Many people, myself included, talk a lot about how to sell at C level. But there’s another equally important question. Why should we sell at C level?

In 2007 I learned a lesson that taught me why to sell at C Level. It was the most expensive lesson I’ve ever learned – I cost me €180,000 (close to A$360,000 back then).

That’s how much commission I lost because I didn’t sell at C Level. Here’s the story.

In June 2007 I moved to Paris to as a Global Account Manager to work on deals with the world’s two biggest publishing companies. (I lived in the 6th near St Sulpice, below).

At the first company I was working on a deal to buy our publishing ERP in five European countries. In the second it was a deal covering the UK, Europe and South America.

The two deals couldn’t have been more different.

Company 1

The first deal I got right. I worked the account high, deep and broad. (It goes without saying that I had a lot of assistance – I was the point man but there were many others involved. Selling is always a team effort)

I oversaw the existing installations in Australia and New Zealand from afar and liaised with the customer’s executive team and our own support and management. In Asia I was on the steering committee of an ongoing implementation covering most of the countries in South Asia. I maintained strong relationships with the Managing Director, Finance Director and IT Manager in their South African subsidiary, which also used our software.

I worked closely with various Senior Vice Presidents in the US office. I covered knotty technical issues with their CIO and their various specialists in their IT hub in the UK. I presented the system to the entire executive teams in Belgium, Poland, Spain and Germany and I worked with end users in every department.

Before the deal was signed I met the COO of the $8 billion company and organised a meeting between him and our President so they could look each other in the eye. In total I visited 13 countries, some many times, and worked with 60 to 70 Presidents, SVPs, country managers and country executive teams.

I was all over them like spots on a leopard – and it worked. We won the deal, with an initial value of close to €4 million and a lifetime value in the tens of millions of Euros.

That deal made me number one salesman worldwide in my company that year and it propelled me to the highest commission level. If I could just close that second deal I’d be in line for an additional €180,000 commission on top of the big fat pay check I’d already earned.

And with three weeks to go to year end it was looking good.

Emphasis on WAS.

Company 2

My connections at Company 2 were very different. Essentially everything I did was through a single Decision Maker – the International CIO (that is, the CIO for the entire world outside the USA).

Obviously I met many other people in the account – country managers, finance directors, IT managers, users, technicians, etc. – but my only link with the US based C Suite was via that CIO. The problem was that although he had a lot of authority, the International division was significantly smaller than the USA in terms of revenue and influence. So he was a big fish in a small pool.

I asked the CIO to introduce me to the C level executives in the USA but it never happened. And because I’d worked successfully with him for several years I didn’t push it. After all, he had bought a lot of stuff off me. He purchased our ERP for all their Asian subsidiaries and bought lots of additional software modules from me for the existing installations in Australia and New Zealand.

We had an excellent relationship and we trusted each other. Not long before these events we agreed on the purchase of an additional software module for A$250,000 in a 15 minute call on my mobile (cell) while I was on the tube between Borehamwood and Central London. It was the quickest deal I ever sold.

He had always delivered and with three weeks to go we had agreed the price and negotiated contracts for the multi country deal. What could go wrong?

And then……

Then suddenly the company lost $50 million – in a totally separate division. It had absolutely nothing to do with us – but the company simply cancelled all spending for the year.

My connection, the International CIO, couldn’t do anything about it – and although we had a great relationship he had no great incentive to do so. He wasn’t going to risk his career to save my commission. Nor did I blame him.

I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t have any relationship with the person who made the decision. I didn’t even KNOW the person who made the decision.

And yet it was an illogical decision. If I’d built that relationship at C Level – in the USA, where the true power lay – if I’d sold the value of what we offered directly rather that going through a surrogate, no matter how good a relationship we had, I’d have been able to make a case.

I’d have been able to offer delayed payment or come up with something to get the deal closed. But as it was all I had access to was a big, fat NO. No appeal, no arguing, no nothing. And that was close to four million dollars in commission up in smoke.

That’s one of many reasons you need to sell at C Level. Because a C Level executive can kill a deal you’ve worked on for months or years with a single arbitrary decision. Here are some other reasons.

Reasons to sell at C Level

Here are 15 reasons WHY you should sell at C Level – I’m sure there are more.

