To Sell to CEOs: Find What They Value and Fear Most

Combined extracts from two business articles:

  • Quick Guide – How Top Salespeople Sell (available from Amazon in US and UK)

  • Quick Guide II – Learn How to Spot, Mimic and Become a Top Salesperson (coming soon)


“When you’re selling at board level it’s about taking the customer on a journey that’s both fantastic and believable. That is, no matter how complex that journey is…, it’s about breaking it down into manageable chunks. You create a pathway into the future that is as clearly marked out as possible. There will be uncharted territory. So it’s about discerning all the parts of the map that are known from those unknown.


It’s then about pinpointing all the ‘dots on the chart of the unknown’. That is, answering all the ‘what if this happens’ questions.

dots joined

In effect, you join the dots of the unknown with customer as best you can.”

Top UK salesperson for a global top 10 IT company

Images courtesy of

What CEOs value:

The ‘science’ to determine value discovers what’s important to the CEO. And once you understand the customer’s priorities – how do you stack up (against your competitors) to deliver against them?

Here are sources of value (business drivers and problems to fix) that CEOs look for:

• Cash – Will your proposal improve our cash position?

• Cost Down – Will we reduce costs?

• Revenue/Market Share Up – Will we make competitive gains?

• Agility/Speed – Can we move, reshape, transcend quickly?

• Security – Will we be better protected?

• Governance – Am I compliant with Company Law?

• Product/Service/Cost Leadership – Will our own customers notice and value the changes in our organisation that your proposal offers?

• Innovation (e.g. Technology, New Business Models) – Do I want (to be seen) to be first in the marketplace, to do something differently? Does your proposal accelerate the process?

• Personal Credibility – Can I use your proposal to advance my own prospects and standing?

• People – Will your proposal raise the effectiveness and job satisfaction of people?

• Something else? – If you don’t know, ask “What else do you feel is important for me to know?” Even if you feel you know, ask anyway.

Put concisely, you need to understand profoundly what’s important in the heart and mind of your CEO client and convey the value you bring to the table in their language, not yours.

At this stage you may have provided sufficient verifiable value for the CEO to progress the sale. And there’s often a temptation to press on. In doing so, you may miss another, often unspoken, factor that weighs heavily in the CEO’s mind (as well as most of us) – fear.

The more you earn a customer’s trust, the more fears they share with you. They give you more power deliberately to help them.

My thanks go to Professor Colin-Coulson Thomas who shared with me the bounty of a minute fraction of his wisdom, and made a significant contribution to the following list.

What CEOs fear:

• Bad earnings news: the most likely and quickest sign of departure.

• Corporate programs don’t deliver: mergers and acquisitions “achieve 70% of their potential” at best.

• Failure to turnaround ailing sales quick enough.

• Change takes too long: ‘corporate firewalls’ prevent people from getting it done.

• Investors don’t understand: a CEO spends 40% of their time articulating strategy and some argue that’s not enough.

• Personal wealth at risk: e.g. missed deadlines can lead to private investors swallowing up the shareholding of a company

• Lack of innovation: playing it safe is no longer an option these days. Competitors and customers are moving too quickly.

• Talent gaps in performance: e.g. 20% of the sales-force bring in 80% of the revenue.

• Conflict in the boardroom: too much time spent looking inwards leaves too little time to focus on the customer.

• Personal credibility at risk: any of the above means less likelihood of stepping up the ladder of success and/or lack of a legacy of note. These in turn can lead to…

• Personal health at risk: where the stressed mind-body connection can have serious consequences. I know of one CEO who, after missing targets set by investors, developed terrible eye problems because he didn’t like what he saw. Another developed disabling back pain through a lack of self-esteem. Another who was deemed too rigid and inflexible developed problems with their joints.

Your task is to earn the right to zig-zag; to take the CEO on a journey whereby they see your solution working in their organisation and have allayed any fears they once had.

Shine on…!
Paul C Burr
Author of Quick Guide: How Top Salespeople Sell, Learn to Love and Be Loved in Return, 2012: a twist in the tail and Defrag your Soul


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