The CEO of the Problem

The CEO of the Problem

You don’t always need access to the highest levels of your dream client to make a deal. You don’t necessarily need access to the C-Suite to find the authority you need to win. But you do need the “CEO of the problem.”

The title “CEO of the problem” isn’t a real title (as if you didn’t know that). You won’t find it on your dream client’s organizational chart, and they won’t likely know what you’re talking about if you ask who owns that title (mostly because I think I just coined the phrase with this post). But there is someone within your dream client company that owns some problem (or some outcome). They have a deep concern for the result and they likely have the real authority to bind their organization to a deal.

The CEO of the problem is the real linchpin in any deal. They have enough authority to make a deal and get what they want, even if the title doesn’t line up with your expectations as to what that title should be. They also have outsized influence, so even if they aren’t the final signature on your contract, they hand it to the (mostly uninterested) person who will sign it. Sometimes influence is enough. And sometimes the real authority is a person with no authority … they are the just the subject matter authority and owner of the problem.

It’s the way selling—and buying—sometimes works. Sometimes you need the ultimate authority in the room, and other times you may only need the “CEO of the problem” in the room. But if you are trying to get in by starting at the very top, you might be running into so much resistance because you aren’t calling at the right C-level. The real C-Level executive might need might be the “CEO of the problem,” and that title might be a level or two below the level at which you are starting.


Where do you usually start when you try to “get in?”

Why have you been told to start at the top? Is this still the best way in?

If you get in at some lower level, what do you need to be prepared to do to ensure you have the authority you need?

How are you sure that you have the stakeholders you need to win an opportunity?

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  • Johnny Bravo

    Ha this should be a title. It would make the sales life so much easier! Imagine searching on LinkedIn for that title. Like shooting fish in a barrel.

    When I’m prospecting I still go to the top. If after 10-12 contacts I get no traction I look around at who else I should probably be reaching out too. If I need to do that I clearly didn’t contact the “CEO of the problem” the first time around.

    To answer you question of WHY I start at the top (or have been told to) I remember a quote from a friend. “It’s a lot easier to fall down the stairs, than to fall up them”. I still think it applies when prospecting.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I hear ya, Johnny. In my experience the fact that buyers are building consensus seems to make it easier to get in with the person that owns the problem.

      As to falling up, my experience is that a lot of people walk you onto the elevator and push the button for you if you’ve helped them with a vision and consensus. (your mileage may vary)

  • Christian Maurer

    Anthony, Nicholas Read and Steve Bistritz in their book “Selling to the C-Suite” coined the term “Relevant Executive” for what you call here the “CEO of the problem”. The idea is the same, one has to find the executive mostly concerned with the problem or the outcome having the authority to spent money for the remedy.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      That works, too, Christian. I think it’s an important point not to believe that everyone at the C Level is necessarily concerned with your offering enough to give you their time. But the “relevant” executive is. It’s easier to get their attention.

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