Hello? Are C-Level Executives Listening?


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Recently a technology sales manager posted a series of interesting questions on ‘Selling to Executives’, a LinkedIn discussion group I moderate. His company is a leading provider of pricing optimization and management software.

I wanted to share his questions (and how I responded in the group discussion) because I consistently see the “access” issue as a major focus of sales reps trying to develop executive-level relationships.

In my view, “access” is just the tip of the iceberg; without solid, executive-relevant messaging, the “access” mechanism is doomed.

Here are the questions and my responses.

Question #1

As someone who is constantly trying to reach the C-Suite, I have a question: Do executives of large companies ($500 million+ in my definition) actually listen to voice mail?

My Response

As a former C-suite executive at several multi-billion dollar companies, I definitely listened to voice mail messages so long as they were tailored to me, my role, and my company.

I still remember the best voice messages (e.g. SAS Institute, Bottomline Technologies, ProBusiness, Hyperion) because, at the time, they motivated me to act.

I deleted the majority of voice messages because there was no compelling message from my perspective. However, sometimes I forwarded the message to a peer or a person on my team. Other times I saved the voice message and waited for the next move on the part of the sales person (yes, I was testing the sincerity and tenacity of the sales person).

Occasionally, I returned the call solely based on the strength of the compelling message.

Question # 2

My company provides predictive sales guidance (pricing recommendations and account penetration guidance) for the B2B space. So, whereas all B2B manufacturers and distributors could be potential targets, I have struggled with a value proposition that is believable and makes one want to listen to the rest of the message.

My intro is something like, “We help similar companies (dropping names if appropriate) increase top- and bottom-line 5% to 10% or more through data-driven sales guidance that helps them price more profitably (without risking revenue) and sell into existing accounts more productively (increasing wallet share and reducing churn).”

Would that be something that might cause you to listen more? Are there more impactful words/phrases that could be substituted?

My Response

Your voice message wouldn’t motivate me to return your call, but I definitely had some reactions.

My initial thought was disbelief that your pricing optimization software could impact revenue and income growth for manufacturers and distributors “by 5% to 10%”. That claim didn’t pass my CFO smell test – especially for revenue growth. When I hear “financial impact hyperbole”, I discount anything else you say in the message.

I know you’re just repeating the marketing value statement on your Company’s website, but it sounds too good to be true in this economic environment. A recent National Association of Manufacturers’ survey forecasted only 2.8% top line growth in 2012 for small manufacturers while large manufacturers are predicting only 4.4% revenue growth.

It may be counter-intuitive, but your “5 to 10%” claim for revenue growth severely diminishes your credibility.

My second reaction was to check out what your main competitors were saying about financial statement impact. Competitor A and competitor B avoided making any broad claims, but competitor C boldly proclaimed a “10% to 30% impact on income”.

However, none of your competitors went out on the limb like your Company did on revenue growth impact.

The last thing I did was check out Gartner’s report on price optimization and management software providers. Gartner said, through 2014, investments in your category of software will “help increase gross margins by more than 2%”. As a former CFO, I think gross margin is the KPI you should focus on when describing your solution’s impact. A 2%+ impact on GM% will catch my attention and is much more believable, so I would suggest you use their analysis and assessment in your voice message.

Advice for Crafting a Voice Mail Message to a C-Level Executive

Here’s my advice for a voice message directed to a senior decision-maker (no more than 45 seconds):

1. Start by demonstrating a glimpse of your “customer acumen”. (For publicly-traded prospects, mention a revenue growth or gross margin figure reported in the most recent quarterly earnings release. For private companies, mention a direct competitor’s figure.)

2. Briefly tell me something that I don’t already know about pricing optimization – something I’ve never thought of. (This will not be found on your website; your marketing organization should help you develop this insight.)

3. To size the opportunity, use Gartner’s (or a similarly objective 3rd party) claim for gross margin impact of 2%+. You don’t need to bring your company’s solution into the message at this point. Your prospect needs to first figure out they need to change their pricing optimization strategy – and you can help advise (not sell) them. Then, in a subsequent conversation after they’ve decided to think about changing, you can steer them to your unique solution capabilities. (By the way, if you don’t thoroughly understand the various levers that impact the gross margin KPI, you should seek help to shore up your financial acumen competency.)

4. Ask for a phone conversation. (This should be the goal of a successful voice message.)

Once you leave your voice message, I suggest you immediately follow with an email repeating your message and asking again for a phone conversation.

I hope this gives you some food for thought. Voice mail messages can be a productive mechanism for prospecting, even at the C-Level. Your messaging must differentiate you by demonstrating your “customer acumen” and your ability to initiate thought-provoking dialogs that could help accelerate your prospect’s business outcomes.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jack Dean
As co-founder of FASTpartners LLC, Jack brings extensive technology buying experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B technology sales training industry.He has facilitated client-sponsored business acumen training for 15,000 B2B technology sellers representing 150 global technology companies.Participants in Jack’s business acumen training have produced directly-attributed revenue of over $1 billion (in the 3 months after training) and training engagement ROIs averaging 500%.


  1. An overarching takeaway I got from your blog is that there’s plenty of room for increased financial literacy among salespeople and marketers. Your perspective from the financial point of view will help salespeople know how they are being perceived, and which messages will resonate.

    Extraordinary claims have been around as long as Selling itself, and we won’t see the end of them from salespeople. Sales cultures encourage strong, concrete, positive statements, and anything that smacks of uncertainty (eg “Your company could achieve the same excellent results as ClientXYZ, but we need to discuss whether our solution is a good fit for your company . . .”) That statement might be considered by some sales managers as “not believing in your product or service.”

    But it has a place. I have worked with salespeople who have injected shreds of uncertainty into their sales messages, and prospective clients have responded well, on balance. I think the reason is that customers appreciate salespeople who recognize and acknowledge risks up front. After all, prospects know there are risks, so it’s best to put the gorilla out on the table. Similarly, some prospects respond well as they see it as a competitive call to action: “Gee, if ClientXYZ achieved positive results, why shouldn’t I be able to?”

    I caveat this by mentioning that injecting uncertainty is a two-edged sword. Done right, it brings much-needed candor into a sales conversation. Done wrong, it just comes across as stupid.

    On a separate, but related note: A couple of years ago, I heard so much ROI-this and ROI-that from salespeople that it began to really bother me. So I went to an accounting professor for insight. What he told me was valuable, and might be of interest to your readers. Here’s the link to summary of our discussion, ROI Hype: Finance for Fools?

  2. Andrew, thanks for your comments. Always enjoy reading your thoughtful perspectives.

    “Extraordinary” solution impact claims (many manufactured by marketing organizations who don’t have to face buy-side execs) continue to give the sales profession a black eye. We’ve come a long way from the days of CRM’s outrageous ROI claims, but we still have a long way to go.

    I just wish sales people realized how much damage “financial hyperbole” inflicts on buy-side trust and credibility. I think they would be shocked.

    Instead, I believe buy-side execs want a sales rep to convey confidence (and candor as you suggest) around a “realistic” set of financial impact claims. In my blog post, I wasn’t advocating throwing “shreds of uncertainty” into the conversation as that would definitely cloud my opinion of potential value.


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