1. Lack of C level Engagement is a key cause of lost deals

Cian McLoughlin, CEO of Trinity Perspectives and author of the excellent “Rebirth of a Salesman” conducts win/loss reviews for his company’s clients. He really knows his stuff – which is why he’s a valued member of our Expert Panel.

When he asks companies why they DIDN’T buy from his client – especially bigger companies – one of the top reasons was lack of engagement at C level.

Let’s face it, if you were a CEO or C level executive making a major financial commitment on the part of your company wouldn’t you want to get to know, assess and trust the supplier. Well, so do they.

2. They kick off the buying process

Why does a company spend a lot of money on a product or service? There are two key reasons – to solve a business problem or to take advantage of a business opportunity.

But every company had dozens of business problems and – potentially – lots of business opportunities. And every company has limited financial and human resources, so they can’t focus on all those problems and opportunities at once. They need to prioritise – and their priorities are based on their business strategy.

Who sets the business strategy? The CEO and her or his direct C Level reports.

No company starts a buying process by saying “We need to buy a new business analytics and artificial intelligence system”.

The buying process begins when the company identifies a business problem (or opportunity) that is important enough AND urgent enough to warrant attention. The people who make that decision are the people at the top.

It’s reasonable to say that every significant buying journey begins at C Level.

3. They sign off on the deal

The buyer’s journey is initiated at C level but much of the detailed work and evaluation is done at a lower level. However at the end of the process final approval always depends on the C Suite.

They initiate the buying journey. They set the budgets. They approve the chosen solution.

And they sign the cheque. Or, if you’re in the USA, they sign the check.

4. They can kill a deal on a whim

As my publishing example shows, the C level can kill a deal on a whim. Or on what seems like a whim to the sales person concerned.

To the person at C level it isn’t a whim. It’s reasoned response to a change in priorities or a change in business circumstances. If you don’t have the right relationships at C level you are subject to the vagaries of a changing business environment with no hope of appeal.

5. No BANT Qualification

Although it’s going out of fashion and being replaced by more comprehensive qualification criteria many sales managers and directors still ask their sales people to “BANT” qualify every sales opportunity.

But when you’re dealing at C level BANT becomes irrelevant because:

  • The C Level sets Budgets
  • The C Level has intrinsic Authority
  • The C Level determines needs
  • The C Level sets timeframes

What’s even more important – the C level sets priorities

6. They set strategy

Business needs are dependent on business strategy and the C Level is where business strategy is defined and modified in reaction to different business conditions.

If you can link your solution to their business strategy you stand a significantly greater chance of winning the deal. If you can’t – well, good luck.

7. They can make things happen

C Level executives are usually action oriented. They are paid to make things happen.

A company may have no budget for your solution. They may not even know you exist. They may not realise there is a solution for their problem. They may not even realise they have a problem.

But if you convince the CEO you can help him achieve his highest strategic priority quickly and with minimal risk he or she will find a way to make it happen.

8. They give you credibility

You’re known by the company you keep. Or to use an old proverb, “birds of a feather flock together”.

When you work on a large, complex deal you’ll interact with many people in the buying organisation at many levels. If you’re seen as someone who has the ear of the C Level, as someone who is helping them achieve their strategic objectives it will dramatically enhance your credibility and status. People will be more cooperative and you’ll never have the dreaded “don’t you dare go over my head” problem.

If your first introduction to a company is via C Level you’ll be perceived as executive yourself, a peer, an equal. If your first introduction is via the deputy IT Manager you’ll always be seen as a fairly low level sales person.

It’s much, much easier to start at the top and be referred down than it is to start in the middle and work your way up.

9. They know who’s who

In any large organisation there’s someone who desperately needs what you have to sell. There’s someone who can be your advocate and who can help you make the sale. And there’s someone who can make the implementation a success.

These people can be hard to find.

But C Level executives know who those people are. If you can show the C Level how your solution will help them achieve their priorities they will introduce you to the right people

10. They take a company wide view

People at different levels of an organisation focus on different things.

In his excellent book “Selling to the C Suite” Stephen Bistritz identified the perspectives of different levels of management as follows:

At C level your competition is “alternative use of funds“. Every organisation has a limited amount of funds (and also a limited number of internal resources). Even if they have a definite need for your solution and even if you can demonstrate an excellent ROI executives it may not be enough.

