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Getting to the Top: Selling to the C-Level Executive

To sell big, stop thinking small

By Barbara Geraghty

Last year, I achieved a dream when I moved from California to Colorado. Every day I gaze at the Rocky Mountains, with 50 peaks more than 14,000 feet high. In my new home people are obsessed with this question: What does it take to get to the top?

Since 1994, I’ve been teaching salespeople how to sell to executives, or how to use an executive interface to position oneself in the company, or how to simply go through an office higher than the selling level to come down to the decision. So, what does it take to get to the top?

Think Like a CEO

Screen Shot 2013-11-19 at 7.05.05 PMEven though I’m probably many miles from you as you read this, I can hear what you’re thinking. “Why would I want to sell to a CEO?”

Maybe you don’t. But you do want to sell to the Ultimate Decision Maker (UDM). The quicker and closer you can get to this person, the faster the buying cycle and the less quibbling on price. Whether or not you need to sell to an executive for a particular deal, you need to gain access and articulate value at the highest appropriate level.

For larger deals where an executive-level interface is required, selling to the CEO is a strategy. For other deals, it is a tactic to gain a high-level executive’s assistance (or someone in his or her domain, such as the executive assistant) to get to the UDM. This tactic positions you above the decision, and almost insures that you will get a meeting. Trust me on this; it is much easier to slide down to the decision than to climb up.

Preparation is the secret to obtaining a brief meeting with an executive or a referral to the UDM. Utilize the research tips in the next section and the three-step approach process below to script a voice message. Practice and time the message, eliminating unnecessary words so that it is less than twenty seconds, and stand when you leave it. If the UDM or Executive Assistant answers the phone, use the same message to launch a conversation.

Step 1: Script a pithy and powerful sentence to intrigue the executive, based on information specific to his or her business.

Step 2: Begin with “I have an idea” and add a teaser version of your idea to intrigue them and get the appointment.

Step 3: Finish the message with your request.

For example: “Managing risk by ensuring reliability of equipment is a critical element of your responsibility. I have an idea that would provide accurate financial data on TCO (total cost of ownership) and a clear plan for reducing downtime and eliminating roadblocks. I would like to schedule a brief meeting to discuss options to reduce uncertainty in achieving your corporate goals.”

What return can you expect from investing the time to conduct research and script a message? Occasionally, you will get an appointment with an executive. Often, the Executive Assistant will forward your message with a comment at the beginning, such as “Joe, you might want to meet with this person.” This almost guarantees that you will get the appointment and be taken seriously when you arrive. If nothing happens, script a new message from your research process. Persistence is a relationship-builder, and you demonstrate your professionalism and interest in their business with every message you leave. When you get the appointment, some of the heavy lifting of establishing credibility and trust will already be completed.

Develop Business Intelligence

When you understand the vision, strategic initiatives and critical priorities of the executive leadership team, and sprinkle these nuggets into your communication, what you say resonates with every decision maker in the company.

The best investment you can make in your sales career is to spend some time every month learning about the opportunities and challenges of specific industries you call upon, and developing expertise in the business objectives and problems that are impacted or solved by your products. Here are some practical ideas to get you started:

• Isolate industries that have the strongest growth trends combined with need for your products and services, and learn everything about those industries.

• Develop understanding of each customer’s opportunities and challenges, and leverage that information to build influence in sales calls.

• Be conversant in the financial and operational metrics used to measure success in each industry and company you target. Tailor your message to their unique value drivers: How does your product or service impact business improvement as the customer defines it?

How does this change the sales call dynamic? Let’s imagine your prospect is meeting with two salespeople today. Listen to the difference.

“I’m selling forklifts. Ours have all the latest features. Can I schedule a demonstration to show you these features?”

• “After reading your Annual Report and 10K (or an article in the local Business Journal or the President’s message on the website) I understand that you’re focused on a business expansion that includes new facilities and upgraded operational capacity. What do you need in the areas of supply chain and materials handling to achieve the proposed expansion?”

Your sales results will explode once you demonstrate how your solution solves business problems and achieves business objectives, and when you embed your solution into a business case that increases revenue or cuts costs.

Gain Access and Articulate Value

When meeting with an executive, you must have the confidence and competence to challenge assumptions and reveal potential opportunities or problems. Remember Gordon Gecko’s words in the movie, Wall Street: “So, tell me something I don’t already know.” The mandate of a C-Level executive is to see what hasn’t been seen and think what hasn’t been thought. As a materials handling professional, you must have the knowledge to effectively educate executives about emerging technologies and how specific solutions can improve ROI.

If you have something important to say, you can say it to someone important! By gaining access to the right person with the right message and establishing collaborative partnerships with executives, you will increase average order size, gross margins and account penetration. You will be the first called and the last cancelled!

By understanding the key mandates and manifestos of the executive team, you will position yourself and your message for greater impact with every decision maker in the company. By researching the operational and financial metrics that matter to the customer, you will be able to demonstrate insight, ideas and impact that are relevant and actionable. And when you change the dynamic from selling a solution to collaboratively resolving an issue, closing the sale becomes a natural and effortless development in the dialogue.

Just in case you’re wondering, I climbed my first 14-er on my one-year anniversary in Colorado. The climb was rocky, but the exhilaration of reaching the top was worth it!

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Barbara Geraghty is the author of Visionary Selling (Simon & Schuster) and will be presenting at MHEDA’s 2013 Sales Conference. She provides keynote presentations, sales training and strategic account coaching and can be reached at achievethesummit@yahoo.com.