In today’s fast-paced, digital environment, selling at the top may not be necessary, but it is important that you’re calling on the relevant executives for the sales opportunity. In my book, “Selling to the C-Suite,” I define the relevant executive as the one who stands to either gain the most or lose the most as a result of the application or project associated with your sales opportunity. And why is it important that you reach that executive? That executive can usually influence the informal decision-making process taking place behind the scenes within the organization; the process that can almost always trump a buying decision that has been made via the formal buying process. Why is that the case? Because the relevant executive — whose reputation is on the line for a particular project or application — can use his/her power and or influence to usurp the buying decision that has already been made.
In my Selling at the Executive Level (SellXL) workshop, upon which the book was based, we discuss ways of identifying the relevant executive for the sales opportunity and, most importantly, aligning with that executive as part of the salesperson’s selling process. There will be times when the relevant executive is not a C-suite executive, but is someone at a lower level in the client organization.
In any case, it’s usually someone who is a key player in the client organization. Below are the six steps to outline working with C-suite executives. Salespeople should internalize this process to develop, maintain and leverage their relationships with senior level client executives:
1. Identify the relevant executive for the sales opportunity
You can’t always start with a connection to the relevant executive, and it may take you some time to identify and align with that executive. However, keep the concept of the relevant executive in mind as you start to navigate the political dynamics of the client organization. Always start by determining if your solution can address business issues associated with some of the key initiatives the client is currently pursuing. You can usually identify some of those initiatives by understanding the business drivers impacting the client; those internal and external factors that are creating the need for change within the client’s business. If you can help solve some of those business issues with your solution or help the client develop a strong competitive advantage, you will gain the attention of the executive associated with that key business issue, which will lead you to the relevant executive for that particular project or application. Then test your conclusions by determining if the executive you have identified (as the relevant executive) does indeed have the most to gain or lose as a result of the application or project that’s associated with your sales opportunity.
2. Determine how best to approach the executive
The next step is gaining access to that executive. In my book, “Selling to the C-Suite,” we discuss some of the research conducted with CXO-level executives whom we asked about their relationships with professional salespeople. As part of that process, we asked those executives the best ways to gain access to them. By a significant margin, they responded that the best way to gain access to them was through a credible sponsor within their organization; either a lower-level executive or using the gatekeeper as a resource to gain access to them. In fact, 84 percent of the time those senior executives said they would usually grant a meeting to a salesperson if someone within their organization recommended they do so. That’s pretty compelling!
One of the ways to leverage a credible sponsor is to treat the gatekeeper as a resource and have him/her get you access to the executive. In speaking with salespeople, I actually take that one step further and say, “treat the gatekeeper as if s/he was the executive herself or himself.” My personal approach is to speak to the gatekeeper as if s/he is the executive because very often the gatekeeper is extremely knowledgeable about what’s important to the executive and may offer insight into how best to approach the executive.
3. Perform the appropriate discovery prior to the initial approach to the executive
Here’s where many salespeople miss the mark. Make sure you’ve done your homework before approaching any key player in the client organization. Some consultants will say, “You never have a second chance to make a first good impression.” What I like to say is that “every interaction with an executive provides you with a chance to either advance or derail the relationship.” Make certain you take advantage of each interaction so that you advance the relationship! Do your homework before the meeting and always focus first on what’s important to the executive. Senior executives don’t expect to have to educate salespeople about the organization the salesperson is calling on. They expect salespeople to have a certain level of knowledge about the industry, as well as the client’s company.
Harness the power of the internet to assist in this process and take advantage of the opportunity to be prepared with some high-level and, perhaps, provocative questions for the first meeting.
4. Conduct an effective initial face-to-face meeting with the executives
Prove to the executive that you have done your homework and have some insights that could deliver value to the executive. Most importantly, you need to be thinking about how you will open the meeting — what you’ll say after “milk and two sugars, please.” Develop an understanding of the client’s internal or external business drivers — those pressures that create the need for change — perhaps, the need for a new solution or a new approach. That’s where sales opportunities initially get forged.
In research conducted with CXO-level executives whom were asked about their relationships with professional salespeople — see “Selling to the C-Suite,” published by McGraw-Hill — executives said they expect salespeople to be prepared for their meetings with them. Executives use their first personal meeting with a salesperson to qualify the salesperson, just as the salesperson is trying to qualify the executive.
A dialogue with a senior-level client executive can lead to the development of a key initiative that the executive will fund because of the significant potential payback. Senior executives have a company-wide view of problems and issues and are often looking for those solutions that challenge the prevailing point of view; especially the views of those executives who report directly to them!
5. Demonstrate a consistent level of integrity and capability over the long-term, so as to become perceived as a trusted advisor to the executive
Credibility is the intersection of capability and integrity. Demonstrating both of those traits over the long-term enables the salesperson to become perceived as a trusted advisor to the executive.Don’t expect credibility to be gained on the initial call. You will have to earn the executive’s trust over a longer period of time. In building credibility with executives, you will have to demonstrate both your technical skills and your personal integrity, focusing on the client’s business drivers and key business issues, as mentioned earlier. Ultimately, you will also have to frame your value in the context of the client’s world.
When you become the trusted advisor of the executive, often the relationship becomes collaborative. In many ways, trusted advisors contribute to the client’s success and view that success as critical to their own success. They also try to represent the client within their own organization — continually representing the client’s best interests. If you become perceived as a trusted advisor by the client executive, there is a good chance that the relationship can become collaborative. In other words, the executive will begin to find ways to help you, and that can be demonstrated by actions the executive implements both inside and outside their own organization.
6. Consistently communicate your value to the executive
The client, make certain that you communicate that value to the executive. Don’t assume that the executive fully understands the value your solution has delivered. In fact, take it a step further and find a way to consistently communicate your value on an ongoing basis, using the client’s metrics and terminology. Make certain the executive fully understands your past value contribution — the value you have continuously delivered to the client organization.
Going back to the research we conducted with CXO-level executives, when asked when they get involved in the steps of the buying process, those executives overwhelmingly said that they get involved at the end of the process to measure the results. Communicating your value to the executive is a free ticket to another (very positive) interaction with an executive. During this type of meeting, you can also take the opportunity to discuss your past value contribution to the executive and to the executive’s organization; thereby, solidifying why they should continue doing business with you and your company.
Working with C-suite executives is not rocket science. Most often, those executives are looking for the value that salespeople can deliver to them, rather than the salesperson’s rank in the sales organization. Use the six steps described here as a framework to the way you interface with C-suite executives. Internalize this process and put it into action in a structured, repeatable fashion. Review this process several times a year to make certain you don’t miss any steps. Most importantly, take the time to review these steps with your manager or other sales executive to determine if they have any additional suggestions that can help you leverage your relationships with C-suite executives.
About the Author
Dr. Steve Bistritz has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management and training management experience. He is a published author and lecturer in the field of sales, sales management and selling to executives. Dr. Bistritz is co-author of the best-selling sales book, “Selling to the C-Suite,” published by McGraw- Hill. He spent more than 27 years with IBM in sales and training-related positions. He then led the development of sales training programs delivered to tens of thousands of salespeople worldwide. He holds a doctorate in human resource development from Vanderbilt University and is currently president of his own sales training and consulting firm, based in Atlanta. Dr. Bistritz can be reached through his website: www.sellxl.com