If you are struggling to engage these executives, you need to think about your sales approach. Are you asking awkward questions like “What keeps you up at night”? Do you portray a negative tone by probing for pain and posing irrelevant questions like “If you had to do it all over again …”? Have you used the solution selling vision processing model to produce meaningless chatter like “If I could help you grow sales, decrease costs, and increase cash flow, would you be interested?” If you answered yes to any of these questions, you need to step back and retool your sales strategy.
I’m going to be blunt, so get ready! AMP IT UP! When you’re selling to executives, especially if you’re targeting the C-suite, you’ve got to move beyond ‘solution selling 101’. Way beyond. Firing off a bunch of high-level, open-ended questions demonstrates no credibility. Probing for pain (latent or active) and investigating pain chains rarely result in a second meeting. Traditional solution selling techniques often fail to get you on the radar screen of customer executives. In my past life as a former Fortune500 CFO, I must admit that I rarely cooperated with sales people who tried to steer me through some kind of vision reengineering conversation.
I can hear the disciples shouting. “How dare you criticize solution selling methodologies? This gold standard of modern day selling techniques has been around over 30 years so it has to work, right?”
First, for the record, I’m not saying solution selling never works. What I am saying is that it doesn’t work in all situations. If it is used at the executive level, it better not be in its generic form or it is DOA. I actually like the concept of solution selling because it begins the process of shifting a sales professional’s mindset from selling product features to thinking from the customer’s perspective. But, the solution selling mantra of NO PAIN NO CHANGE is curiously negative and counter to the positive, can-do thinking of many executives. As I describe in my blog post Got Pain?, executives are by nature driven to achieve success. They don’t dwell on pain; they don’t plan around pain; they don’t motivate their team by talking about pain; and they certainly don’t want a sales person interrogating them about their company’s pain points.
Yes, solution selling has been around for over 30 years. So just imagine how many sales professionals an executive encounters who want to have a dialogue around pain, challenges, problems, needs and concerns. Ouch, my brain hurts just thinking about the hundreds of times it happened to me. Consequently, buy-side executives are conditioned to block out generic solution selling “noise”. That’s why you’re finding it harder to get a meeting or struggling to sustain the conversation with a customer executive.
So here’s my best advice when engaging executives: don’t follow the solution selling herd. Break away. March to the beat of a different, more sophisticated drum. Transform your executive engagement mindset and focus on one thing: impacting business outcomes, not selling solutions. Trust me; your executive customer will notice the difference in tone and direction.
Before I expand on what I mean by business outcomes, there is one caveat that I need to share with you. Impacting business outcomes will require more work than generic solution selling. It requires knowledge of your customer that you gain from researching and spending time to understand the customer’s business and financial priorities. You can’t expect the customer executive to do your homework or ‘educate you’. In your initial conversations with the executive, you must demonstrate your business and financial acumen skills to earn the role of a business partner. There are no shortcuts!
As a sales professional, you can impact business outcomes by helping buy-side executives achieve their business and financial priorities. The first step in this process is doing your research to identify and understand what business initiatives and performance metrics are on the executive radar screen.
Start with identifying the business priorities of your customer or prospect. What are the qualitative strategies and initiatives that articulate the future direction of their company? These Key Business Initiatives (KBIs) are funded projects that have high visibility inside the company. Success or failure impacts the reputations of executives. Once you identify the most important KBIs, try to think like an executive and determine what needs to happen to accomplish the initiative. If you connect your solution to the success factors associated with achieving the business priority, you will get the attention of the executive decision-maker.
Some examples of KBIs in the financial services industry include PNC’s initiative to reposition deposit gathering strategies to stay core funded. SunTrust is driving revenue from retail checking households by improving front-line execution, innovating new products, and increasing consumer awareness. And KeyBank is investing in community banking by modernizing branches and improving technology including client experience desktop, Teller21, and service measurement. KeyBank is also focused on expense discipline with a business priority called Keyvolution. This KBI has five distinct elements, including improving speed to market.
After you’ve identified the key business initiatives, it’s important to understand how the company will gauge its progress. What are the performance metrics or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) used to measure the success of KBI execution? KPIs are quantitative and unique to each customer. Like KBIs, they cannot be generalized because they differ from company to company, even in the same industry.
Examples of KPIs include PNC’s ‘loan-to-deposit ratio’ (with a target of 80-90%). This KPI was selected by PNC as the performance metric to judge the success of its initiative to reposition deposit gathering. SunTrust has chosen ‘growth in retail checking households’ as the key performance indicator for its retail checking business initiative. And KeyBank focuses on the overhead efficiency ratio (calculated as total expenses divided by total revenues) as the KPI to measure the success of its branch modernization and expense initiatives.
By spending a little time doing research and using your business and financial acumen skills, you and your sales team can differentiate your selling approach. Buy-side executives will appreciate your preparation and relevance. They will actively participate in a conversation if you stay focused on their business priorities and performance metrics. Of course, the burden falls on your shoulders to identify KBIs and KPIs before you engage with the customer executive. Don’t fall back on generic, one size fits all assumptions and don’t expect the executive to educate you.
Use your time with the executive to ask informed questions that embed your business acumen and knowledge of their company. These discussions will inevitably lead to your favorite subject … your solutions. When it’s appropriate to bring your capabilities into the conversation, be prepared to articulate the financial value of your solution in the same KBI:KPI terminology used by your customer. Success testimonials that align with the facts of the situation are powerful examples that build confidence with an executive audience.
Now you know why you need to go beyond solution selling as you move up the customer organization. Don’t run with the herd. Be different. Focus on your ability to impact business outcomes. Act like a business partner, and you’ll witness a change in the way executives respond to you.