Top-Down Selling: Strategies for selling to decision-makers

The Dock Team
June 20, 2023
February 13, 2024

Bottom-up, product-led growth has stolen the show in SaaS. But there’s still tons of opportunity to start from the top down.

The best sales teams combine bottom-up and top-down sales motions to move upmarket and secure lucrative deals.

A top-down sales strategy offers access to high-level decision-makers—unlocking new opportunities for revenue, expansion, and growth. 

So let's dive in and explore how to go start with executive leaders to strategically leverage influence and purchasing authority to ultimately close higher value deals more effectively.

What is top-down selling?

Top-down selling is a go-to-market motion targeting high-level decision-makers and executives within an organization. The goal of top-down selling is to leverage relationships with those who have the authority to make purchasing decisions to drive the sale.

As its name suggests, top-down selling begins at the top and trickles down to lower-level end users. 

This is the opposite of a bottom-up sales approach, which starts with a deal champion or power user and leverages those relationships to influence company leaders. 

As a go-to-market motion, the top-down selling approach is more commonly used for high-value deals. Unlike bottom-up approaches, top-down selling targets executive leaders with more influence and larger purchasing budgets than end-users and deal champions.

Pros and cons of a top-down sales model

Let's explore the pros and cons of a top-down approach. 

Pros of top-down selling

  • Budget approval and buy-in: Budget approval and buy-in: Executive leadership and C-suites usually have an easier time getting budget approval and company buy-in once you’re a preferred vendor. While they still need to understand the value of your product or service, they’re willing to (and can) pay and have purchasing power once they do—resulting in a faster sales cycle. 
  • Qualification and ICP identification: With a clear idea of your target buyer (rather than a focus on a larger team of end users), you can refine your specific ICP. Understanding priorities, pain points, and business objectives at the highest levels of an org will help you align all of your strategies to address these challenges and generate more accurate, qualified leads—increasing the success of your sales team.
  • Resource allocation: Sales teams can optimize resources by engaging with key decision-makers. Instead of spreading themselves across multiple end users, they can allocate their time, energy, and resources more efficiently by engaging org leadership.
  • Larger contract values: High-level decision-makers have the authority to allocate budgets and make significant purchasing decisions. By securing buy-in at the top level, your team can negotiate larger contracts, upsell, and cross-sell while potentially establishing long-term relationships that generate recurring revenue.
  • Mature buyers: Executive leaders typically have at least a decade of experience in their field (or in other roles that got them to that point). Because of this, their knowledge of the buying process is extensive. Not only do they have more familiarity with sales operations, but they also have a deeper understanding of the market and the intimate details of their organization and a greater understanding of sales and buyer dynamics.
  • Sales-led: If your company operates from a more siloed perspective,  a sales-led top-down motion offers a more streamlined decision-making process, enabling your sales team to act swiftly and capitalize on opportunities—without consulting across departments. 

Cons of a top-down sales strategy

  • Internal product adoption: In today's market, executive leadership cares whether or not people in their organization adopt the products and services they invest in. Leaders need to know if they have buy-in from end users. C-suites and executive leadership teams are held accountable for budgets. And, more than end-users, they focus more on whether or not solutions are adopted and deliver an ROI.  
  • Stakeholder alignment: Research by Gartner highlights that in the modern B2B buying journey, there are approximately 6-10 decision-makers for every solution. Closing deals is less about convincing one single leader or two; it’s more about convincing entire teams to buy in.
  • Distance from the tools: Unless your product or service solves a problem that impacts the day-to-day workflow of the executive leadership team, your target likely won't have as much passion for the solution as an end user or buyer champion. Buyer champions bring a certain level of enthusiasm because they directly experience the pain points and understand your solution's potential impact and benefits on their individual and team roles and responsibilities.
  • Higher-touch sales: Leaders in C-suite or executive roles often require more attention, including more frequent and personalized communication. While they hold significant authority and influence, they’re also the busiest people in their companies.
  • Sales-led: If your company operates from a more integrated perspective (rather than siloed), a sales-led top-down motion can hinder collaboration between different departments and teams because this motion is primarily driven by one team—without needing more inclusive decision-making.

Example top-down sales motion

From your sales team’s vantage point, a top-down sales strategy breaks down into four phases. 

Phase 1: Identify key decision-makers

Identify stakeholders at the executive level within an organization, like the CEO or CMO. This phase includes deep research to understand the organization’s pain points and needs and how your offering fits them. 

