Always go to the top?


Your bosses will always tell you that you’re not selling at a high enough level…always. When dealing with the government, that may not be good guidance (OK, criticsm).

I once had a one-on-one meeting with a Presidential cabinet secretary, who shall remain nameless partly because I admired him then and do now. The meeting went well, and he liked the idea I was proposing. He liked it a lot. He certainly didn’t agree to put it into action, but all of the ‘buy’ signs were there. He took all of my contact info and wanted to make sure I would be available in the next few days. (Of course, I would.) He said I would hear from his CIO soon.

When I left the meeting, I was excited. I got what I wanted – perhaps even more. Getting buy-in from a cabinet Secretary would naturally advance the initiative I had been touting. Plus, the CIO was known as an open and creative thinker.

Days passed, and I didn’t hear from the CIO. I thought that with directions from one of the President’s right-hand men, it would be done. A few more days passed…no contact. I sent the CIO emails. I left him voice mails. I talked to his secretary (that is, his personal secretary, not the Secretary, his boss). Still no response. I began to think I had mis-read the Secretary’s enthusiasm.

As luck would have it, I ran into the Secretary. (Well, maybe I arranged to run into him.) He greeted me warmly, and asked how the discussions were going with his CIO. I told him I hadn’t heard from him. He was surprised, apologized and assured me I would hear from his CIO within the next few days. I accepted his apology (naturally) and left feeling good…just a mix-up, I thought. Still, a few days later, no contact from the CIO…then, a couple of weeks passed, and still no contact.

Finally, while festering over the situation during Christmas holidays, I sent the CIO a rather direct email. Within minutes, he emailed back. A few days later, I was sitting in front of him hearing him tell me that he knew what I wanted and already knew he liked it. He then called in the CIO of one of the agencies under his department and told him he would be my “executive sponsor”. I left feeling victorious. I had real high-level buy-in and someone delegated to make it happen. What more could I want?

That was about five years ago. Despite the high-level buy-in and efforts of the executive sponsor, this project still hasn’t been done. It remains alive, but not because of endorsements from top executives. They’ve all moved on, as political appointees do. The project is alive because someone several levels down is keeping it alive. She won’t give up and will continue to keep it alive, despite all of the hoops she has to jump through and re-selling she has to do. She believes in it.

Here’s the point: If you can get to the top, take advantage of it. But at the same time, you need to find a a “coach”, someone who will keep your project alive despite the obstacles and the reality that the people at the top of government can’t wave magic wands to get things done. Let your coach guide you, and pay attention to what she/he says. In the end, you will be rewarded with success.

Oh, when we meet in person one day, remind me to tell you the story about how much the top general of one of the largest armies in the world loved my proposition…and to this day, still hasn’t bought anything from me.

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2 comments on “Always go to the top?

  1. Randy Bozeman says:

    I think it’s important to have a multi-pronged approach when selling to any organization, but especially government. Getting buy-in from the top is crucial. So is helping to identify a need at the bottom and working with them to sale it up. When you’re working from the top and bottom it’s a thing of beauty when they both meet. The result’s can be reducing or eliminating competition, shortening the sale cycle, adding more stakeholders, to the ever popular larger margins (that’s commissions for us sales people). It’s more meetings, phone calls, conference calls, work in general, but it’s well worth it. You just have to cover the ground.

  2. […] When selling to the government, most of the closing methods taught in the books simply don’t work.  The books’ methods rely primarily on an instantaneous emotional response.  While emotion can be an important part of a government sale (and often overlooked), instantaneous is not.  It’s rare to find someone in government who can buy on the spot.  Even those at the top have to follow a process.  (See “Always Go to the Top?”) […]

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