C level executives judge you against what else they can spend that money on – anywhere in the company.

That’s how I lost that big deal. I was dealing at Senior Management level and the people at C Level changed their company wide priorities.

11. You don’t want a third party to make your case for you

No matter how much you think someone is in favour of your proposal they can’t present it as compellingly and with as much knowledge as you can.

If the ultimate decision maker is at C Level you’re taking a big risk if you rely on someone else to persuade them to take action and sign off on your solution.

12. You get bigger initial sales

According to Anthony Parinello in his best-selling book “Selling to VITO“, when you sell at C Level you close bigger initial sales. He quotes a figure of 54% bigger for one of his clients.

Of course that’s just one company and I don’t have specific research to back that assertion up. But my personal experience and logic both support that viewpoint.

It makes sense that when the person at the top wants something they are less intimidated by large sums and they are prepared to pay for what they want, while people lower down (particularly in purchasing) are much more price and discount focused.

13. You close deals faster

Similarly “Selling to VITO” states you close deals up to 50% faster when you sell at C level – for a number of reasons.

  • C Level executives tend to make decisions faster – they are paid to make decisions
  • They don’t need to seek authority – they have it
  • When they want something they want it now – because they want to get the desired results as soon as possible
  • When you sell at C level you know it’s a valid opportunity while you can waste a lot of time at lower levels chasing a deal that’s never going to happen.

The shortest time I took to make a sale as an Executive Sales Coach was a single day. I was contacted by the President of a US company who had read one of my LinkedIn articles and we arranged a conference call with him and his five regional sales directors.

In the hour long call I listened to their story, asked lots of questions to make sure I understood their objectives, their approach and their problems and then I made some helpful suggestions.

At the end of the call the President said “Can you send me a proposal for us to work together?” I replied I could get one to him by the end of the week. He said “No, I need it tomorrow, I want to start working with you before the end of the week.”

So I sent a one page proposal and was working with him later that week.

Total selling time – one hour. Total duration from initial call to signed deal – 24 hours. Total revenue US$30,000 – and it only happened that quickly because the person making the decision was President of the company.

The fastest new business ERP sale I ever saw was by a sales guy who was working for me. He discovered a well know consumer electronics distributor was opening an Australian office (he came from that industry) and contacted the local Managing Director via a mutual acquaintance.

He explained they would need a software system that was tailored for consumer electronics in Australia (which we had) and we met later that week.We did a demonstration a few days later, organised references, wrote a proposal and closed the deal – all within 14 days. The deal was valued at around A$350,000 back in the 90s, the equivalent of about $750,000 today.

That’s what can happen when you sell at C level.

14. You lose deals faster at C Level

Far too many sales people are scared of losing deals. And yet deals are lost every day for a huge variety of reasons. Often they are lost to “no decision” or “alternative use of funds” – in other words they did something else instead.

Some deals are lost because the prospect already has a preferred vendor, or because they have an incumbent and the effort of changing is too much, or because the President’s son-in-law works for a competitor.

Or because your competition is selling at C level and you aren’t

Many sales people spend weeks or months working on – and forecasting – deals that are never going to close – because C level management isn’t ever going to give the go-ahead.

When that happens it’s much better to lose quickly than to lose slowly.

Working on impossible deals costs a lot of time, money and effort and distracts you from working on winnable deals. Forecasting deals that are never going to close messes everyone up. It affects you, your manager and your company.

It’s much better to sell to the top, then if you’re not going to get the deal for reasons beyond your control, to lose quickly and move on.

15. They help the project succeed

If you’re selling a solution that requires significant effort to make it work – such as a complex software solution – you want it to succeed.

Successful projects create referral opportunities, they create happy customers and they generate additional revenue. Unsuccessful projects are costly, distracting and damaging to everyone.

And the more commitment you have at C level, the more you and your customer focus on the strategic objectives rather than the day to day irritations, the more determination you have to work together as a team towards a common goal, the more likely you will succeed.

By selling at C Level, by setting the right expectations, by understanding what’s really important and by gaining executive commitment up front you’ll dramatically increase the chances of ending up with a delighted customer and a successful project.


There are many other reasons to sell at C level but hopefully these are enough to convince you WHY.

The next step is HOW? That’s another story.


This article originally appeared in LinkedIn here