This has been a common sales mantra for a long time. It reflects a salesperson’s natural self-interest in selling to those who have authority to make a decision, commit funds and mandate solution implementation.
Unfortunately, it seems that many, including lawyers pursuing corporate business, have perverted it by applying it a bit too literally, trying to sell to the CEO or equivalent.
The question to ask is, “Top of what?” The unproductive default answer is “the C-Suite.”
However, all people allocate time and grant access in similar fashion, i.e., we grant access to those who can help us with our highest-impact problems or challenges. With rare exception, the problems of concern to the most senior executives are strategic, whereas most lawyers are in the business of providing tactical solutions. The mismatch in focus can be crippling.
This mismatch is caused by “product centrism,” i.e., our emphasis on the merits or superiority of our product or service. If we shift our focus to the business problems we solve, it becomes fairly obvious who logically would have a stake in that problem, and to surmise who might have the biggest stake.
That’s our target; we want the “top stakeholder in this problem,” not the “top executive.”
Here’s an illustration:
Let’s say you’ve gotten past calling yourself an “employment lawyer,” and instead now position yourself as an expert on workplace bullying, an area of rising concern since “nearly half of all American workers (49%) have been affected by workplace bullying, either being a target themselves or having witnessed abusive behavior against a co-worker (Wikipedia).”
You wangle a meeting with the president of a regional manufacturing company to talk about legal solutions to the problem. Yet, while she’s not quite giving you a blank stare, it’s clear that she’s not really engaged in the discussion. Why not?
Simply, workplace bullying is not her problem, personally. She pays HR people and other managers to deal with the specifics of the workplace atmosphere. Your topic is mismatched to your audience. If you persist with it, not only will you not make progress, but you may preclude future access if she sees you as irrelevant to her job and, worse, that you don’t seem to realize it.
Am I saying don’t make use of high-level executive contacts you have? Not at all.
I’m saying abandon the inappropriate goal of getting this person to hire you in favor of the more achievable goal of getting this person to serve as your guide to the organization, identifying and connecting you with the most significant stakeholders who live with that problem every day and, assuming its impact is high, who would be motivated to explore creative solutions.
Don’t meet with people simply because you can. Have a specific purpose that matches their circumstances, and cultivate them as part of your intelligence-gathering effort.
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