Then, leverage networks and connections to establish initial contact with the C-suite or executive leadership team. 

Phase 2: Showcase the value proposition

Present the value prop of your solution in a tailored manner. This phase is where that "high-touch sale" comes into play. 

Here, not only should your team emphasize how the solution aligns with the organization's strategic goals, addresses critical challenges, and provides tangible benefits (like cost savings, increased efficiency, or competitive advantage), but you should also curate the experience. 

Providing relevant case studies, testimonials, and success stories to reinforce the solution's effectiveness in a professional, central location (like a Dock digital sales room) is critical at this stage. 

screenshot of Dock's Digital Sales Room Template
Digital Sales Room Template

Phase 3: Introduce high-touch (for high value)

Once the foundation has been poured, the next phase may vary depending on how quickly the sale cycle progresses. 

For some, maintaining a high-touch approach for a more extended time by conducting executive-level presentations and having in-depth conversations might be necessary here. These touches help address any hesitation or objections—offering personalized solutions and reassurance.

💡 Pro Tip: Use Dock workspaces to follow up on your outreach and demos with leaders. Tools like the enterprise sales template offer a clear and organized structure to recap information around products or services, outline value propositions, and present relevant information and resources.

screenshot of Dock's Enterprise Sales Template
Get the Enterprise Sales Template

Phase 4: Navigate the buyer's process and close

In this phase, navigating the decision-making process through the buyer's lens is crucial to closing the deal. 

Your buyer will likely require collaboration with other internal stakeholders (like legal and security) to finalize contracts and ensure a smooth transition. The goal? To successfully negotiate terms, get any necessary approval, and ultimately close the deal—establishing a long-term partnership.

How to combine top-down selling and product-led growth

Top-down selling was traditionally the default motion in larger enterprise sales, but with all of the popularity surrounding product-led growth, should you (and is there a way to) successfully combine the two? 
As we’ve argued before on this blog, every product-led growth company will eventually need sales.

Even product-led experts agree. In his appearance on Grow & Tell, Pete Prowitt, former sales leader at Intercom and Loom, encourages sales leaders to adopt both approaches.

“It's easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking of sales-led and product-led as being one or the other. In reality, it's complementary,” said Pete.

“Whenever faced with the decision of, is it better for this to be product-led or is it better for this to be like sales-led, I always try and go back into that designing-for-buying mindset.”

“If I were buying the software, what would the experience be that I wanted? Is this the right point for a sales rep to jump in and intervene? Or is this something where I actually want to do a little bit of exploration to get smart and to figure out how far I can kind of take this on my own?”

Pete suggests weighing the approaches based on the ideal buying experience.

“How can we leverage product as a differentiator to help build a coherent and cohesive buying experience? And then at what point is a human the best tool to connect different stakeholders, multithread deals, and take complex and nuanced human processes and make sure those are moving in a direction that's going to ultimately increase your chances for closing that deal, closing that revenue.”

In the episode "Bottom-Up + Top-Down" of the Openview podcast, John Eitel of Canva highlights that it's not a question of do you combine the two motions but simply when. 

“It's inevitable; it's like fighting gravity. At certain points, when you get sizeable enough engagement within enterprise, the expectations of what they want you to provide is different." 

An effective sales process isn’t always a clear-cut, one-and-done deal. It isn’t top-down vs. bottom-up. Over time, businesses shift. Startups become more mature companies, your ICP evolves, the market transitions, and as a result, expectations change—in turn, so should your sales strategy. 

Finding one that’s unique that leverages the strengths of both a top-down and bottom-up approach as well as that of your teams (Sales, Marketing, and Product), your product, and the budget of an executive leadership team will ultimately enable you to close more deals. 

So in today’s market, how do you combine a top-down sales motion and PLG to close larger (and more lucrative) deals using a more comprehensive approach?

1. Expand self-serve accounts

Once you have a group of end users who’ve adopted and implemented your product through a bottom-up approach, leverage that success to convert and upgrade accounts. 

While you may not have existing relationships with those in self-serve, now is the time to build them. And once you’ve laid that foundation, leverage those relationships, any buyer champions, success metrics, and enthusiasm for your product, along with case studies and data to approach expansion and upsell opportunities from the top down.

