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How to Sell to Top Execs -- in 6 Easy Steps

"Sell high!" "Sell high!" It's the constant refrain of the sales manager. And yet, "selling high" is easier said than done. Most sales professionals have no idea of how to talk their way into the boardroom or, once there, what to say or do to close a deal.

Not to worry.

This post provides you everything you need to prepare yourself (and your offering) to be sold at the highest level. It's surprisingly easy to sell high -- if you know the process that really works.

Here it is, in 6 easy steps...

CLICK for the first step »
Illustrations by Burcu Arat Sup

STEP #1: Think Like a Top Exec
If you're going to work directly with top execs, you must make them feel as if they are communicating with an equal or (worst case) somebody who might be a direct report.

To make a top exec comfortable working directly with you you must learn to think like a top executive, rather than like a sales rep. Top executives have a set of beliefs that you must share, if you're going to be their equal. Those include:

  • My time is incredibly valuable.
  • I am an important resource.
  • I easily make difficult decisions.
  • I am worth the big money I make.
If you don't believe these things about yourself, then don't bother calling on top execs, because they will sense that you're a lowly underling and treat you accordingly. (As in: "please don't bother me; talk to some junior manager.")

Thinking like an exec is the foundation of looking and acting like somebody who is worth the exec's personal attention. To build on this foundation, you must:

  • Walk the walk. Adopt body language that are congruent with your "exec-level" beliefs. To help do this, take every opportunity you can to watch CEOs and other top execs interacting with people and peers. There's a "style" that's hard to define, but easy to see and (more importantly) easy to imitiate.
  • Talk the talk. Never sound like a sales rep. Never launch into a pitch. Never, never, never. Your confidence, excitement and pride must shine through... in exactly the way it would if you were describing your offering to a trusted friend.
  • Dress the part. For example, if you're selling to CEOs in a conservative industry, buy Rolex and an Armani. Can't afford that? Borrow the money or sell some of your stuff. Essentially, you need to use your appearance to emphasize that your are the execs' social and financial equal.
There's no question that it's hard for fresh-out-of-college newbies to come off like CEOs. If that's the case with you, get yourself inside an industry, like computer gaming, where there are plenty of young CEO types.

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STEP #2: Sell Something Strategic
If you sell a commodity product that's normally purchased by an internal purchasing group. You can forget about "calling high." Unless what you're offering is on a top exec's radar, you're not going to get the time of day, much less a done deal.

Every top exec has a different take on what's strategic, which your offering needs to match. In each case, there's an official strategic agenda and a hidden strategic agenda. Here they are:

  • CEO/President/Chairman. The official agenda is the stock price or (if privately held) the exit strategy. The hidden agenda is how the stock price impacts the exec's compensation mix.
  • COO. The official agenda is the smooth running of the various parts of the corporation. The hidden agenda is positioning to become the CEO.
  • CFO. The official agenda is the financial health of the company. The hidden agenda is the same, unless they're cooking the books, in which case, it's hiding that fact.
  • CMO. The official agenda is creating demand and making sales happen more quickly. The hidden agenda is the constant campaign to prove the marketing isn't useless.
  • CSO. The official agenda is creating an environment for profitable selling. The hidden agenda is trying to keep his job when the forecasts are revealed as sad fictions.
  • CTO. The official agenda is generating innovative product ideas. The hidden agenda is getting a constant supply of new techie-toys to play with.
  • CIO. The official agenda is to provide data process services. The hidden agenda is trying to keep the company from outsourcing everything to the cloud.
Obviously, I'm not entirely serious about every one of those hidden agendas, but I included them to make a point, which is that your strategic offering must appeal to both the business interests of the exec -- and the long-term career and personal benefit to the exec.

If your offering is strategic but, if purchased, puts the exec in career jeopardy, you can forget about selling to that exec. But if your offering is both strategic to the company and strategic to the exec personally... you'll be on the fast track!

For example, suppose your company sells paper supplies. If all you do is offer a commodity (i.e. high quality paper for less than the competition), you're not strategic.

On the other hand, your offering might be strategic if it studies paper usage patterns and recommends operational changes that result in 25 percent less paper consumed, with a measurable positive impact on a company's carbon footprint.

Note that in the second case, you can probably charge a little more for the paper than the competition. That's one of the many advantages of calling high -- and of having an offering that appeals to the bigwigs.

