How to Sell to the CFO: a Step-by-Step Guide

One of the primary rules of sales is to talk to someone who has the power to make a buying decision. If you don’t do that, you can’t close the deal — no matter how well you do your job.

In many companies, the chief financial officer (CFO) is the ultimate authority on buying decisions. You can present your pitch to other managers, who can then check with the CFO or recommend your product or service to them. But in most cases it’s better to sell directly to the buying power. 

This is a challenge, but not an impossible one. You just have to know how to do it right.

How Do I Approach a CFO?

Approaching a CFO is different from approaching a department head, general manager, or executive. CFOs are inundated with requests and demands all day, both from inside and outside the company. They often maintain a small army of people to deal with all these demands, which means that the best way to approach a CFO is getting in touch with and gaining the confidence of these gatekeepers.

How Do I Get a CFO’s Attention?

To get a CFO’s attention, it’s helpful to research their significant priorities. Some have their eye on short-term stock performance, while others are looking to invest in long-term growth. When you know what motivates them, you’ll know how to command their attention. Invest heavily in researching the prospect company and finding out their growth story, their financial picture, and the C-suite’s stated priorities.

What Does a CFO Want to Hear?

CFOs aren’t immune to emotional buying decisions, but their job is to focus on the numbers. It’s important to directly quantify what your product or service does and express how it will bring a sure return on investment. Leave the emotional appeals, tricks for creating urgency, and other similar sales tactics aside. Focus on ROI as the foundation for your pitch, and bring evidence and testimonials to back up your numbers.

How to Sell to the CFO: A Step-By-Step Guide

1. Research the Company

Your pitch to the CFO must directly address the realities and specifics of their company. You need to gather as much information and data as possible about the company and their outlook. Review shareholder reports and regulatory filings, business news items, social media postings, and industry information. 

Do you have personal contacts or industry sources who can help fill in the company portrait? Rely on them to get as much information as possible. 

2. Research the CFO

You’ll be selling to an individual who has very limited time and an immense amount of authority, someone who typically makes very high-level, strategic decisions. 

Keep this in mind as you begin your research. Start with social media accounts. Read about them. Look for podcasts or interviews where they have appeared. Get a sense of their interests and how they like to talk with people. 

And remember, no matter their job title, people like talking about themselves. Knowing who your prospect is and what they value as a professional and as a person will pay off when you land time on their busy calendar.

3. Research the Gatekeeper

The final research piece is the gatekeeper of the CFO’s calendar. Research who that might be, remembering that organizational charts don’t always identify the best person to approach. 

In some companies, it’s one of the CFO’s direct reports. In others, it’s their executive assistant or chief of staff. Still others have a rigid chain of command that includes a scheduling assistant and a senior staffer with more authority.

Without respecting a CFO’s system and their trusted staff, your chances of making a sale are drastically reduced. Use social media, local contacts, and any other research methods you have to find out everything you can, to improve your chances of convincing the gatekeeper to book you a meeting with the CFO. 

4. Identify their Pain Points

As a sales professional, you understand pain points and how they help you make a sale. When approaching a CFO, you need to address two kinds of pain points. 

First, you need to address the corporate problems. What’s going wrong with the business that you can improve? Or conversely, what’s going right that you can make even better? How, specifically, will your product or service generate ROI?

Second, you need to address the CFO’s individual problems. What are their significant stressors, motivations, and concerns? How will your company’s solution make these better? How will a relationship with you improve their working life?

5. Practice Your Presentation

Once you’ve built your presentation, rehearse it. Consider these tips to make your rehearsal more effective:

  • Start with notes, and wean yourself away from them with each practice session.
  • Ask people for specific feedback about how and what you can improve.
  • Record your presentation, then watch it for ways to make it better.
  • Practice under mild stress to get accustomed to how adrenaline impacts your performance.

As you rehearse, set five or six anchor points. Each of these is a portion of the presentation you can deliver without much thought. Save these for when you get lost or flustered. This kind of verbal lifejacket has saved more than one sale. 

6. Get Your Foot in the Door

You know how to execute this step. Make the calls, send the emails, buy the drinks, and ask the questions until you get a sales meeting scheduled. 

We put this prep step last, because if you haven’t completed the other five, you risk presenting before you’re ready. Almost every CFO hates wasting time. If you don’t show up fully prepared, they will know it — and you’re not likely to get a second chance. 

Save this scheduling push until you’ve reached the final stages of your presentation rehearsal, so you can book the meeting when you’re at your peak. 

7. Closing the Deal: Be Direct

The final step is the last in any sales presentation: Ask the CFO for their business. 

This is Sales 101, but you’d be surprised how often people forget this when standing in the rarified air of the C-suite. Remember, it’s not sales until you ask for the purchase. Before that, you’re just having a conversation. Since you went through a lot of work to get here, don’t leave until you’ve finished the job.

Caroline Rogerson is a marketing consultant in New York who worked in sales for a decade. This post was produced in partnership with Money Crashers, a source of expert research and information about personal finance.