2. Focus on buyer enablement and multithreading relationships

Buyer enablement shouldn’t just prioritize end-users. Your team can also take a top-down approach and multi-thread relationships throughout the organization—including with company leaders. 

Sales multithreading focuses on creating, nurturing, and building connections with multiple people across different levels of an organization.

Once your team has established those initial connections, rather than relying solely on leaders to dig into the tangible ROI of your product (such as who's actually utilizing it, the top users, features they're leveraging, and opportunities for improvement), this approach helps make a case for why your solution already works for their organization.

3. Maximize product-led sales opportunities

Using a product-led sales approach, identify active accounts, power users, and product-qualified leads (PQLs) that show strong engagement and success with your product. These users can serve as advocates and buyer champions within their organizations. 

Once identified, take a value-led, top-down approach to pitch your product or service to executive leaders. 

Highlight the positive results achieved by these end-users and present this data using a product-led sales template as evidence to justify scaling up usage and expansion.

screenshot of Dock's Product-Led Sales Template
Get the Product-Led Sales Template

Top-down selling strategy tips

Now that you understand more about top-down selling and how you can execute it as a standalone or combined sales strategy, let’s talk about some tips and best practices for successful implementation.

1. Clearly define your ICP and qualification parameters

Having a comprehensive definition of your ICP allows you to zero in on those with the authority, budget, and strategic alignment to make high-value purchasing decisions within an organization. 

Once you've clearly defined your ICP, create qualification parameters from a top-down perspective, aligning them with the characteristics and criteria that define your ICP. 

So what should your team consider when creating those parameters? 

  1. Decision-making authority: Is your target a high-level executive or part of the C-suite? Do they have the power to make purchasing decisions?
  1. Budget capacity: Can they allocate the necessary funds for the purchase? Do they have the financial resources to support purchasing your product or service?
  1. Strategic alignment: Do they have pain points your product can address? Does your solution align with their long-term objectives and contribute to their overarching goals?
  1. Fit for enterprise: Are they in a position to implement and scale your solution across multiple teams or departments? Do they have the infrastructure and resources to adopt and integrate your product or service throughout their org?

By defining your ICP and qualification parameters more granularly, you can focus on targeting the right leaders in the right companies—investing resources in only those with the highest potential for successful conversion. 

2. Conduct comprehensive account mapping

In a top-down strategy, your relationships and getting buy-in from a top executive are crucial. But it's important to remember there may be other stakeholders and influencers that can impact the deal. 

Conducting comprehensive account mapping helps your team identify key stakeholders at every organizational level—including blockers and buyer champions. 

The high-level goal is to gain deep insight into and understand your prospect's overall organizational structure, power dynamics, and communication.

While your team's primary point of contact may be at the executive level, closing the deal may require buy-in from multiple stakeholders. 

The challenge? These stakeholders might not always be apparent or accessible. So how do you find out who they are? 

  • Get familiar with your buyer’s organizational chart. (This may require some digging and more in-depth research. If you combine PLG and top-down sales, talk to your end-users and buyer champions.)
  • Go beyond general understanding and create a physical representation of what the hierarchy of the org looks like.
  • Leverage the organizational chart for account mapping.
  • Identify all potential influencers, blockers, and champions beyond executive leadership to develop a strategic (and more robust) plan for engaging each key member and addressing their specific needs and concerns throughout the sales process.

3. Adopt a multi-threading approach to building relationships

Multithreading sales helps mitigate the risk of losing a deal.

In a one-to-one approach, if your team's one point of contact leaves or is no longer involved in the decision-making or budgeting process—even at the executive level—you may have to hit the reset button and start from scratch or lose the deal altogether. 

A multithreading approach relies on many relationships throughout your organization and with your buyers. 

And you can do this from a top-down approach (for example, introducing your CEO to their CEO, etc.) It's a built-in support system that allows momentum to continue if you lose one point of contact because multiple relationships already exist. 

4. Offer white glove personalization

Research by McKinsey & Company highlights that personalization drives a 10 to 15 percent lift in revenue. And this is even more pronounced at the executive level, where demands on salespeople and overall expectations (and potential value) are heightened. 

Because of this, a top-down sales strategy is more hands-on than high-volume sales.

In today’s buying journey, your potential customers want to know what’s in it for them. They’re less interested in how your product or service benefits everyone on a general level.

