Selling To Executives
You would think that every professional services firm on the planet would be well versed in consultative sales practices. And yet, I am sure you have had a recent experience with a potential supplier who spent the first forty minutes of a one hour initial meeting walking you through a set of slides detailing his or her background, capabilities, and so on. If you are lucky, the presenter started to ask you about your needs with the little time left at the end. On paper, this is a glaringly terrible practice. And yet, these meetings happen thousands of times every day.
The wonderful news is that the pervasiveness of bad sales behavior creates a golden opportunity for you. To become proficient at selling to executives, you need to adopt a few simple practices.
First identify the value
The days of most executives are filled with back-to-back constructive problem solving meetings where they are asked to make thoughtful, albeit rapid, decisions. When presenting to an executive, the best internal staff lay out the facts, discuss problems or opportunities, and bring forth potential solutions. Since this is the language that executives speak, you should be fluent when engaging them on your products and services.
Selling the value means working with the executive to construct a forward looking plan that will deliver tangible results to their entire business. To do that, you need to ask questions, listen, and be diagnostic. By understanding your customers’ strategies and their critical problems, you become a consultative partner in the best position to link the unique benefits of your solutions to their needs.
Selling the value does not mean describing your features, functionality, and capabilities. Most executives have no time and no interest in that level of detail. To be great at selling to executives, imagine that your job is to make them a hero to their company. Executives become heroes by pulling strategic levers such as:
- increasing revenues
- lowering costs
- improving operational efficiency
- enhancing employee productivity
Once you have uncovered the executive’s strategies and problems and linked the unique benefits of your service to clear bottom line business results, you have another key responsibility. Good sales people work hard to understand what it will take to commit to buying. Great sales people also work to understand why the customer will not buy and then work systematically to overcome objections.
Establish yourself as a trusted partner
At some point, a prospect will narrow their purchasing decision down to you and to one or two of your closest competitors. You can safely assume that the prospect has a sense of near equivalence between your company and the alternative suppliers when product attributes, service, pricing, and so on are netted out. In the end, their decision will come down to which supplier he or she puts the most trust in to deliver on the promised value.
To get over the risk of buying your product or service, you must prove how you help clients to be consistently successful over the long term. The most effective ways to offer proof are by providing references or by sharing case studies that are directly relevant. Moreover, since you are selling to human beings, you should address not only the business value delivered, but also the individual personal value realized.
The consultative approach that you take during the sales process builds trust. By listening and bringing new ideas, rather than purely pitching your wares, you establish that you care about the client and his or her barriers to business and personal success.
Finally, to build trust, you must demonstrate that you are always prepared. This begins in the very first meeting that you have with your prospects. Prior to that meeting, you must do your homework on their company and their individual goals so that you are fully primed to discuss their business. Preparation should continue to remain supreme in every subsequent interaction so the client has the security that they can depend on you.
Determine the customer’s purchasing process
Successful sales people know that one of the most critical tasks is figuring out who holds the purse strings in the organization. In recent years, mid level managers have lost purchasing authority, though they do not care to readily admit it.
An excellent strategy to completely determine the key decision maker is to ask the prospect who in the organization will be involved in the purchasing process. This allows the prospect to save face. In the process, you will learn if the person’s manager, manager’s manager, CFO, or even CEO needs to be brought in. When they identify these people, you gain the ability to architect ongoing access to power. You are within your right to require one-on-one interviews or a kick off meeting with all stakeholders early on. Moreover, you are within your right to require periodic status meetings with the key participants.
Develop a written value plan with your client during the sales process
While it is possible to shepherd a complex sale from early consultation to proposal without a formal roadmap, there is a better way. Early in the process, skillful sales executives create a written value plan in partnership with the prospect. This plan should cover every stage of the sales cycle including pre-sale, purchase order to go live, and go live to value realization. Depending on the situation, it can be as informal as an email or as formal as a prepared document.
For starters, this plan gives your prospect that confidence that you are in it for the long haul and not just for your commission check. It proves that you understand the outcome is business and personal value realization and not a signed purchase order.
Most importantly, the value plan is also an excellent place for you to capture and address client objections. Ultimately, you want the document to build commitment that the prospect will purchase, provided you meet clearly articulated criteria.
Manage the change process for the customer
Once you have a signed deal, your work is only just beginning. In years past, you would simply ship your product to the customer with an instruction manual and be done with it. That worked reasonably well in the age of relatively unsophisticated products and less demanding customers. Today, you should take on the responsibility of managing the customer through the change process required to get the expected return on investment from your product.
By way of example, a plethora of studies have examined the percentage of customer relationship management (CRM) software installations that succeed and that fail. It turns out that approximately 20% of all CRM projects completely fail to deploy and another 50% do not provide meaningful return on investment. Given that the CRM market as of this writing is about $10 billion, companies are collectively pouring $7 billion down the drain. And, that $7 billion does not include untold billions in additional services, wasted time, and opportunity cost.
The big problem with CRM projects, and more generally with projects involving sophisticated products and services, is that suppliers rely on their customers to enact the change required for success. Inevitably, however, customers systematically underestimate the degree of change required and lack direct experience in getting value from your offering.
As the supplier, you have the most knowledge and experience of what it takes for customers to get value from your product. You will have seen the change processes that deliver success and those that result in failure. You have a moral and professional responsibility to manage the change processes on behalf of your customer.
Conduct Regular Value Reviews
I am willing to bet that most of your suppliers disappear after the sale and only magically reappear a month or two before you are expected to make your next purchase. I am also willing to bet that you find that unsavory.
Fortunately, there is a higher ground that you can reach which will make you stellar at selling to executives. That higher ground is reached by conducting periodic value reviews with your customer. During a value review, you have two main objectives.
The first objective is to collect and communicate feedback. If you did your job well during the initial sale, then the executive has a tangible set of expectations of the value that you will deliver. Ask the scary questions. Did we deliver what we promised? What could we have done differently? Also, gather insights on what went especially well. In many cases, the executive will not have direct knowledge of value received. Therefore, the opportunity rests with you to amass and communicate information from your people and systems and, more critically, from other individuals inside the executive’s company. Statements confirming value that are made by individuals in the executive’s own company are a thousand times more powerful than your own data or estimates.
During the value review, your second objective is to optimize value after the sale. This is your opportunity to suggest additional best practices and applications for your product or service. In short, it is your opportunity to delight your customer with service in a way that transforms you from just another sales person into a trusted partner.
At the end of the contract period, you should be able to confirm effortlessly that you met or exceeded the value the executive expected. By capturing feedback along the way, you avoid the scramble of trying to piece together the long forgotten past.
Create a new value plan to extend your relationship
During the course of periodic value reviews, you will have picked up on many opportunities to deliver new solutions in the next sales cycle. At the end of the contract period, go back into consultative selling mode. Take the time to uncover new unsolved problems as well as the executive’s updated strategic priorities. With that information, you can create a new value plan to extend your relationship.
Odds are that your competitors are lousy at consultative selling. You can excel by establishing value, ensuring that it gets delivered, and confirming the success of your relationship. Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at selling to executives:
- First identify the value
- Establish yourself as a trusted partner
- Determine the customer’s purchasing process
- Develop a written value plan with your client during the sales process
- Manage the change process for the customer
- Conduct Regular Value Reviews
- Create a new value plan to extend your relationship