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Book Review-Selling to VITO: The Very Important Top Officer

Who do you sell to when you sell? Do you sell to the person that you’re able to reach or to the right person? Do you start your sales process knowing who you’re ultimately going to have to convince? If you do, then why don’t you start there and have them refer you down to folks to talk to before coming back up for the final approval? Won’t that make it easier? That’s what Selling to VITO: The Very Important Top Officer is all about. How to engage the right person in the right way from the start so you’ll close more deals and waste less time.

Afraid of Heights

Most sales folks that I know are afraid to call on people higher in the organization than they’re used to dealing with to close and execute the deal. They don’t want to talk to the CEO or the COO or the CFO. They believe that that person is too busy to be bothered with their call. In some cases, this is backed by some personal experiences trying to reach out to that person. However, more frequently it’s just lore. They believe that the top officers of the company aren’t interested in what they have to sell because they’ve heard that they aren’t. While there are, I’m sure, sales circumstances where you’re truly offering a commodity product with no differentiating factors, I doubt that you’re in one of those situations.

In some sense it’s true that the VITOs in an organization aren’t interested in what you’re selling. They don’t want your widget or education or whatever. However, on the other hand, they do want the results that whatever you’re selling does provide. And if the results to their organization are perceived to be large enough and your solution seems credible enough, they’ll not only give you their attention, they’ll buy. Working with VITO is, in fact, the only person who can choose to buy.

Put Out the Fire

Leaving Linoleum

When we start selling we’re happy to get any appointment. We just want someone who will be willing to talk to us. We want to believe they’ll buy because we want to believe that we can sell. However, the reality is that some people – particularly those who are the most willing to meet with a sales person – aren’t going to buy, because they can’t buy.

Parinello makes the point that those who live in “Linoleumville” – those whose offices have linoleum on the floor – can’t make a decision. Those with more expensive floors do that. The recommenders (who have no power at all), and the influencers (who have power to block a decision) are the ones that live in Linoleumville. The decision makers and the approvers (VITO) don’t work in environments with cheap floors. The hierarchy looks like this:

When you’re working with someone below the line, they quite literally can’t buy from you. They can only influence a buyer above the line, so why not start with them in the first place?

A common objection that I’ve heard over the years is that the sales person doesn’t know what to say to the VITO or how to talk to them. This is, in my opinion, simply a lack of preparation. If you can’t articulate the benefits of your solution, then you can’t sell. If you don’t know what to say to folks who are your VITO, then you need some coaching or mentoring support from someone who does.

Understanding Your Value

In order to get the sale, you have to help the VITOs understand the problem that they’re currently experiencing, including its costs, and how your solution can solve this problem for them. You have to be convincing not just in the problem and its costs to the organization, but that you are the right person to solve that problem for them. (Technically, you can also talk about opportunities rather than problems, but as Daniel Kahneman discusses in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we react more strongly to problems.)

In my work with SharePoint and knowledge management, this has been a difficult thing. It’s not like some of the manufacturing integrations I’ve done where we can precisely measure the impact of the implementation on the business. There are real hard dollar savings. SharePoint is squishy and, in truth, I have always had a hard time selling someone on the idea of SharePoint, because I don’t have hard numbers for them.

If they’re already coming to me with an awareness that their employees aren’t collaborating or that their employees don’t feel connected to the organization, I can help. If they don’t know that, then I’m at a loss to help them. Even quoting folks like Gallup and indicating the problems with employee engagement doesn’t typically help.

While I know that there is value in what I do, and that organizations can absolutely benefit from the technology implementation – but, more importantly, from the development that we do in association with the technology implementations – it’s very hard to communicate this value, because the pains that they’re experiencing are too hidden.

Differentiating from the Competition

Before you can talk, write, or solicit a VITO, you have to get clear on your differential value from your competitors. Once you’ve convinced them they have a problem and how much it’s costing them, you need to expect that they’re going to check out your competitors. Even if you don’t believe you have competitors, there are folks who will want to compete with you.

In general, inside of an organization we tend to focus too much on the differences between our offerings and the offerings of the competitors. We discuss how we have the XYZ feature and how they do not. However, all too often we forget that this customer doesn’t need the XYZ feature. We’ve lost focus on the differences to their business.

When differentiating ourselves from potential competitors, it’s important to communicate what the impact of the difference is to the customer. For instance, “Using our ABC process instead of the older XYZ process yields 20% less waste. Because of this your operations will be 5% more efficient with our solution.”

It gets squishier when you work in non-specific things. Every consulting company says they have the best people. Every organization says that they have more experience. How do you create credibility markers that help customers understand your differential value?