  • What do you know about them?
  • What pain points are they experiencing?
  • What are their goals?
  • What will they be happy with?
  • How can your product or solution address all of these elements to help their company succeed? 

If your team’s tactics and approach feel cookie-cutter, they won’t appeal to senior leadership. 

5. Prioritize buyer enablement 

Your buyer enablement strategy should focus on simplifying the purchase process for your buyers as much as possible. And especially when implementing top-down sales, it's key to remember executive leaders are busy. They often have a wide range of significant responsibilities and limited time. 

If you’re using a combined PLG and a top-down strategy, sharing adoption, usage, and implementation data to leverage success and upgrade accounts is key to minimizing friction in your buyer’s journey. Curate this information for them in one place using Dock

Digital Sales Room Template

With Dock, your team can attach relevant data, answer questions, including product usage deep dives and opportunities for growth, simplify pricing, and more in one professional, organized, branded, and easy-to-access (safe and secure) location.

Dock also provides a personalized, collaborative experience for leaders and their teams. It’s a place where internal buyers can discuss and collaborate on the deal through comments. This creates a smoother buying experience and gives your team unprecedented access to their thinking so you can stay on top of any unknowns and address barriers. 

Another way to make the purchase process easier for executive leaders? Creating mutual action plans (MAPs). 

MAPs are a shared to-do list between your team and buyers to track deal progress. With a mutual action plan, your team can:

  • Share knowledge by clearly outlining the scope, objectives, and purchasing steps 
  • Track next steps and hold stakeholders and decision-makers accountable for "what by when"
  • Move buyers through the deal more quickly by identifying and reducing risks, barriers, and blockers 
  • Create transparency between teams
  • Save time and reduce work for the buyer to win more champions internally 
With Dock's mutual action plan software, your team can assign tasks, include descriptions, share links and files, automate due date reminders, and more. 

6. Invest in sales enablement 

In the context of top-down sales, investing in sales enablement is crucial. Unlike an inbound motion, top-down sales heavily rely on the support of sales enablement to drive success.

So what does that look like? 

  • Research: Continuously updating and refining your target ICPs to stay relevant.
  • Processes: Streamlining sales efforts and buyer journeys through well-defined guidelines for content approval, deliverable timelines, ownership, and accessibility.
  • Training: Provide ongoing product training to ensure salespeople understand your product or service and its value. (This should include in-depth training sessions for new product launches and significant market changes.)
  • Content: Develop comprehensive sales enablement content, both internal-facing and client-facing. Internal content should include messaging briefs, training decks, and competitor battle cards. Client-facing content should include product one-sheeters, pitch decks, white papers, ROI case studies that showcase the real-world value of your product, and customer testimonials (specifically from executive leaders, if possible).
  • Tools: Invest in sales enablement tools like learning management systems, revenue intelligence tools, content production tools, content management systems, and buyer enablement tools to effectively deliver content and training to the sales team. 
💡 Pro Tip: Dock's Content Management platform makes it easier for marketing, sales, and customer success to manage, share, and track your customer-facing content.

7. Lead the change management process

Change management plays an important role in top-down sales. Executive leaders don't just want to know the benefits of your product; they also want to know how your team will manage the transition within their org. 

What happens once the deal is done?

A comprehensive post-sale plan encompassing implementation, onboarding, and success at the leadership, operations, and end-user levels is critical as part of your sales process. 

And not only is it important to have a change-management plan for each of those segments, but presenting this plan from a holistic and granular perspective that covers user adoption, training, and performance monitoring addresses the naturally evolving concerns about organizational impact and outcomes on the front end—preventing friction on the back end. 

Creating a change management hub in Dock is a valuable resource for stakeholders. This hub should outline the current pain points, the impact of your solution, and the step-by-step process to achieve that success. 

Introduce a top-down approach with Dock

By introducing a top-down motion as a stand-alone or combined strategy, your team can target key decision-makers and influencers at the highest levels of organizations—enabling them to build stronger relationships that close lucrative deals. 

If you’re ready to implement a top-down sales approach, leverage Dock and:

  • Curate content to share with multiple executive leaders and stakeholders
  • Collaborate with buyers to ensure alignment and clarity in one location
  • Move deals forward with mutual action plans
  • Store all critical information in one professional, secure location
  • Introduce a change management plan that puts your buyers at ease

Try Dock’s digital sales room template now, or sign up for Dock for free.

The Dock Team