Seriously Selling to the C-Suite


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Only attempt C-level selling when you have competent, credible people armed with unique, value-creating information. Otherwise, stay home.

The buyers of services and complex solutions are seldom the same individuals who purchase products. Usually at least one level, and often several levels, above the normal product sales relationships, these busy executives have different issues, expectations, world views, and mindsets to take into consideration when trying to influence their buying behaviors. In other words, the same capabilities and approaches that make people successful in selling products to managers will not be adequate (and sometimes will prove counterproductive) when attempting to sell to the more ambiguous issues and complex requirements of multi-faceted, solutions-facing executives. You may get invited in, but you won’t be invited back.

The Five Questions to Ponder

1. Why?

The first question to answer is: Why would a prospective executive want to see you in the first place? What qualifies you to take up his valuable time? What do you have to offer him that he might value? Executives care about finding answers to nagging questions impacting the enterprise, discovering ideas that may lead to innovation, or accumulating knowledge that might drive competitive advantage. If you have nothing that can add worth to their world at an initial meeting, don’t bother making the appointment. You will be seen as a waster of time, not a creator of value.

2. What?

The “why” above drives the “what.” To make your executive prospect happy that he met with you, you first need to be seen as a business peer, someone with enough credibility to “earn the right” to converse with him as an equal. An important conveyer of that credibility is to have relevant information, things the senior manager does not know but would like to know. Examples might include the critical issues of CIOs in his industry, or the results of a user survey in his company about satisfaction with ERPs, or the latest industry benchmarks on key operations metrics, for example.

To be able to demonstrate that credibility often takes extensive preparation. It is taken for granted that anyone in an influencing role should do his homework before making contact. Study existing account records, do a review of the company’s website to learn more about them, talk to people who have experience with them, etc. All sound advice, but not nearly enough when calling on executives. You need in-depth information that takes significant time to procure—time that is often not allocated toward cost of sales.

Next, look for the potential value-adders. Do you have recent industry studies of trends, critical issues, benchmarks, or best practices? If not, get them. It is a powerful way both to show your uniqueness and to provide immediate value. If you don’t have industry studies, do your homework with the executive company even more deeply. For example, interview the management team on a topic you know the executive finds important, or survey the users of an application or a process. Executives love this type of information because on their own they would never get it.

3. How?

How we approach the executive interview is also different. The basic techniques taught in needs–satisfaction sales training (SPIN Selling, Strategic Selling, PSSIII, etc.) that served your sellers so well in the past when dealing at low and mid-levels will now work against you when selling to executives. Senior managers expect you to already know their business. They don’t want to waste time educating you by responding to questions that might have been very powerful when dealing with those on a lower level (“What are your critical issues?”, “What keeps you up at night?”, and so forth). To display your credibility, you must start by demonstrating your knowledge and quickly bring something of value to the conversation first—that’s why doing your homework is so important.

Your questioning strategy must be modified to deal with this different situation by starting with “predicting probes” that demonstrate both competence and understanding. Next, “exploring probes” help your executive sort out the complex, often ambiguous, issues he faces. They also help him to think through his alternatives to fixing the problem or leveraging the opportunity. Properly done, this is where sellers create value when calling on the C-level and quickly distinguish themselves from the typical feature-benefit-spewing, PowerPoint-toting, normal-product-selling approach.

4. Who?

Most of your existing sellers can’t do it.

The capabilities described above are both wide and deep. Requirements include not only all the standard components of professional selling, but also added knowledge (e.g., business acumen, problem analysis), skills (e.g., synthesis data, framing alternatives, white-boarding processes), and new mindsets (e.g., assuming the role of trusted advisor or business consultant). These are consulting skills that do not come naturally to most people. So, take a serious look at who you designate to the role of selling to the C-level and ask some hard questions: Do they have the capabilities required, or can they learn them? (If so, are you willing to invest the time and money?) Do they have enough confidence and “presence” to be accepted and respected by customer executives?

After careful examination you may find that your existing people in sales roles are not appropriate for this responsibility. Some organizations find that they must bring in outside blood and/or actively involve their senior management in either a support or sometimes a primary role to make their C-level selling work.

5. When?

This is worth repeating: Only attempt C-level selling when you have competent, credible people armed with value-adding information. Otherwise, stay home.

Action Steps

If working at the C-level is to be an important component of your selling approach, consider the following:

  1. Designate or hire a person or staff to research key accounts, key executives, and their key competitors—no matter how well intentioned, faced with their 30-day deadlines to deliver, salespeople just won’t do it.
  2. Make it an important goal of your marketers to find and package information that your C-level folks will find of value. Become the “holders of the data” for your industry on topics of importance.
  3. Selling at the C-level does not come naturally. If you want your sellers to be confident and competent, provide them with appropriate C-level training, coaching, and the tools they need to be effective.
James Alexander, EdD
James "Alex" Alexander has a doctorate in Human Resource Development, and after a dozen years in corporate life has spent more than two decades helping product companies build brilliant services businesses. Alex researches, publishes, advises, trains, and speaks on transforming good services organizations into high-performance services machines that create loyal customers, drive sales of services and products, and dominate the competition. He has written five research studies, four books, and over 150 articles, and has spoken, consulted, and trained in 25 countries.


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