Credibility Markers

Credibility markers are things that a customer can look at to see the value that you offer. It might be an award you’ve received (in my case, 13 years of the Microsoft MVP award), a certification that you’ve achieved (like MCSE, etc.), articles or books that you’ve written, or customers that you’ve helped. These credibility markers help your customer understand that others believe you have differential value.

In every sales process, there is a stage where you’ll have to establish credibility with the customer that you can solve their problem (and do it better than your competitors). The more credibility markers that you acquire, the more likely it is that the customer will accept your assertion that you can solve their problem – and do it better than anyone. Sometimes the credibility markers don’t come in the form of third-party validation. Instead, the credibility marker comes from bonding with and connecting to the prospect. While this is an effective way to address the barrier to the sales process, it’s also a time-consuming and risky one. There will be people that you just won’t be able to connect with.

Sales Process

Replication of success is a hard thing, particularly in sales where it feels like every client engagement is different. In fact, when everything is different it’s impossible to scale. If you want to grow your organization, you have to grow your sales, and to grow your sales you have to have a process. When you define a process through suspects, prospects, opportunities, and customers you can create a set of responses that can be repeated by anyone. You can scale your workforce by adding people and having them follow the process. Anthony Parinello estimates that 70% of the customers that he works with didn’t have a sales process – or weren’t following it when he started working with them. My experience with my peers is similar. Most don’t have a defined sales process.

Sometimes the sales process is called a “sales funnel”. That is, there are a large number of folks at the top, and through the process more and more fall out. If we start with suspects, these are people who you suspect might want your services. You qualify them into prospects by identifying that they have the need that your organization fulfills. They become opportunities if they’re willing to speak with you about a specific solution. Technically, in a customer relationship management system, prospects have opportunities associated with them, but in a simplified process you think of the prospect themselves moving along the process rather than a separate entity named opportunities. Finally, when they place an order, they become customers.

At each point in this funnel, some of the prior level are excluded. The trick is to make sure that you’re excluding the right people (people you’ll never sell to) while including the right people (people you have a chance of selling to). This means that your criteria for moving folks to the next stage – or kicking them out of the funnel – needs to be effective.

The Outcasts from the Process

One of the things that I know from being in business for over 10 years now, is that there are some prospects that just aren’t ready to buy – yet. My best clients are ones which have gotten kicked out of the sales funnel and nurtured for a long time. These are organizations that I’ve courted passively for years. They’re the folks that aren’t interested in buying immediately, but who I kept in a nurturing campaign. That is, I knew they were prospects because they had the problem that I solved but they didn’t have a current need.

The key with the nurturing campaign is that it’s a low-cost campaign. They’re getting a newsletter or similar mass-market set of materials that keeps me in mind, but at the same time doesn’t cost much to execute. It’s also key that this program is running alongside the sales process, not as a part of it. It’s an engine to reclaim people who are kicked out of the process.

Filling the Funnel

Certainly when we’re selling, we’re interested primarily in getting to the VITO, and deciding which of the VITOs that we reach are interested in buying from us. We kick people out of the sales funnel then nurture them back in if necessary; however, what about people who shouldn’t be in our funnel but who have the capacity to help us fill our sales funnel with the right kind of qualified leads?

Every business leader I’ve ever known is aware of how their organization generates leads (or doesn’t). While it’s the sales process that brings home the deal and converts the prospects into customers, how do you get prospects – or even suspects for that matter? The answer is lead generation and filling the funnel. Typically, this is thought of as the dividing line between sales and marketing. It’s marketing’s job to fill the funnel with suspects and prospects, and sales’ job to close the deal. However, in my experience, this is an oversimplification.

In some organizations, it’s an inside sales representative that qualifies suspects as prospects or not. In other organizations, marketing is expected to deliver prospects to the sales team – not suspects, but qualified leads that the sales folks can close.

No matter where you draw the line, it’s clear that we need suspects going into the process to get customers on the other end. To do that, there are traditional marketing approaches and non-traditional marketing approaches. (See Brand is a Four Letter Word, Fascinate, Guerrilla Marketing, Demand, and The New Rules of Marketing and PR for more on marketing ideas.) However, some of the best leads that I’ve ever received have come from people, not programs. In particular, there are two types of people that you could consider leveraging to fill your funnel.


For the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide products, we created a formal distributor network. We reached out to systems integrators and others who we thought would be able to generate additional value for themselves and their customers by selling a license of the SharePoint Shepherd’s Guide for End Users.

There’s an agreement and a payment schedule that rewards people who sell licenses of the Shepherd’s Guide for us. They’re like having a sales force without having a sales payroll. Distributors have the ability to increase your sales capacity more than you could do on your own.

While distributors don’t account for a major component of our revenue, it’s a non-trivial amount of revenue and we know that they’re helping us reach more people than we could reach on our own.

