How to Talk to a CEO

Financial IQ

If you met the CEO of a major corporation, would you know what to say?

What if you’re an unhappy customer? Would you be able to clearly and effectively communicate your problem?

The most high profile confrontation between rank-and-file consumers and a CEO happened this May, when the CEO of a large investment firm was confronted over trading losses at a shareholder meeting. Accusations flew. Tempers flared. The CEO refused to engage — simply saying “thank you” when presented with a list of grievances.

And that’s the thing: even if you could talk to a CEO, would it do you any good?

Executives speak another language and are governed by a different set of rules. Is it something they pick up in business school? Or did they learn it under the tutelage of another manager at an executive retreat?

Who knows?

But what I do know is this: even if you can get a CEO on the phone, it won’t do you any good — unless you know what to say. Here are three important factors to be aware of:


I’ve interviewed countless executives, and the first thing you notice about them is that they don’t speak English. Oh, it sounds like English, but it isn’t. It’s corporate-speak, with bizarre terms like “agreeance” and “synergies” popping up in everyday conversations.

You can find a complete list of these odd words at the Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary. Be aware that you might hear this CEO-speak when you talk to the top dog. In fact, it’s probably inevitable.

CEO logic.

Executives are focused on shareholder value, not customer satisfaction. Or, put differently, they only care about satisfied customers if it affects shareholder value.

This kind of CEO logic makes perfect sense — if you’re a CEO. You want to be increasing shareholder value, otherwise you’d be “underperforming” — ack, another business jargon term!

Sometimes, in order to motivate a CEO, you must convince him or her that the company’s shareholder value will be affected by your unhappiness, which is a tall order indeed.

CEO time.

An executive’s time is valuable. When you’re getting paid tens of millions of dollars a year, as many executives are, every minute counts.

So while you may have all the time in the world to describe your problem, the executive doesn’t. The more succinct your presentation is, the better.

Here’s a useful business school concept: the elevator pitch. You have one minute to make your case. (Can you do it?)

So how do you make your best pitch if you get a CEO on the phone or in person? I have a few suggestions.

Start by introducing yourself and ascribing motives. “I’m one of your loyal customers, and I know how much you care about customer service,” is a good introduction. It establishes you as someone who matters to the company’s bottom line — and by extension, to shareholder value.

Also, what kind of CEO would openly admit they didn’t care about good service?

Establish that you’re worth the CEO’s time. “I love sharing positive stories about your company with all my friends, but a recent experience left me disappointed.”

There’s no need to specify how many friends you have, or to suggest you would share your negative experience. That’s being gently implied. You’ll have the executive’s attention (unless he’s an idiot).

Mention the problem and the resolution. “I have a broken widget that I’ve been trying to get replaced. I’d be very grateful if you could help me.” Here, mentioning that you’ve tried to go through all the right channels is helpful, but not absolutely necessary.

After all, the fact that you’ve gone through the trouble with an audience with the CEO suggests you’ve done all of your homework.

Thank them for the time, but don’t grovel. Terms like, “I know how busy you are” or “I realize this is a small item” detract from your case. Instead, be polite and thank the executive for his or her time. And then wait for a response.

A savvy CEO will thank you for bringing this to his or her attention and take your contact information. Then, you’ll hear from someone else — maybe an executive secretary or customer service manager — with a resolution.

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have to appeal to a CEO at all, let alone in person. But if you have to, these tips should help you get the outcome you deserve.

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate who blogs about getting better customer service at On Your Side. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or send him your questions by email.


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