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How To Sell at the C-Level

Contrary to popular belief, selling to top executives isn't difficult. In fact, it's easy, if you know how executives want you to approach them, according to Dr. Steve Bistritz and Nicholas A.C. Read, who wrote the bestselling book Selling to the C-Suite.

This post is based upon a recent conversation with Bistritz and Read, where they described the results of their extensive research and interviews with the executive community. In addition, I've added some information that I've gleaned from other sales experts.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this post can be to your career... if you want to make the big money deals.

To start learning this crucial skill, click the green NEXT button to the right.


STEP #1: Realize That Selling High is Easy
Conventional sales wisdom is that selling to top executives is difficult. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Many top executives like meeting with sales professionals because often they can offer solutions to problems that even people within their own organization can't solve. Top executives, in fact, see sales professionals as a valuable resource because they have encountered and solved those problems in other organizations and can give the executive the benefit of their experience.

This is not to say that you should be trying to sell to the top executive alone. Even if you determine that your best sales strategy is to bypass mid-level executives and gatekeepers, you must still learn the politics of the company, so that you don't tread on any toes unnecessarily. Ideally, you'll want to build a network of contacts in the firm, both under the top executive, and even among that executive's peers.

In other words, take the long-term view. You want a long-term relationship with the company, not just a personal connection with an individual executive who (after all) might leave or be fired. And remember, you'll probably need to work with the subordinates of a before and after you make a sale, so you can't afford to alienate them. However, with that proviso, there's no reason why you shouldn't be aiming to sell to an executive who can really make things happen, when it comes to buying your offering.

STEP #2: Get Your Own Act Together
The following four key elements must be in place BEFORE you try to sell to a top executive:
  1. Have an appropriate offering. If your selling a commodity that's typically handled by a drone in the purchasing department, it makes absolutely no sense to sell to an executive. In most cases, you'll need to be selling a solution to a complicated business problem. If not, don't bother.
  2. Be convinced that you're an equal. You won't be able to sell to an executive if you walk into the situation like a supplicant. You'll need to exude the kind of self-confidence that comes from KNOWING that you have something that the executive truly needs to be successful.
  3. Be superlatively trained. Sales skills can be learned and taught, but that doesn't meant that they're automatic. Even people with great natural talent must have the discipline to learn the basic psychology of selling and have the self awareness to put that psychology into practice.
  4. Be impeccably dressed. You should we wearing clothes of the cut and quality of the executive to whom you're selling. Pay attention to detail. The exec will size you up within 2 seconds (!) of seeing you and there must be NOTHING that's out of place or out of kilter, or you'll be fighting uphill from square one.
STEP #3: Identify the RIGHT Executive
In many cases, sales professionals people are better served by working with whatever executive stands to gain the most or lose the most as a result of the application or project associated with the sales opportunity.

Your first challenge, therefore, is to locate the most senior executive who is likely to be heavily involved evaluating, deciding or approving the decision. This may not the executive who as the final sign-off, but rather the executive who will care enough to puts a project into motion and the authority to approve needed purchases. This executive is likely to have direct involvement, influence and vested interest in a venture's successful outcome, plus sufficient rank and power to affect the results.

To find this executive, research the customer firm (on the Internet and through interviews with lower level personnel) to discover the answers to the following six questions:

  1. Does this executive have a job title that is relevant to the area that your offering addresses?
  2. Is this executive positioned on the organization chart in a way that is relevant to the area your offering addresses?
  3. Does this executive have a history of being a successful leader within the organization, implementing similar projects.
  4. Do other executives in the firm believe this leader makes a genuine contribution to the firm?
  5. Is this executive person is tightly plugged in and closely bound to others in the organization "by mutual advantage."?
  6. Has this executive amassed enough extra influence to control company events and activities and to alter the firm's status quo?
If the answer to most (and hopefully all) of these questions is "YES!", then chances are that you have located the right executive.
STEP #4: Pique the Interest of that Executive
Now that you've identified the relevant executive, you must maneuver past various gatekeepers to gain access to that executive. There are four ways to do this:
  1. Climb the ladder. Persuade a credible lower-level executive to "sponsor" you by suggesting a meeting with the relevant executive.
  2. Enlist the gatekeepers. Cultivate relationships with executive assistants, personal secretaries and so forth, and convince them to give you access.
  3. Pique executive interest. Using email, voice mail and/or letter, refer to some change within your company and schedule a meeting to offer details and information.
  4. Find networking opportunities. Gain admittance to an industry event or a social event (like a fundraiser for the executive's favorite charity).
In most cases, the most effective way to gain access to top executives will be to have a trusted individual within the leader's organization act as a sponsor and recommend seeing you. Because of this, you should cultivate good networking skill and build relationships with respected mid-level executives, managers and assistants.
STEP #5: Have an Engaging Initial Meeting
Before meeting with the executive, research his or her "business agenda" and try to ascertain his or her "personal agenda" as well. Ideally, you'll want to address both during your first meeting. When you meet, do not assume that the executive knows who you are and why you're there. Introduce yourself and explain the purpose of the meeting. Within the first few minutes, demonstrate that you have done your homework and understand the company, its challenges and its place in the industry. Here are six guidelines for the conversation:
  1. Focus on business issues. Above all, do not attempt to wow the executive with the "bells and whistles."
  2. Ask intelligent questions. Frame everything according to the drivers that affect the business and the metrics that the leader uses to evaluate activities.
  3. Listen more than you talk. Hear what the executive has to say about the situation before proposing any steps of your own.
  4. Propose creative approaches. Bring value to the conversation by introducing novel business perspectives and concepts.
  5. Propose a next step. Involve the executive directly in planning subsequent action and plan to connect to follow up.
  6. Deepen the relationship. Suggest that next time you could bring an expert along to move the conversation to the next level.
STEP #6: Move the Solution Forward
Contrary to popular belief, it is a mistake to push a solution early in the relationship. In fact, the solution should be introduced in three stages, each of defines a "level of value" that is of interest to the executive.
  • STAGE #1. The value hypothesis. Towards the end of your initial meeting, state a value hypothesis that establishes the possibility that your approach to a business problem or opportunity will work. You should get a validation from the customer that the hypothesis makes sense before proceeding to the next stage.
  • STAGE #2. The value proposition. After you've had the initial meeting, think through what you've learned and develop a proposal for contributing real value. To do this, you will need concrete data from the executive about how the company operates, what its costs are and what you might be able to fix. Make sure that the value proposition is quantifiable.
  • STAGE #3. The value statement. Sales professionals frequently skip this step, which is ironic, since it is the key to future sales to the executive. After you make the sale, audit the project and report on its actual value as compared to your value proposition. That way the executive will know that working with you was a "win" for both the executive and the executive's firm.
RELATED POSTS: NOTE: Similar tips and techniques are contained in my soon-to-be-published book How to Say It: Business to Business Selling, now available for pre-sale here.
    All pre-sale royalties are donated to Wide Horizons for Children, an organization that facilitates foreign adoptions and orphanages.