As a sales coach and guest on sales podcasts, I get asked a lot of questions about selling to the folks in the C-Suite. Here are some of the questions I hear most frequently. I've followed them with tips on creating value in sales talks and making the most of your time when you do land these important meetings.
Q&A: Creating Value in Sales to the C-Suite
Q: What do you see that needs to be addressed for people selling to the executive level?
A: I coach executives and conduct research with buyers. They tell me that sales presentations are often bloated and irrelevant. They are dissatisfied when sellers communicate poorly and waste their valuable time. They appreciate when sellers stay on point. They prefer sellers who demonstrate strong business acumen and executive presence. These are all areas that need attention from sellers.
Q: When sellers are able to access executives, do they or don’t they know how to be effective with them?
A: Many sellers simply don’t know how to interact with executives. I see two extremes in response to the perceived difference in position power. Some sellers become overly deferential and others try to overcompensate by getting too casual.
Executives do not like when sellers kowtow to them. There’s no value in that. They can’t trust a seller who appears subservient and unable to challenge them or stimulate new idea generation. At that other extreme, a seller who doesn’t acknowledge the position and all its demands risks coming across as disrespectful. The right balance is to be on equal footing, able to go toe-to-toe as needed while also respecting the executive’s preferences, experience and knowledge.
I recently observed two sellers, on the same day, display both extremes.
The first seller did not expect to get in to the CFO because he had stood her up twice before this meeting. When the CFO appeared to usher us into his office, the seller stammered and opened with “Thank you, sir. I know your time is very important. I promise to take just five minutes. I won’t mind if you have to take a call or something while we’re meeting.” The sale was already lost because the value deficit was too big to overcome.
The second seller met with a COO. In his pre-call planning, he’d seen that the COO was an avid golfer, winning at some recent charity events. Within the first five minutes, the seller mentioned setting up a golf outing three times. He used the words “bro” and “dude” throughout the 20-minute meeting. The COO was amused but not impressed.
Neither of these sellers was as effective as they could have been if they’d focused on creating value in this meeting.
Q: How do successful sales professionals prepare for an executive level meeting?
A: They edit. They pare down their presentations and strip out small talk. They get clarity on an objective for the meeting and put careful thought into how to efficiently and effectively reach that objective. And, of course, their editing and thought aims primarily at demonstrating relevant value to the executive.
Q: Why is it that sales professionals are selling and presenting in ways that don’t always align with how executives prefer to make decisions?
A: Sellers seem to think that the senior-most person on a team will be the one making unilateral decisions. This is not always the case. Many executives prefer to push decision-making out to their group. They want input from various constituent groups and end users. When sellers aren’t considering the needs and interests of those who influence the decision, they won’t be aligned with the decision criteria considered by executives.
Q: How do you ensure selling and presentation styles are aligned with an executive’s preferred decision-making style?
A: Just ask. I’d give this same advice for presenting to any buyer. Questions include “What criteria are you evaluating and prioritizing in this decision?” and “Walk me through your process for making this decision.” To be aligned with the decision, ask about timing: “When will you review options and how will you narrow your choices?” and asking about preferences: “Describe what past partners have done to make your review and decision-making easier for you.”
Giving information must be tailored to an executive’s decision-making style to improve the chances of commitment.
We all tend to present information or teach others in the way we prefer to learn. Some people want a lot of detail, concrete examples and thorough explanations. They would feel uncomfortable with generalities or abstract brainstorming. Others want big-picture ideas, possibilities thinking and idea generation. They would feel bogged down or constrained by too many details and examples.
Sellers should be nimble and able to present in a way that mirrors the buyer’s style. While it is true that many executives are visionary and like to talk about the future possibilities, that doesn’t mean they don’t want details and examples. Some want details and concrete proof than others. Sellers must be adept at reading their buyers and responding to their preferences.
To do this, sellers must move outside their own comfort zone and prepare for both extremes. Know the examples (case studies, proof of concept, data) and be ready to present them if needed. Know the possibilities and how to paint the picture of an exciting future. Pay attention to the executive’s cues and his or her own language. Follow their lead.
Q: What insights can you share to solve for the common problem of getting the right message delivered within this limited time at the executive level?
A: Start with what matters most. Here’s a hint: It has nothing at all to do with your product.
Start with the needs and concerns that this executive has expressed. Don’t assume. The shareholder’s report or website or others you’ve spoken to in the organization will give you this information. Or you’ll ask for it directly. Executives do not care one iota about your product. All they care about is getting their problems fixed and their goals reached. Start there.
By starting there, you’ve earned the executive’s continued attention. Now you have a chance to succinctly make the case for how your product can help. Think and talk in bullet points. Watch for signs of interest and expound on the hot buttons. Don’t rush because you’ll miss these cues. Less is probably more, as you hit the key bullet points and look for subtle invitations to provide more – a raised eyebrow, a question, a leaning in… Pause when you see these and make space for the executive’s interest to develop. Worry less about the amount of time you have because the right delivery will almost always earn you more time.