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Selling at C-level and the too late-too little puzzle

Richard Ruff | Dec 15, 2016 38 views No Comments

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In major accounts sales success at the C-level is a “do or die” proposition.  What makes it particularly challenging is “one strike and you’re out.”  There’s no second chance to get it right.

Successfully selling to senior executives is a book with many chapters. However, three footnotes are particularly important:

  • When do you sell to senior executives?
  • How do you gain access?
  • How do you get it right?

When do you sell to senior executives?  Senior executives are not equally engaged throughout the buying cycle. They are involved early and late and tend to delegate the middle of the buying process to others. Let’s begin at the beginning – early engagement.

Senior executives attention is merited early in the buying cycle since that is when the operational and financial parameters of the project are defined.  In the middle of the buying process attention turns to evaluating competitive options, a step that is usually handled by others.



The trap for salespeople is getting to the senior executive too late after they have turned over the decision process to others.  By then, you have lost your ability to help shape the scope of work and to position the fit of your capabilities.  This is particularly telling when the competition has done it right.

A correlated reason for getting in early and getting it right with senior level executives was pointed out in an excellent study by Steve Martin.  Martin interviewed 1,000 customers as part of a win-loss analysis study.  The results indicated – “Approximately 30% of the time, the winner of the sales cycle was determined before the official selection process started. Another 45% of the time, customers had already made up their minds about the winner halfway through the buying process.”  This means “75% of the time, customers make their final decision halfway through the selection process.”

How do you gain access?  The research is clear and straightforward. The most effective approach for gaining access to a senior executive is a recommendation from a key influencer inside the organization.

There is a second reason why the key influencer is helpful.  A conventional piece of wisdom is even if you don’t know much about a company or their needs you ought to push for a meeting as soon as possible.  This idea makes no sense and should be labeled a “worse practice.”

You have to be prepared and meeting with key influencers is a great way to get there.  Being prepared means you understand the company.  When you meet with the senior executive you need an overview of the challenges and a point of view about the path forward.

In addition to a recommendation from a key influencer, three other approaches will likely increase the chances of a senior executive granting access to a salesperson:

  • A referral from outside the company from a respected colleague of the senior executive.
  • A referral from a company that is a strategic partner of the executive’s company.
  • Having a previous successful professional relationship with the senior executive.

How do you get it right?  The first requirement is to understand the senior executive on the other side of the table.  Senior executives have different needs, pressures, and perspectives than managers lower in the organization.

From a strategic perspective it is important to keep in mind that senior executives are more concerned about the unknown than the known. They look at the big picture vs. individual snapshots. They are more concerned about the future than the present. They are concerned about topics related to increasing market share, shareholder value and building a competitive advantage not product features.  Most importantly they are seeking insights and new ideas about the company’s strategic challenges not standard product presentations.

From a process perspective, what rarely works is the traditional needs discovery conversation.  We are all familiar with the traditional discovery conversation – it starts with salesperson asking questions to uncover a problem they believe the customer is concerned about and then continues by further development of the problem – ending with the salesperson presenting an overview of their solution for how the problem can be solved.

Why is a sales call like this ineffective with senior executives? The reason at the top of the list is the time spent vs. the value received does not work out very well for the senior executive.  Too much of the time in the meeting is spent on educating the salesperson about a problem the senior executive already understands.

An alternative?  One option is a Point of View business conversation.  A Point of View sales call focuses on helping the senior executive learn something new about a significant strategic challenge for example increasing market share.  The successful salesperson explores the problem from a different perspective, provides new insight about the problem and an innovative path forward.  Needless to say this type of call requires an entirely different type of call preparation and pre-call planning.

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Republished with author's permission from original post.


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