Selling to the C-Suite: 7 Pitfalls to Avoid

by | Apr 7, 2016 | Sales

HomeBlogSalesSelling to the C-Suite: 7 Pitfalls to Avoid

Any C-suite meeting for B2B sales teams is an important event. It represents that rare opportunity to access decision-makers directly, to leverage senior management in motivating customer teams and to break the logjam of customer inaction. Yet the outcome of big meetings often fails to meet hopes and expectations. Why not?

Failure is almost always rooted in inadequate preparation. C-suite meetings must be well researched, planned and orchestrated. Organizational capabilities matter. Skills, experience, tools, content and teamwork all contribute to success.

It is just as important that a sales team understands its audience. While every customer executive represents a unique personality and challenge, C-suite behaviors are predictable. Executives across organizations tend to:

  • Be results focused
  • Have limited bandwidth
  • Control meetings
  • Focus on the bottom line
  • Design processes and delegate
  • Have wide & varied interests

In any C-suite encounter, a customer-facing team needs to anticipate what executives want to accomplish and be ready for the regular use of seemingly random questions.

With deliberate unpredictability sitting across the table, a sales team needs to expect the unexpected. To help highlight some risks of meetings with customer executives, here are seven recurring C-Suite meeting pitfalls:

1. Customer orchestration failure. After months of being blocked by gatekeepers and middle management unwilling to take initiative, sales reps invariably react with relief when they finally get access to a decision-maker. Often they’ve had to work hard to gain admission to the C-suite, pulling strings, pushing content and manipulating friends and foes to get executive access. When booking the C-suite meeting, it can be tempting for reps to set up the meeting without checking back in or coordinating with previous mid-level contacts. After all the executive is the boss: he or she can decide who from the customer team is invited to the meeting.

Passive behavior toward the rest of a customer organization is usually a mistake. Unless customer executives provide specific signals about who should be involved at their organization, failure to coordinate with lower level contacts can create havoc and cause damage. A rep’s failure to orchestrate those contacts often turns an apathetic or an uncourageous customer contact into an enemy. Invariably it signals to the executive that the rep is unlikely to be effective in orchestrating effective communication with or within the customer’s organization. It can even result in a rep showing up for the big C-suite meeting, sitting in a lobby past the scheduled time, only to have a gatekeeper show up for the meeting, alone, delivering the message that the executive had a conflict.

2. Failure to deliver the right sales team. Sales reps, finally getting the right meeting and celebrating it, sometimes succumb to a combination of overconfidence and nervousness about their own team’s performance. They got the meeting. It’s their commission. They know the customer. They think they understand why the executive is engaged. Unlike their technical colleagues, they know how to keep it simple. So they make the mistake of taking the meeting solo.

Typical C-suite behaviors should have dictated a different approach. Executives, with wide and varied interests, make it a habit to ask unpredictable questions. A sales rep might get lucky or might be very smart. But there is a reason that most B2B customer-facing teams include supporting specialists: pre-sales, technical sales, sales engineers, product managers and subject matter experts. Knowledge about how a complex product or solution works in practice is often specific and technical. Solo reps, floundering in the face of random executive expertise and questions, usually squander C-suite opportunities.

3. Poor sales team coordination. Most good sales reps and pre-sales professionals are busy. But an unbriefed, uncoordinated team performance is inexcusable. And a conversation in the lobby ten minutes before the meeting is never a substitute for planning far enough ahead to design a good agenda, to set meeting objectives, to prepare for likely questions and to customize meeting materials to the situation.

Avoiding the worst mistakes may not require live, pre-meeting discussion time. Half-decent email communication can avoid content for the wrong type of customer or materials for the wrong solution.

But it usually takes a live, pre-meeting conversation to understand who will be in the meeting, what they already know and what their objectives are. It usually takes a live, pre-meeting conversation to anticipate customer problems and think through what their key questions are likely to be. Meetings are rarely effective when a sales team covers old ground or comes unprepared to address key customer issues.

4. Failure to be customer-centric. Product managers, pre-sales, sales engineers and other technical reps tend to love their products. And that passion is probably part of the reason their products are of potential customer interest. But customer executives typically have limited bandwidth for the detailed technical workings of a vendor’s complex product.

A survey of buyer executives conducted by Forrester showed that vendor sales people score well in terms of how knowledgeable they are about their own company and their own products. But vendor sales reps score badly with buyer executives in their understanding of the customer, the customer’s business and how they can help the customer. The buyer executives polled by Forrester indicated that only 12% of sales calls added value. Executive meetings fail because training and content are often oriented toward the vendor’s company and the vendor’s product, not how the product delivers value for the customer.

5. Failure to engage. In order to survive, successful sales reps have to develop listening skills and the ability to get customers talking. For pre-sales professionals and technical reps, the skills and tact to draw customers into conversations are rarely as well developed. Their training is typically content-oriented and their customer experience is usually built by making presentations, not engaging in conversation.

We have all seen the avoidable movie. Pre-sales comes into an executive meeting and launches into a presentation; not drawing comments, not soliciting questions, not drawing a breath. Often the executive pulls out a mobile device or politely leaves the meeting.

The best possible outcome of a droning, non-stop, pre-sales presentation is that the customer executive, used to controlling meetings, interrupts with a question. At least the executive is paying attention and asserting their controlling instincts. Even that modest victory can be shattered when the pre-sales response is to say, “Hold that for a few minutes, I have a slide later to address that.” Sales teams need to turn presentations into conversations.

6. Failure to discuss a bottom-line impact. The single most likely customer questions in any C-suite meeting run along the lines of: “Tell me how this will make me money. How much money I can expect to make? When? Show me the ROI.” If a sales team has not prepared either to present content relevant to these predictable questions or to answer them, they should expect unsuccessful meetings.

Customer executives are themselves asked these questions by their board, their analysts and their shareholders every day. A sales team fumbling the answer is often a sign that product management didn’t provide the right sales collateral and tools. A sales team fumbling the answer is almost always a clear signal that the team doesn’t understand their B2B customers and that they have failed to prepare.

7. Failure to keep the meeting focused on executive concerns. Good executives surround themselves with smart people. And many of those smart people are instinctively and sometimes deliberately capable of hijacking a meetingwith clever questions They see it as part of their job to ask tough questions and get into the weeds. Their doing so is often a combination of self-preservation and scoring points. When they ask tough, complex questions, those questions are not necessarily of vital interest to the executive in the room. Answering them in detail, as a pre-sales professional is usually tempted to do, may dispose of the question at an analytical level, but also may confuse or bore innocent bystanders. Having simple, clear answers to tough questions is vitally important. Having simple, clear answers often makes it possible to deflect or defer substantive and analytical answers to an offline conversation with Mr. or Ms. Detail.

Meetings are not always controllable. Not everyone is satisfied with crisp, bottom-line answers. But a good sales rep continuously tries to make sure that a C-suite meeting stays focused on what the C-suite cares about.

Preparing and using Value Propositions in C-suite meetings is an effective way to avoid these pitfalls. Value Propositions provide clear and simple messaging. They become a focal point for consistent meeting preparation. They are customer-centric, not product-centric. They get directly to outcomes and bottom line results that executives invariably want to hear about.

Value Propositions also help develop a customer conversation that refines a shared understanding of how a product delivers value to the specifics of that customer. By drawing a customer into a collaborative conversation, Value Propositions help to build customer trust.

Shared Value Propositions between sales and pre-sales can be a great focal point for teams preparing for and playing in the C-Suite. Shared value propositions help build a winning clubhouse.

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