Right-Level Selling


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We’ve always been taught to “call high.” We are supposed to reach “The Decision-maker,” perhaps leveraging our influencers.

But complex B2B buying has changed profoundly, “The Decision-maker” has become a buying/decision-making group. The number of people, directly and indirectly, involved in the buying process has grown. Often, corralling them, and helping them navigate their buying process makes herding cats seem trivial.

But we still have some mistaken notions about “calling high.” Here are some thoughts:

What is the vested interest of the people involved in the buying process? Sometimes, while we think what we sell is important, it may not be on the radar of the executives we are trying to reach—nor should it be.

Some years ago, I had was the new EVP of Sales for a tech company. One of the RVPs learned that I had a relationship with the Chairman of our largest customer. Mike (the Chairman) had been a mentor of mine at IBM.

Bill, the RVP, asked me, “Dave, can you arrange a meeting for us with Mike? We need to develop a relationship with him, it will be critical to growing the business with this account!”

I knew what Bill was doing, he had always believed it important to call as high as possible. But I asked, “What is it that we can talk to Mike about that’s really important to him?”

Bill responded, “Our stuff is really important to their ability to manufacture their products. We need to maximize our share of the account, Mike can open doors for us!”

“But are those issues Mike is and should be involved with?” I asked.

“Dave, I don’t understand, we have the opportunity to call at the very top, why don’t we do it? Mike’s support could blow the account wide open….”

Bill wasn’t hearing me. I called Mike, “Mike, I need a favor. Would you mind spending a little time with one of my RVPs and me? I need him to learn a little, and the best way to teach him is to talk to you. Besides, it would be good to see you, I’ll buy you dinner afterwards.”

Mike had a long background in sales, he said, “Let me guess, he wants to call at the top….. Glad to do it, Dave, but I get to choose the restaurant.”

Bill and I show up on “executive row” at the appointed time. We were shown into Mike’s office. It was stunning–and huge. There was a desk area, a more casual seating area, and a conference table that could seat 20 people. There were doors to his private restroom and a small kitchen.

There were rolls of paper laying on Mike’s conference table.

Mike guided us to the conference table, after the greetings and a few minutes of social chit chat, Bill got down to business. He was well prepared.

“Mike, first I want to thank you for all the business your company has given us. You are our largest customer, we value the relationship and want to grow it as much as possible. We’ve helped many of your manufacturing facilities improve the quality of products………”

Mike interrupted Bill, “Bill thank you for those words. I’m sure you have done great things for us, but I really don’t spend any time thinking about those issues. Here’s what I care about…….”

Mike went on the describe the major disruption occurring in his industry. There were new technologies, new applications of the technologies, new competition. The potential for dramatic expansion of their products and services was profound. “These are the issues I spend my time thinking about. In five years, our industry and markets will be completely restructured. We have the opportunity to grow phenomenally–or if we miss it we will be one of the biggest failures in business history. How can you help me address these issues?”

Bill was stunned. He couldn’t respond. The truth is, what we did would have a fairly minimal impact on the areas where Mike spent his time. As they started developing their new product plans, we could help on the manufacturing side. But what we did were far removed from what Mike was concerned about.

Mike went on. “I did a little research in prepping for this meeting. You have helped us in our manufacturing. We have dozens of factories around the world. We have over 50K people working in manufacturing. I have a great manufacturing team, I trust they know what they should be doing…..”

Mike stood up, went to the rolls of paper on the conference table. His executive assistant had printed out the organization chart of all the manufacturing organizations. He showed us the charts for some of the plants we had worked in.

“From what I can guess, I suspect these people are the highest level executives that are engaged in the issues you address. They are the people who care and the people that should be involved…. These are the people, with their teams, that you can maximize the value you create for us….”

We went through a number of charts. These executives—all were at a VP or higher level—were 8-10 layers of management below Mike.

Mike said, “I don’t want to seem arrogant, but those are the people, along with their staffs, that you should be focusing on. To be honest, if they have issues that demand my attention, it means every level of management between them and me has failed—-and I have bigger problems than what your solutions address.”

“I could have you introduced to those people you don’t know….. But is that the way you really want to be introduced? After all, a request from my office might put them on edge, they might be concerned and worried…..”

Bill quickly recovered, “Thanks so much Mike, now I understand. I really appreciate you taking the time and learning what you are trying to do. It’s given us a lot to think about. We need to start connecting the dots between your strategic priorities and how they impact the teams we work with…..”

“I appreciate your offer to get introductions, but I can see how that might create more challenges in building relationships with those folks….”

We ended our call, thanking Mike for his time. As we navigated our way out of executive row, the blood slowly started returning to Bill’s face.

“Dave, thanks for setting this up. Mike is a fascinating person, the issues he is talking about are fascinating. But I need to have my teams work with the executives at the ‘right level,’ and their teams. We need to work with the people that have the most vested interest in the the areas we create value.”

That evening, Mike and I had a great dinner. He laughed about the meeting, saying how much fun he had with it. He was a sales person at heart and had a lot of empathy for Bill. We did have a great talk about their future strategies and some of the risks he perceived. Ever the coach/mentor, Mike said, “You and your company should be thinking about some of these issues, both how they impact you, or what new offerings you might develop to help our manufacturing teams respond to these new challenges.”

We do need to call as high as appropriate–we need to call at the “Right levels,” wherever they are in the organization.

We need to engage all the Right people.

We need to talk to them about what they care about, helping them navigate their process in achieving their goals.

The post Right-Level Selling first appeared on Partners in EXCELLENCE Blog -- Making A Difference.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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