The key to a distributor is that they’re actually making the transaction with the customer. In effect, the distributor becomes your customer. This is quite a different relationship than you’ll have with a contracted sales representative – one form of the advocate.


There are really two kinds of advocates. The first kind is the contracted sales representative or agency. They’re being paid to be your advocate in front of the customer. They’ll do all the sales funnel work and let your team close the deal in return for some sort of compensation. The second kind is actually much more interesting. The unpaid advocate is your advocate because they like you, your brand, or what you stand for. These advocates don’t need – or typically even want – compensation when they refer people to you.

Advocates tend to do the vetting process, converting suspects into prospects before they even hit your sales funnel. This can save you a ton of time because of the quality of the lead/prospect that you’re getting. In addition, they’re probably adding credibility to you and your product by the referral, so the prospects are easier to move downstream through the sales process.

One can get distributors by looking into directories. You can get paid advocates by searching for sales representatives and sales rep companies. However, getting the unpaid advocates requires delivering value to them, either personally or to their organization.

Thought Leadership

Marketing has been adapting to the ability to distribute content cheaply and thereby create awareness of the thought leadership inside of the organization. The challenge here is what is thought leadership? In general, it’s an individual or firm whose thinking is regarded as leading an industry. Not everyone or every organization can be a thought leader, though many try. The true thought leaders look at the problems that businesses face differently, and as a result have the ability to change the point of view of the VITO towards a solution that they might not have considered before. True thought leaders challenge the thinking of the prospect to get them to see the problem differently. (See The Challenger Sale.)

Attention Deficit Disorder

We don’t live in an information economy. We live in an attention economy. We have, in our pockets, instant access to more information than our grandparents had access to in their lifetimes. Our phones can store more than the computers (and supercomputers) of just a generation ago, and they have the ability to connect us with information that would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. No matter what you want to learn how to do, it’s likely that someone somewhere has posted it on the Internet for free public consumption. The problem isn’t access to content, it’s curation of content and knowing whether to trust it or whether it will help you. (Don’t believe the picture of Abe Lincoln telling you that everything you find on the Internet is true.)

We diagnose children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), but the truth is that this is the plague of our age. Sally Hogshead says in Fascinate that the average attention span of a person is less than that of a goldfish. Parinello says that you have three seconds to get the VITO’s attention. You get 30 words. You get three slides. That’s it. So stop filling your precious few seconds with ice breakers, fillers and introductions. Get to the point. If you don’t, you’ll never have the chance.

Leaders are Readers

How many books have you read in the last year? The average is four. If you exclude those who’ve not read any, the average is seven. How many does the average VITO read? Twenty. Sixteen professional, and four for fun. The most respected leaders read volumes. Bill Gates is estimated to read 50 books per year. Warren Buffet spends more than five hours per day reading. When you’re talking to a VITO, the odds are that you’re speaking with someone who reads a lot.

As a sales professional, this creates both an opportunity to add value and an opportunity to connect. You can add value by summarizing the key points in the latest business book. If the VITO hasn’t read that book, you’re adding value by helping them decide if they should read it or not. (There were over 300,000 books released in 2013 – the odds are, even if they’re voracious readers, they won’t have read the books that you’ve read.) If they have read it, then it’s an opportunity to connect with the things that they’ve already learned.

Assistants and Gatekeepers

Every VITO has some sort of an assistant. These are the people that are in place to help make the VITO as productive as possible, and that often means shielding the person from sales people who want to reach them (and waste their time). Parinello makes the point that you need to treat these gatekeepers with the same interest and respect as you would the VITO. He goes so far as to say that you should forget the VITO exists and treat the personal assistant as if they were the VITO.

I can tell you from my experiences that there have been many places where I’ve been a consultant, and I’ve been allowed back into the building by the receptionist simply because I treated them with respect. My clients are often confused to see me show up at their desk, because the official policy is that no one walks back unescorted. However, because I’m willing (and interested in) treating the receptionist as an important person, I’m provided access that others don’t get. How does that relate to getting a conversation with the VITO? It’s the same thing. If you want to get access to the VITO, you have to treat the gatekeeper with respect – whether it’s the personal assistant or the receptionist. There’s a story about Southwest Airlines bringing folks in for crew interviews. They’re picked up at the airport by a bus driver. The driver takes them to where the interviews are taking place – and promptly dismisses several of the folks. The driver it turns out was the VP of HR, and she was looking for the right cultural fit in the people they were interviewing. The candidates who were dismissed treated her as if she wasn’t worthy of respect.

One delicate balance that helps is the sense of confidence that you can give off by speaking the VITOs name clearly and crisply. This signals that you know what’s going on – and the sense that you belong can often carry you through.

