on others.

    But overall its not bad advice to say aim high

  • https://aserina.squarespace.com/blog Anthony Serina

    Avoid NINA’s is completed underrated, avoid NINA’s at all costs they will destroy your sales cycle

  • sam.fankuchen

    Understand the owner. Build trust by delivering consistent excellence- product/service contracts are employment agreements that require renewal. Consider lifetime value beyond the dollar amount on the first deal.

    Establish a strategic purpose with the highest ranking exec possible in the owner’s and in other relevant branches of the organization from the first touch. It’s important to map recommendations to the vision for your customer/client’s core business success, and it’s difficult to achieve that credibility by initiating the discussion down the road.

  • Yonadav Leitersdorf

    Calling high is more expensive and time consuming and is a lot more difficult to achieve via “simpler” channels (like inside sales). The question a startup should ask itself is how to reach volume – in terms of revenues (which we are measured on) and deals (which provide for better forecasts and stability). Calling high slows down the increase of # of deals (logos, accounts) while increasing the revenue per deal. Like many things, there’s no single answer and the right balance needs to be found.

  • Justin Hunter

    Great advice. As a B2B SaaS firm that gives out free trials of our tool, too often, we’ve blindly walked into self-imposed bottom-up sales processes that begin innocently enough. When a firm has a few active users of our tool, we reach out to those end users to see if we can answer their questions, ask for their input on feature enhancements, etc.

    So far, so good. Then, with an excited believer/supporter on the line, we’ve asked about the sales process at their firm.

    Them: “Well, I love the tool and certainly see the benefits. Let me run a quantifiable pilot to put a business case together and then I’ll take the results to my boss…”

    That’s where the trouble starts. Cue the record scratch sound that indicates things may start to go horribly wrong.

    We need to remind ourselves to stay more disciplined about the process.

  • Darius Lahoutifard

    Depends which one will help you check your MEDDIC list faster and stronger!
    You need to get to the EB and to build a Champion. Most of the time starting by the top allows to reach them faster but not always, especially in larger accounts, where you know you’ll sell somewhere in the account some time, and both approaches are welcome, almost all the time.
    And I love these posts Mark, related to strategic B2B sales. Don’t see enough of them these days.
    http://www.slideshare.net/web3D1/meddic-salesmethodology

  • http://www.bettersellsolutions.com/ Robert V Hatcher

    While I agree with calling high there are a couple of nuances that you should be aware of.

    You say “Calling high means reaching the highest level appropriate person in an organization that you can reach to hear your pitch”

    Technically, that’s correct, BUT, you better have a pitch directly for that senior person. You should NOT use the same techno mumble jumbo that you’d use with a techie in a bottoms-up pitch.

    Understand that there are three types of people who will be involved. Economic buyers are the ones at the top who worry about much different things than the Technical buyer we are all used to dealing with. And, each of them wants/worries about different things than the User of your product or solutions.

    So, do not have one “pitch”, have several and make sure your value proposition is crafted for each of those buying types.

  • http://www.bettersellsolutions.com/ Robert V Hatcher

    WRONG, people are much too busy to take a meeting just because someone else refers you to them. They WILL take a meeting if there is a “valid business reason” for the meeting. So, when you speak to the person who will make the introductions make sure they understand the valid business reason they should be conveying to their friend.

  • temujin9

    I’ve seen calling low work as a model, albeit in smaller, bootstrapped start-ups. If you price yourself within a lower-tier executive’s discretionary budget, you can avoid long vetting processes that come with the bigger deals. It requires sales structured as small, repeatable business rather than large, highly visible contracts, but it can work.

  • Dave Cushing

    Have to call high as uncomfortable as it may be. That means having your story honed to elevator pitch and practice delivering it.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    I have one caveat to your post – if you are launching or introducing a new product, it’s much more important to be speaking with early adopters. Generally speaking, CEO’s won’t fit that mode, whereas the right person in the rank and file will be your best contact. But once you have an established product/market fit and go-to-market strategy is set? Call as high as you can.

  • wfjackson3

    Identifying, profiling, and seeking early adopters isn’t really related to what Mark is writing about. This post strikes me as more generally about sales.

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    Are you sure? Because you still do have to *close* early adopters. It’s still selling… in fact, finding the early adopters is likely the hardest sales job there is…

  • http://www.iphoneeinstein/ Bruce Friedman

    Clearly higher up is the way to go but that does not always mean someone with a big title. Most organizations have a power base of strong influencers who often do not have the appropriate title. CEO’s can help you navigate the who’s who in the organization, but finding the right influencer regardless of title is the key. Don’t forget outside counsel, influential board members or on-the-rise execs.

  • bernardlunn

    Definitely call high. The game is to qualify out the time wasters as quickly as possible. The call low tactic is just staying within comfort zone, see this a lot with tech folks who move into sales.

  • bob solomon

    After 30+ years experimenting with all types of approaches, selling high has always been the fastest way to a sale. I have also used a dual approach where I (as president) would contact the CEO and my sales team would contact an appropriate unit head in parallel. If the CEO nixes things, some time was wasted. If the CEO likes our approach, we come out ahead of the game.

    Of course getting to the CEO may be a challenge. Getting an intro usually works assuming that you are selling something of value. Without an intro, I have found success identifying the CEO’s assistant and establishing a rapport. This has often led to a meeting.

  • VJ

    Great post. Unlearning it the hard way this year. Aim High in the Org – Call at times when you can get through to an exec level – do map the buyer process with org chart to see who is a detractor, influencer, champion etc so that as a sales guy one doesn’t waste time with a non existing opportunity. After all, People buy from People either products and services and its important to understand or read their motives.

  • Leonard P Lidov

    I’m generally a “go high!” guy myself but I think the case for go-low above misses the most important issue which is understanding the extent to which the line manager/purchaser has her own agenda and may have ‘Not Initiated Here’ prejudices. On a number of occasions I’ve asked a CXO for a lay-of-the-land, then suggested that it might be best if I keep their halo in my back pocket and try walking through the front door. CEO’s are grateful for my recognition that there are always sensitivities around showing respect for chain-of-command.

  • wfjackson3

    We agree that finding early adopters is a very hard job. I just don’t think selling them is particularly tough. In fact, the more you tell an early adopter no, the more they try to get their hands on your solution.

    We also disagree that finding early adopters is really sales. I think it would fall under the category of market development, and ultimately, market segmentation. It requires some sales related skills (interviews with good listening skills), but also requires some skills not typically found in sales (application of scientific methods).

  • http://www.repeatablesale.com/ Scott Barnett

    Fair enough. I think we actually agree more than we disagree – we’re just focused on different things. When I say selling early adopters, I don’t necessarily mean the individual, I mean closing the deal with the company where the early adopter works. In an enterprise setting, the early adopter is almost never the economic buyer. That was my main point, and my thesis for why you might want to start lower in an organization if you have a new product.

  • Michael G

    Nice article. I agree with the start high case and have found that it not only works better but also shortens sales cycles considerably.

  • Ariel Perez

    So not wrong, just half correct.

  • Duke of URL

    It’s simple: Never take a no answer from somebody who can’t say yes. Call high.