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Selling to the C-Suite: Code for Selling to Execs (Part 1)

Thirty years ago, Neil Rackham changed the sales profession with SPIN Selling's research into how top sellers and managers create repeatable success. Next month a new book will be released, of which Rackham says: "It is firmly rooted in how people buy, and so it works. And an added bonus that particularly appeals to me: The book is based on research, which makes it rare and welcome."

Stephen Bistritz and I wrote the book after a decade of research in America, Europe, and Asia. We documented selling from the executive buyer's perspective, and surveyed more than 500 CXOs in large and medium companies until trends emerged on topics that include:
•When do executives get involved in the buying process for major decisions?
•How do salespeople gain access to executives?
•How can salespeople establish credibility with executives?
•How can salespeople create value at the executive level?
•Is executive buying behavior consistent across cultures?

The results might surprise you. It's our observation that most traditional wisdom about selling to executives is actually at odds with what executives themselves say works. The following is the first of several excerpts from our book, "Selling to the C-Suite," available next month in bookstores everywhere.


Blindly calling on senior executives today just because they're senior executivse will do more harm than good. What if they have no skin in the game of this decision? What if they already handed the project down to a competent subordinate and don't see the need to remain involved? What if they're too new in their role to have any political clout? What if they're about to retire and are merely a figurehead in the exit lounge?

It can cost you the deal if the guy at the top isn't the relevant executive who most feels the pain, most owns the problem you can solve, and will most richly reward you for providing a solution. Instead, look for people with a combination of rank, and an internal network that allows them to initiate projects, kill projects, intervene in projects, and influence funding. These people are not always found at the C-level. Which is why "always sell at the top" can be your fastest ticket out of the race.
In a meeting with the chief information officer of a Fortune 500 technology company, we asked: "Why would someone at your level ever agree to spend time with a salesperson?" The CIO's answer was simple:

"In my experience, professional salespeople offer me suggestions about solutions to business problems that even people in my own organization can't solve. Some of these salespeople have encountered similar problems in other organizations and have creatively addressed them. That's what I expect from salespeople who want to have a trusted advisor relationship with me."
In this answer are three basics that serve as the code for selling to executives:

1. Understand their motivation.
Talk to people who worked the account before you. Ransack the search engines. Look online for the executive's name as a speaker, conference delegate, or named source in a press release. See what they have put their name to or their reputation on the line for supporting or achieving. Seek to understand how they made similar past decisions on the same subject or for contracts of a similar scope and size. If they're new to the role or using it as a stepping stone to better things, try to learn what triggers their interest and commitment. Is it purely a business outcome? Are there personal aspirations that need to be met? The point is, as the saying goes: "You can't sell John Smith what John Smith buys until you see through John Smith's eyes."

2. Get in the game.
To stand out of a throng of me-too vendors, you must demonstrate the ability to be a business resource. This means doing more than parroting jargon in the hope you'll sound the part. You need to know what business drivers are motivating the executive's vision. Be prepared to explore these and offer opinion and insight so the contribution of your product or service can be put in context, and so the connection is clear that you have value to add they wouldn't gain without a vendor or can't gain from one of your competitors—that is, you have value that is differentiated from the status quo and from other suppliers. If you got into the profession of business-to-business sales in an age when the fax machine spat out orders all day and times were good, or if your company brand and product quality drove sales to your door, you'd be excused for never having mastered these skills and even being skeptical of the need. How's that fax machine going for you lately? Don't make the mistake of denying the need for personal change, or you'll be wonderfully equipped…for a world that no longer exists.

3. Right message, right audience.
No executive will spend money they don't have to. Their golden handshake depends on the profit and share price achieved on their watch, so saving money—not spending it—will be a reflex for many, especially those with a conservative accounting background who know profit is made by increasing income or decreasing costs, with the lowest risk being to slash costs, delay expenditures, and cut heads. So if you're selling an idea to improve efficiency, put it in terms of time, money and resources saved for conservative executives. If you're selling an idea to raise quality, explain the quantitative and qualitative benefits of doing so for pragmatic executives. If you're selling an idea that helps your customer make more money, make sure you have the right audience of visionary or innovative executives. The right message will fall flat with the wrong audience.

SMM's coverage continues next month with:
When to Time the Executive Call.

Nicholas A. C. Read is founder and president of SalesLabs: the Science of Sales Transformation. FOr more information visit www.cxo-selling.com.