Editor’s Note: This article has been excerpted from Bernard Heller’s new book, "Letters for Leaders – How to Think, Plan and Write Your Way to the Top."(Prentice Hall)

A sales representative for a data communications company, you were recently laid off because of a severe downsizing. Now you are on your own as an independent sales promotion consultant.

You have a blockbuster idea for a long-distance phone company, which will substantially increase its business. It’s an entirely new concept that entails joint ventures with major travel companies to tap into their customers who travel for pleasure or business. It will benefit both the phone company and the joint-venture partners.

You had previously done promotional work for a long-distance provider, which gave you valuable insight into the business. You know its needs, and you know the competitive strengths and weaknesses of the leading players in the combative industry.

You have spoken to the marketing people at three travel companies. You didn’t reveal the full concept, but gave them sufficient information so that you could gauge their attitudes. All were extremely positive – in fact, enthusiastic.

From this background, your idea materialized into a tangible, practical design for greatly expanding a phone company’s customer base of frequent long-distance users.

You now have a wonderful idea that can make money for you by means of setting up the procedure with a phone company and helping to run it as a consultant. That is, if the company will go along.

STRATEGY: Now, how do you get a good hearing at a phone company that has the facilities, the resources and the bankroll to make your idea blossom into a sustained, full-scale campaign? It has to be where you will be handsomely rewarded for your ingenuity and your ability to get this done.

How Do You Make the Approach?

Select your primary target – and targets two, three and four.

Where do you have a friend, or a friend of a friend, who can give you the corporate intelligence you need – the personalities, the decision-makers, the doers, the formal and informal hierarchy, the sensors on what and who to avoid? This person should be a good starting point, someone who can ease you in, whether it be in company one, two or three – or perhaps number four as you go down the line.

If you have no such champion, you’ll have to devise your own approach. Why not start with the company that can make the loudest noise, the one with the deep pockets? Is it likely to take a chance on something new and test-market the concept?

You may have to overcome the obstructionism, even enmity, against new and alien ideas originating beyond the company’s sheltered confines. After all, sales ideas are what they, or their various ad sales promotion agencies, are paid to think up. A foreign idea, especially if it is good, becomes a personal threat. Very few feel secure enough to brook such intrusions from an outside source.

A subtle way of fending off interlopers, such as you, is to declare the idea, or any offshoot, as having already been considered and rejected at some time in the past. Of course, one idea breeds another, so don’t be surprised if you see the intrinsic germ of your creation introduced at some later time, altered so that the company is able to disclaim any outside authorship.

How Do You Get Your Foot in the Door?

Several approaches can be considered.

  1. . Call and send a letter to the CEO, or the senior marketing executive. You may well be ignored completely. Then again, you may receive a short, respectful response from an underling, noting that the company doesn’t consider ideas from outside sources. Or you may be instructed to get in touch with another (lower level) executive who is concerned with such things. Maybe your letter will be directed to a junior executive, who will get in touch with you. All of the above are the kiss of death.

    Then again, the executive who received your request for a hearing may call and have you explain your idea on the phone (this is bad for you), or ask that you come in for a meeting. The meeting, more than likely, will be with the marketing staff who will, with due respect, carefully lower your idea to the grave for the aforementioned "not invented here" reason. On the other hand, the meeting may be successful and your idea accepted for the testing with agreed upon terms for compensating you. This is a long shot.

  2. Another entry avenue is through the advertising, sales promotion or direct marketing supplier – the people who are hired to come up with selling ideas. You’ll have to share the glory, but half is better than none. And in this way, you will have a cheerleader fronting for you. Needless to say, the motive is to get credit for discovering a good idea and bringing it to the client. Nevertheless, you are still known as the author and will profit from your input and implementation.
  3. Another way is to contact an outside member of the board of directors. Send a letter stating you have a well-conceived concept for increasing the company’s business. Request it to be directed to the proper person in the company. The board member likely has no ax to grind and feels duty-bound to see that anything that can help the company gets exposed to the people who are supposed to act on it. The board member may send your letter along to the CEO or a high executive and suggest contacting you. He/she may also send you the name of the person to see.

    You then send a letter to this person or persons saying that you were asked by Ms. Theresa Maladone, a member of the board of directors, to get in touch because you have a concept that Ms. Maladone thinks warrants serious consideration. If you don’t get a decent review, write that board member again, saying that the people you contacted don’t appear to be interested in good ideas that can help raise the company’s profits. At the least, they should give you a serious hearing. Isn’t this their job? If you want to get more extreme, buy a few shares of the company’s stock and pose as an irate shareholder.

    The board member may want to dispose of this matter and may, therefore, present your case to the CEO or chairperson. "Aren’t you guys interested in seeing something that may be good for the company? It shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s from someone on the outside."

    You may have to sign a waiver prior to a meeting at the company which will protect it from any claims you may make about usurping your idea if the company had thought of something like it before your presentation. You will have a hard time claiming authorship if the company appropriates the essence of your concept or alters it while retaining the core benefit. If the waiver is a condition of the meting, you will have to sign it but add a clause giving you some protection.

These are some suggested methods of entry. There are others that may come up that will give you a lead to follow. You must be persistent – and patience is essential regardless of your frustration. Above all, make sure your presentation is superlative. Preparation, preparation. Always be respectful of everyone from the top down. In turn, you must command respect yourself.

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