B2B Sellers Should “SHARE Control” (Versus “TAKE Control”) of Executive Conversations

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Headline: Today’s B2B sellers often get trained/coached to “take control” of customer conversations. “Taking control” is promoted as an assertive (positive) behavior trait of top-performing sellers. I certainly understand the seller’s desire to articulate a value proposition message and call to action. But from a customer’s perspective, I don’t think a controlling behavior trait is equally effective with all customer cohorts (e.g. project-level, mid-management, executive-level). Having been an executive-level buyer, I recommend B2B sellers use a “shared control” approach (rather than a “take control” approach) in order to produce a valuable selling interaction with an executive buyer.

In my experience most buy-side executives exhibit “control freak” behavior traits and they don’t play well with other “control freaks”. Yet today’s B2B sellers are being purposefully trained by sales enablement and coached by sales managers to “take control” of executive-level conversations, including setting the meeting agenda and delivering a highly-scripted/step-by-step dialogue.

This mismatch in communication behaviors may explain why so many B2B sellers I work with struggle to successfully execute (at the executive-level) the 6-step Challenger Sale Model framework, or the 9-block SPI Vision Processing Model, or the 5-step Forrester Customer Conversation Framework. The executive-level persona is very different from the project-level or mid-management-level persona.

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“TAKING Control” Is Viewed as a Zero-Sum Game

Many sales managers I know believe “taking control” is a best-practice assertive behavior; in their minds “taking control” of a conversation commands the full attention of the executive buyer, which is a good thing since executives obviously have short-attention spans (a common myth perpetuated by ineffective executive-level sellers). The “take control” communication strategy is designed to keep the executive buyer focused on the seller (and not on their smart phone or watch).

“Control” is viewed as a zero-sum game: either the seller has 100% “control” or the executive buyer has 100% “control”. In fact, some “control” advocates believe success in “taking control” of a customer meeting should be measured by how long it lasts: the longer the better. Recently I overheard a sales manager say, “It was a great presentation to the CFO. She stayed a long time and didn’t walk out until after 30 minutes.”

But What If “TAKING Control” Shuts Down an Executive Conversation?

But what if a “take control” selling behavior actually shuts down customer communication? What if an interaction turns into an interview or a presentation rather than a 2-way conversation (interviews and presentations are deadly at the executive-level)? What if the executive buyer loses his/her curiosity, stops talking or stops listening? And what if the seller, in his/her pursuit of “taking control” of the executive conversation, forgets to listen because they are so focused on the script?

I believe that a “take control” strategy will almost assuredly shut down an executive-level conversation. It did with me when I was on the other side of the desk. I don’t think the benefits of using “control” to make sure the seller’s agenda is articulated outweigh the risks of shutting down the lines of communication.

The Case for “SHARING Control” with an Executive Buyer

Instead of trying to “take control”, I suggest B2B sellers proactively “share control” with the executive buyer. This communication strategy will properly balance the seller’s desire to communicate his/her value proposition with the executive buyer’s desire to engage in a free-flowing value-adding conversation.

Here are several points in favor of “SHARING control” in an executive conversation:

· Executive conversations during the discovery and qualification stages of the sales cycle are a two-way street. The executive buyer has an agenda too. A “shared-control” approach will help both sides determine if the relationship looks promising enough (and financially benefiting enough) to continue. Here’s a blog post on this subject.

· Executives are not interested in learning about the features of the seller’s solution. That’s not why they agree to meet with them. Instead, executives are most likely interested in the impact of the features on their Key Business Initiatives, Critical Success Factors and KPIs. A “shared control” approach will help the seller validate the focus business priorities of the executive buyer and inform them of the impact. Here’s a blog post on this subject.

· Executive buyers spend most of their time thinking about the CSFs that need to be in place in order to successfully implement initiatives. They appreciate an outsider’s point of view, especially if the sellers have had experience helping other executive buyers implement similar initiatives. And since finance is the language of business, another area where executive buyers appreciate a seller’s analytical analysis skills is in assessing financial performance improvement opportunities. They certainly don’t expect sellers to be financial experts, but they do want sellers to understand their financial ratios, trends and KPI performance. They appreciate it when a seller demonstrates business/financial acumen and a deeper understanding of their unique financial situation. This conversation is conducive to a “shared control” approach. Here’s a blog post on this subject.

· Executive buyers prefer to engage with B2B sellers who offer unique business insights about their company. They appreciate sellers who understand the changes, trends and catalysts in the vertical industry in which they compete. This demonstrates industry acumen. They especially appreciate sellers who can take high-level vertical industry insights and translate them into company-level insights. This demonstrates company acumen. A “shared control” approach will help facilitate this two-way conversation. Here’s a blog post on this subject.

4 Suggestions for “SHARING Control” in an Executive Conversation

1. Get Input Into the Agenda AHEAD OF TIME – Prior to a planned phone call, face-to-face meeting, presentation or product demonstration, sellers should send the executive buyer a “proposed” agenda containing the seller’s subjects of interest. Sellers should ask the executive buyer to validate, add additional subjects, and delete subjects that are not of interest. Taking this preemptive action “shares control” while lowering risks.

2. Shorten the Agenda to LEAVE TIME FOR UNEXPECTED TWISTS/TURNS – In my experience, sellers try to accomplish too much during an executive conversation. That has negative implications for an interaction including: impairing the seller’s listening skills, rushing the discussions, limiting the follow-up questions, and weakening the call-to-action. Less is more when it comes to agenda subjects.

3. Frame the Meeting at the Outset by Again SOLICITING INPUT into the Agenda – Sellers should make it a habit to open an executive conversation by putting the agenda on the table and asking the executive buyer for input (additions or changes). Business priorities change daily for executive buyers so sellers should “share control” by acknowledging this reality and adjusting in real time.

4. At the End of a Meeting Ask for Agenda Input for the NEXT INTERACTION – For some unexplained reason I have experienced a weak call-to-action in face-to-face meetings (and role plays) with B2B sellers. Perhaps sellers aren’t sure how to proceed with an executive buyer. To overcome this potential issue, sellers should “share control” by gaining agreement on the next steps and asking for agenda input for the next interaction.

Summary

B2B sellers should be prepared to throw away their planned agenda if an executive buyer wants to talk about other subjects. A good meeting with an executive buyer should be one in which the executive was interested and fully-engaged. A good indicator of whether the executive is “interested and fully-engaged” is observing the amount of time the executive is talking – over 50% is a good indicator of a great meeting.

Questions

· Do you agree with my recommendation to “SHARE control” in an executive conversation?

· If you agree, how else can you “share control” with an executive buyer?

Image licensed from THINKSTOCK by FASTpartners LLC

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