Converting a Negative into a Positive

Do you know what the difference is between a negative and a positive? One vertical line. That’s it. One of the best opportunities in sales is recognizing that the prospects’ objections may be the best sales tools of all. When your solution completely addresses the VITO’s objection, you can respond with that. When they say that they’re not interested in what you’re proposing, you can ask what their greatest challenges are – and if it lines up with something that your organization can help with, you can share how you’ve helped others with similar problems.

No still means no. If they don’t want to talk, you can’t bully your way into a conversation. But if they’re willing to tell you why they’re not interested in what you’re offering or to share what’s more important to them at the moment, you have the opportunity to transform an objection into a way to connect with their most important need.

Who is in Sales?

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that it isn’t just the sales person that’s making sales. It’s not just the sales person who is making calls. Sales managers make calls and close deals, but all too often if the deal is difficult, complicated, or large, it’s the owner who is trying to close the deal.

I sometimes get asked who is in sales. My answer is everyone. However, a more precise answer is anyone who cares about the organization. If you want the organization to survive, it needs sales, and to get sales, it needs sales people – all of the sales people that it can get its hands on. It’s time for everyone with hands to help sell what the organization can do.

Executing the Conversation

One of the things that I often see really good relationship sales people fail at is setting action items and next steps. These are essential facilitation and project management techniques that can make the difference between a 30-day sales cycle and a 90-day sales cycle. (See The Four Disciplines of Execution for more on keeping your meetings on track.)

Whether you buy into everything that has been shared here or even just a little bit, you should consider Selling to VITO just to see if you can.

VITO Rules

Through the book are a set of VITO rules. I’ve included a summary of them here:

# Rule
0 VITO is the ultimate approver of everything that happens in the organization, including your sale.
1 VITO will like me because I am like VITO.
2 VITO will like what my product can do for him or her because it’s in alignment with what VITO wants.
3 I am measured at my job as a salesperson in a way that’s similar to how VITO is measured at the job of Very Important Top Officer.
4 Because time is so valuable, VITOs don’t treat all potential business relationships equally, and neither should you.
5 When you fly with VITO, everybody else in the organization follows!
6 Be accountable for your own sales process.
7 A process isn’t a process unless you can replicate it.
8 Above every Decision Maker, and above every decision in the enterprise, sits VITO— the approver of the sale and everything else.
9 No matter what anyone else in the buying enterprise has to say about some salesperson’s offering, VITO can (and often will) kill that offering on a moment’s notice.
10 VITO’s Decision Makers get paid to say yes.
11 Influencers can’t buy jack. Never could. Never would. Never will. Period. End of story.
12 Follow the perfect sales process.
13 Like VITO, you have to be willing to change course as circumstances demand in order to hit your goal.
14 What matters is not the title, but the traits you share with VITO.
15 Selling to VITO (also known as picking up the phone and calling VITO) is marketing, advertising, public relations, and sales all at the same time!
16 When you create any written correspondence that you want VITO to actually process, you’ll have to make it a fast read. A fast read in VITO’s world means thirty seconds.
17 VITOs are looking for ways to improve every area of their organization, not just the area you happen to know about and are working with.
18 You must know which VITOs to approach… and which not to approach.
19 You must know how to approach VITO.
20 Every piece of VITO correspondence has six specific parts, each of which must stand on its own but also be logically connected to all the other parts.
21 It’s okay to make mistakes… because none of this is life-threatening.
22 Once you complete all eight of the precorrespondence steps, and not before, you will be ready to send your VITO correspondence.
23 When interacting with the Receptionist Gatekeeper, you must close with the words, “Thank you!” spoken briskly and confidently!
24 When talking with Tommie, forget that VITO exists!
25 The tone, modulation, and pacing of your voice will determine how easy or difficult it is for VITO to listen to (and act on!) your message.
26 Be ready for all of the six good things that can happen during a call to VITO.
27 You will inevitably be shunted to the person within VITO, Inc. whom you sound the most like.
28 Do not accept shunts from unqualified opportunities!
29 Know what you want from the meeting.
30 Don’t use more than one or two closed-ended questions during your entire conversation with VITO!
31 The more time, energy, attention, and money VITO invests in the relationship with you, and the better you are at demonstrating to VITO the hard- and soft-dollar value your products, services, and solutions have actually delivered to VITO, Inc. in return for that investment, the less likely the account is to disconnect from you.
32 After a good call with VITO, call another VITO immediately.
33 Use what works; avoid what doesn’t.
34 Set goals that are doable.
35 Reward yourself after each accomplishment
36 Make promises to yourself and others.
37 Remember: Your ultimate accountability lies in implementing what you learn.
38 Have a positive attitude.

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