CLICK for the third step »

STEP #3: Do Your Research
Hoi-poloi employees don't mind if meeting with you to give you a better picture of their requirements and needs. In fact, they often like showing off their knowledge. Top execs don't have time to give you an education, so you'd better have done your research long before you step into the bigwig's office.

Research means understanding the exec's business and the role the exec plays in that business. According to sales uber-guru Neil Rackham, "execs are more likely to buy based upon what you know about their company and their business than upon what they know about your company and products."

To thoroughly research an exec, you must draw on both public and private sources.

Public information consists of what you can discover through publicly available sources, such as a company's SEC filings, press releases, conference proceedings, annual reports, published interviews and so forth.

Private information consists of what you can glean from conversations with insiders such as current and former employees of the target firm, people who regularly do business with the target firm, or people who have personal contacts with the executives of the target firm.

Start your research by gathering enough public information to provide a overview of the target firm, as well as its basic strategies and challenges. Use this public information to identify private individuals who might be willing to coach you in more detail about the company, especially those who might be able to provide inside information such as organizational structure, lines of control, decision-making power, and so forth.

Once you've mastered the public information, contact these potential sources of inside information and ask for their assistance.

You'll need to use your sales and communications skills to determine how the information source can benefit from speaking with you. In some cases, the motivation can be as simple as the desire to share information. In other cases, the motivation to speak to you might be the possibility of career advancement.

Once you understand the exec's firm, business model, organizational role, and have a good idea of his or her hidden agenda, you're ready to work on the presentation that you'll eventually be using, when you finally get access to the exec.

CLICK for the fourth step »

STEP #4: Craft a SIMPLE Message
Once you succeed in getting access, you'll need a sales approach that is fully-researched, short and sweet, and targeted appropriately.

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 to talk to an exec.

The specifics of the presentation will vary, but 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 exec's 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.

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

CLICK for the fifth step »

STEP #5: Bypass/Enlist Gatekeepers
Top executives are often difficult to reach. However, it's your job to reach them and to secure an appointment.

The most common way to approach this is to build contacts inside the organization leading towards a personal introduction to target exec. The trick here is not to try to close the deal with the lower-level folk, but to think of them as potential referrers who will get a career benefit if they call the exec's attention to you and your offering. This is the most common method and the best way to learn about it is with the popular post "Sell to the CEO! Can You Win the GAME?"

You can, of course, try, cold calling the executive directly. This is a process of breaking through the layers of protection that keep the exec from answering his or her own phone. If you follow this path, you'd better be a truly fabulous cold-caller, because you're only going to get one shot at it. However, I do know that it can work because most top execs, once you get into their inner circle, are easy to sell. I explain how to get the exec on the line in my previous post "How to Reach the CEO--Directly"

There are two other ways to reach top execs that sometimes work.

First, you can network with contacts outside the organization. This entails researching the life of the exec and then building a network of contacts that gradually lead you towards a personal introduction. This is an extremely productive sales tactic that I've discussed in several blog entries, most notably: "How to Generate Your Own Leads" and "Five Rules for Great Referrals".

And if you're particularly bold, you can try to meet the executive socially, and then use that meeting to spur a business meeting. You research the exec's life and interests to discover any public or semi-public event where it would be possible to meet the exec socially. I explain this method in "How to Socialize With (and Sell to) a CEO."
Whichever method you use, the purpose is the same -- to get an appointment to discuss how you and your firm's offering can help that exec achieve both official and unofficial goals.

CLICK for the final step »

STEP #6: Add Value from the Start
Now that you've got access, the hard work is over. All you need do at this point, is to present a credible case for continuing to work together. And that ought to be easy, since you've already laid all the groundwork for a long top-level relationship.

As you discuss your idea and offering, remember that top execs hate it when you waste their time. Don't try any fancy sales tactics or rapport building. Top execs are past the point where that kind of stuff influences them. Present business-focused value proposition that justifies their attention.

You may, or may not, end up using the presentation that you crafted in Step #3. The real reason for that step is for you to get your head around the concept that's going to interest the exec. The presentation itself isn't nearly as important as your ability to quickly explain and encapsulate what you have in mind.

From this point on, there's nothing different about selling to a top executive than about selling to anybody else. If you've got the right attitude and the right offering and the right prospect, you've set yourself up for the eventual sale.

Easy, eh?

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