One of the most frustrating situations in sales is getting your proposal to a decision maker who is protected by an army of underlings or flak catchers who can't place an order but can shortstop your pitch. You can overcome this problem, if you approach it carefully but aggressively, following the steps I recommend in their exact order. If you try to jump ahead, you’ll suffer the consequences.
Step One: First, establish contact with Mr. Big, the real decision maker. Contact doesn’t have to mean a face-to-face meeting. In fact, in this stage you don’t really want a face-to-face. Put Mr. Big on your company’s direct mail list. Make sure he gets your newsletter, press releases, and new product announcements addressed to him personally and with a brief “FYI” note signed by you.
Step Two: When you present a proposal to the flak catcher or buying agency, follow it up with a “thank you” letter and carbon Mr. Big. Make sure the letter praises the flak catcher for their perception and professionalism during your meeting. Do the same if they somehow give you a little order. Lay it on real thick. It’ll make them look good to Mr. Big—and how can they object to that? That letter, of course, will also put your name in front of Mr. Big, establishing a human contact in your company he can call if he wants to. It’s also a good idea to send an actual, physical snail mail letter; they’re not only classier than email, but much less likely to get lost in Mr. Big’s spam folder.
These steps can’t be rushed. Together, they’ll probably take at least four to six weeks. You have to judge the time you need according to each situation, of course, but remember that the relationship has to evolve over a little time—weeks, not days—and work like water dripping steadily on rock. After enough drops have struck the surface, a hole will appear in the rock. It takes a lot of drops for that to happen.
Step Three: After you’ve laid the foundation, start to build the relationship. This step will probably require at least another four weeks. Now is the time to get some face-to-face contact with Mr. Big. Invite him (and the flak catcher) to any of your company functions where customers are welcome. If you don’t have any, think about staging one. Maybe you can throw a cocktail party to announce a new product or a buffet lunch in appreciation of past business.
If your company gives away any goodies—coffee mugs, T-shirts, caps with your logo—be sure to give one to the flak catcher and one to Mr. Big. Hand-deliver them if at all possible. Your goal is to put your face with that name Mr. Big has been seeing on correspondence for the last eight weeks. If you have to leave Mr. Big’s gift at the front desk, put a hand-written note with it.
Get your management involved, too. If your boss invites Mr. Big to dinner, the flak catcher can’t take it out on you, especially if the dinner is a purely social affair, which it should be at this point. Most top management recognizes the importance of these occasions and considers it part of their job.
Step Four: After you’ve established a pattern of contact with Mr. Big, he’s seen your name and face a few times and has been exposed to your company and its products, it’s time for the next step, which is to pitch an idea to him. Send a letter to Mr. Big much like your cold call telephone appointment pitch—promise him an idea and ask for 15 minutes of his time. Send a copy of the letter to the flak catcher. Then call the flak catcher and ask him if he’s available for that meeting assuming it happens. Don’t ask his permission—assume the close and invite him to the meeting. Then call Mr. Big to set the date and time.
The worst thing that can happen is that the flak catcher gets irritated by your end run. But what’s he going to do? Tell Mr. Big that he shouldn’t meet with that nice person who gave him all those gifts, invited him to dinner, and sent him that wonderful letter praising the flak catcher’s performance? It’s pretty hard for him to do that without sounding petty and defensive.
Is he going to tell you not to call Mr. Big? He can try, but if you remind him that you’re not going behind his back, in fact you’re inviting him to the meeting because you know how much Mr. Big values his opinion, he’ll have a tough time justifying his demand.
Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides and Handbooks, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, and management strategy.