When It's Time to Break Out the Big Guns to Make the Sale

Last Updated Nov 30, 2010 1:31 PM EST

I was gambling in Havana
I took a little risk
Send lawyers, guns and money
Dad, get me out of this
-- from "Lawyers, Guns and Money" by Warren Zevon

When is it time for the heavy artillery in the sales process? In other words, when is it time to jump in and help your sales team with a deal?

I have found that companies don't use CXOs in the sales process nearly as much as they should. Regardless of how often you or your other execs jump in, there should be some guidelines as to how to best use your positions. Let's focus specifically on the CEO and the CFO positions for the sake of this post. Using this clout correctly can greatly improve your sales processes and your yield on big deals.

USING CEOs

The Do List
A CEO's greatest power in the sales pitch is in conveying the following:

  • Cultural alignment. The CEO's role in the conversation is to communicate that similar vision, mission, and values between the two organizations, and that the people can work together well and smooth out any of the natural bumps in the relationship along the way. This communication occurs between you and the highest level people in the other organization.
  • Financial and organizational commitment. The CEO has to be the one who communicates the company's financial position, where it stands, its history and what the financial future of the company looks like. This is not so much a discussion of the balance sheet as it is a discussion of the underpinnings of the business. Tucked inside of this is the CEO's communication of commitment: "We are signing up to be your partner, Mr. Customer, and we are sincere in our commitment to you and to this work we will do together."
  • Creativity and flexibility. Big deals are often unique in their structure and need support. This requires the creativity and flexibility of the senior-most person in your company. When the CEO is not in the room for these conversations, the discussions devolve into "if-then" and "what if?" scenarios that may be creative, but end with a statement of "I'll have to go and discuss this." That sucks all of the oxygen and speed out of getting a deal done.
You want to make certain that you get in on the bigger deals and in the right way.

The Don't List
Do not get involved to:

  • Negotiate price. I have a simple rule: CEOs do not talk price with clients. Ever. This cheapens the CEO's position as well as eliminates a fall back position for the other sales associates. This does not mean that the CEO doesn't direct the pricing strategy. That is absolutely the case, especially on the big deals. However, when it is time to discuss price, the discussion should be handled by other members of the team, leaving the CEO in a better position to consider options and re-direct the negotiation.
  • Set project scope. The CEO should not define the day-to-day particulars of the project. Doing so effectively turns you into the Account Manager. These discussions need to be handled by either the COO or the person most directly involved with the account.
  • Manage non-executive communication. I had a CEO client who was a control-freak. That is not unusual or necessarily a bad thing. In this case, however, he wanted to be on the line during all conversations with the peer-to-peers between his company and the prospect company. This is a terrible strategy and it makes the company look small. Not only that, but it kills all relationship building between the peers and guarantees that all trouble-shooting on the account will be elevated to you more quickly. Peer-to-peer communication starts in the sales process and you must respect that.
USING CFOS
Getting your CFO talking to your prospect's financial people is a little obvious. But the question is when? Here are some pointers:
  • Get your CFO involved in the conversations at the initial point of engagement with any personnel from your prospect involved with finance. Procurement, Purchasing, Compliance, RFP process management and so on.
  • Never talk to these personnel without your CFO. There is a lexicon that the financial personnel use that has nuances and meaning that is important to get right on the first try. If you don't use your CFO, you risk losing lots of time in the discussion trying to meet your prospect's requests correctly. You also save yourself some of the frustration of being a carrier pigeon moving questions and responses back and forth between the two financial departments.
  • CFOs talk terms, not price. You, the CEO, set the pricing strategy and your sales team communicates it. The CFO is a part of that discussion and provides a great deal of insight to the conversation, but is not a part of the actual price discussion. Like the CEO, his power is best used behind the scenes. Once price has been established, then the conversation is about terms. Most sophisticated people recognize that terms are more important than price in the negotiation anyway.
There's an old story about an emperor who sentenced a man to death, but allowed the man to choose his form of execution. The man responded to the emperor, "I choose death by old age." Death was the price, old age was the term. Bringing yourself and other execs into the sales process at just the right time ensures that you'll never miss an opportunity to set the terms when it's most crucial.

Tom Searcy is a nationally recognized author, speaker, and the foremost expert in large account sales. Tom is the author of RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business and the co-author of Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company.
Flickr photo courtesy of joeshlabotnik/CC 2.0