Wouldn’t it be great if you could hear what buy-side executives are thinking the next time you interact with them in a sales situation? You could read their minds, making mid-course adjustments in what you talk about and the questions that you ask. You would have a self-correcting real-time feedback loop. Oh, if only it were that easy.
Knowing what buy-side executives want isn’t that easy. They are an enigma to many sales people. Some executives like it that way, and you’ll never really connect with them. But many executives are quite predictable and willing to engage … as long as you know what they want and expect from you.
Let’s eliminate the obvious candidates before we go any further. With all due respect, buy-side executives aren’t interested in you, your company, your products and services, and the offer of personal friendship. Perhaps that approach has worked for you at lower levels in the organization, but this is a different ballgame. Think about how many sales situations these executives have experienced over the course of their careers. Think of the performance pressures that burden them 7x24x365. If you stood in their shoes, do you really think this traditional approach would prompt you to pause and pay attention to each of the hundreds of sales access attempts initiated every year?
As a former Fortune500 CFO who has interacted with hundreds of other buy-side executives, my best advice for sales people is to learn to think like an executive. These decision-makers want to know what business value you bring to the table that will accelerate their financial performance. They want hard, not soft benefit assumptions. And they want to hear about it up front, not 30 minutes into a discussion. They want FAST Value – Facts, Analysis, Solutions, and Testimonials.
Facts – Buy-side executives want and expect you to know the facts about their company, especially if they are a publicly-traded company. They don’t have the time or inclination to answer open-ended questions and educate you on company background information. (See ‘Just The Facts, Ma’am’.) They expect you to know about their business initiatives, key performance indicators and target goals. They want you to understand the market forces in the industry in which they compete. And, most importantly, they want you to have given thought to the implications of their recent financial performance. Rather than playing 20 questions with the executive, you should be validating facts and prioritizing initiatives to establish credibility.
As an example, an executive from PNC expects that you have gained knowledge about their Framework for Success strategy. They want you to know that growing high-quality, diverse revenue streams is very important to them. They want you to know that they measure success of this business initiative by targeting the performance metric ‘non-interest income to total revenue’. And they want you to know that their Q1’10 performance of 37% fell short of their 50% target for this metric.
An executive from The Dow Chemical Company wants you to know about their working capital business initiative and their performance metric target of $500 million in free cash flow generation. They want you to know that this is a fairly recent company-wide initiative and all good ideas for creating measureable business value are welcome.
Analysis – Executives want and expect a sales professional to have conducted a “situational analysis” before initiating a sales campaign with them. They’re looking for a point of view from you, but they want it supported by a command of their company-specific facts overlaid with an assessment of their risks, recent events, and financial performance. They don’t expect you to be an expert, but they do want you connecting some dots and logically laying out the groundwork for what’s to come, your solution. Rather than broad sweeping generalizations or an unconstructive listing of potential generic “pain points” (see ‘Where’s The Beef’), an executive wants you to narrow the discussion by assessing the situation at hand based on your research.
For example, an executive at Fifth Third Bank wants you to know that core deposit growth has risen significantly over the past year, but they are forecasting a slowing in this growth in the coming months. In response, they are investing in a sales force expansion initiative to increase resources and branch hours.
An executive at Sysco (the large food services company) wants you to know they have recently undergone executive management changes and have embarked on a business transformation involving significant process improvement initiatives and technology investments. Their primary performance metric is return on invested capital or ROIC which has been declining since 2004. They expect this business transformation initiative to reduce their dependency on working capital and increase their operating margins leading to higher levels of ROIC.
Solutions – Executives want sales professionals to present solutions, not product features and functions. But most executives view solution selling as a waste of their time unless it is aligned with the critical success factors associated with their business priorities. Without sufficient knowledge of priority business initiatives and performance metrics, a sales person throwing pain points and solutions against the wall to see what sticks risks rejection. Solution selling by itself without the context of facts and analysis is dangerous at the executive level. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression!
In an executive briefing, a sales professional describing a business intelligence software solution should tailor the KPI dashboard being presented to align with the company’s specific performance metrics and financial priorities. And, a technology hardware sales person should map to the business priority of accelerating time-to-market for new product development by emphasizing the speed of provisioning, deployment, and servicing capabilities. The benefit of IT cost reduction, instinctively the first thing out of a technology hardware sales person’s mouth, is of secondary importance to the executive since organic revenue growth is the key performance metric associated with this business initiative.
Testimonials – Finally, executives want success story examples that are mapped to the facts and analysis. They want “hard” benefit examples with numbers representing the financial benefits obtained by others implementing the solution. Soft ROI terminology such as ‘productivity’, ‘efficiency’, and ‘effectiveness’ are waste words to an executive (everyone uses them) unless financial examples are provided. Testimonials of business value previously provided by your company to the executive’s company build trust and credibility with executives previously unaware of your role in their success.
So think of FAST Value the next time you plan a discussion with a buy-side executive. Put yourself in their shoes and think like an executive. Role-play your delivery with a trusted manager or colleague. Sequence your discussion through the company-specific facts and analysis that map to your solutions and testimonials. And, have confidence that you’re giving buy-side executives what they really want.