How to Sell to a C-Level Executive

Last Updated Jun 18, 2009 10:17 PM EDT

Your sales manager may expect you to "sell high" -- but do you know what to say when you actually get in the presence of a C-level exec? While plenty of sales training programs teach consultative selling, they mostly focus on questioning techniques and needs analysis for lower level employees. Selling at the C-level requires an entirely different approach. Here's exactly what you need to know...


Lower level employees don't mind if you probe around and ask questions to get a better picture of their requirements and needs. In fact, they often like showing off their knowledge. Try to "probe" a C-level exec and chances are you'll be told where to stick that probe. C-level execs don't have time to give you an education, so you'd better have done your research long before you step into the corner office.

Similarly, lower level employees love to talk about features, functions and price. In fact, they've probably been trolling around on the Web, reading brochures and white papers. C-level execs don't have that kind of time to waste. They're interested in broad business issues like corporate strategy, revenue and profitability. So you'd better have a business-focused value proposition that justifies C-level attention. If not, don't go bothering the bigwig.

Once again, lower level employees will sit though presentations with dozens of slides,chockablock with detail. In fact, those employees probably have a few of those presentations of their own that they'll be happy to share with you. (Yawn!) For C-level execs, though, that kind of communication is strictly a one-way street. They're willing to be boring themselves, but they're not going to sit there and let you deluge them with trivia.

So here's the scoop. When you present to a C-level exec, your sales approach has got to be fully-researched, short and sweet, and targeted at C-level challenges.

When I say short and sweet, I'm talking 10 slides here and 25 words per slide, more or less. Can't fit your pitch into that format? Then go back to the drawing board, because you're not ready for prime time, buddy.

Now, although the specifics of the presentation will vary, it must be structured into three segments:
  1. A research-based summary of the business, strategy, challenges and opportunities inside the exec's firm. This summary must couched in the language that's used inside the customer's firm. And slap the customer's logo on it, for cryin' out loud.
  2. A VERY brief summary of your company and offerings. One slide...max.
  3. A business case for how your two firms can work together, using your offerings to solve a C-level problem or achieve the a C-level goal.
Within those basic guidelines, the final structure varies according to circumstances. For example, if you already do business with the C-level's firm, include (probably sandwiched between the second and third segment) a summary -- one slide, max -- of how your two firms have worked together in the past.

Similarly, if the purpose of the meeting is to close business, add a slide at the end that bridges to your close.

One more thing. Sometimes C-level executives will "drill down" into one area of presentation to find out whether there's actual substance behind it. So you should still have all the detailed slide that used on the lower-level employees on hand, just in case. Just don't trot them out on your own.

Got that?

BTW, the above is based upon a conversation with Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, co-authors of the bestseller "Beyond Selling Value". Smart guys, both of them.

Tomorrow, I'm going to share with you the "secret sauce" of selling at the C-level. It's arguably themost important thing I've ever shared with you when it comes to selling high, so you'll want to check it out...

Meanwhile, to hone your "selling high" skills, check out:
  • Geoffrey James

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