Selling to the C-suite: Preparing Sales Teams for Random Encounters & Predictable Questions

by | Mar 18, 2016 | Sales

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The successful sale of a complex B2B product or solution often faces the twin challenges of addressing multiple customer stakeholders and of driving change or innovation at a customer organization.

Engaging a customer executive can improve the quality of a sales opportunity, generating customer responsiveness and speeding up the sales cycle. One good C-suite conversation can kick start a buying process, motivate stakeholders and generate organizational urgency.

Selling to the C-Suite is easy to say, hard to do, and harder to scale. Let’s look at some key ingredients that make successful C-suite conversations scalable.

Be Prepared. The big C-suite meeting has a way of becoming the focal point or the holy grail of a sales executive’s account plan. These meetings can and should be well researched, planned and coordinated.

But just as often, a C-suite conversation is a random, short-notice or no-notice event. Customer executives like to drop into a meeting, to get a better sense of an opportunity or to test the credibility of a vendor for themselves. Good executives are constantly identifying improvement initiatives on their own and they want to assess their team’s ability to recognize opportunities and to make good decisions about spending resources and time. Executives believe that their responsibility is to make decisions about where to put an enterprise’s chips in driving organizational change. Random executive encounters should be expected.

When engaging with the C-suite, it is important that your sales team understands its audience. Every customer executive may represent a unique personality and challenge, but C-suite behaviors are predictable. With all their personal quirks and foibles, 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 planned or unplanned C-suite encounter, it is important that customer-facing teams anticipate the two or three things executives will want to understand and accomplish. It is essential that teams prepare for an executive’s regular use of seemingly random questions.

The key to scaling successful C-suite conversations is to build and develop three organizational capabilities: sales skills, the right tools and content, and teamwork.

1. Skills. Skills training is useful both for sales reps and for other members of the customer-facing team. For any planned encounter with the C-suite, good sales teams selling complex solutions usually include the relevant technical expertise and the ability to communicate credibly how other customers have succeeded using your product. With only one shot at the executive, having the right resources on hand makes sense.

That means that selling to executives is a team sport and that team skills are essential when grappling with unpredictable meetings and questions. Sales training needs to extend to pre-sales and technical sales professionals with a recognition of roles and skill sets.

In any sales skills training, it is critical to use your success: celebrate it, recognize it and make it clear that you reward it. Real success experiences motivate and prepare your team. Successful C-suite encounters, war stories about saved deals that were at risk, random meetings that went right, meeting follow-up tactics and closed deals with dollar signs attached are as useful or more useful than pure, stand-alone skills training.

That said, training is never enough. Training can be complex, time-intensive and expensive. Sporadic adoption of best sales practice is often the result. It is important that the right tools and content be deployed together with any training. These tools need to be usable in conversations to be embraced by sales. And the content needs to be useable in a customer conversation at the moment of truth.

2. Tools and Content. Design useful team content and tools for executive conversations:

  • Keep it simple. With limited time and bandwidth, executives are trying to reach a decision, in the meeting if possible. A decision to test a solution and to delegate that testing represents a meeting victory even if the executive decision is not a decision to buy. If a sales team can’t keep it clear, they will lose their audience. If they can’t keep it simple, they will fail to emerge from an executive encounter with concrete next steps.

  • Have your Value Proposition ready. Your teams need to be prepared with content that’s customer-centric and that answers the single most likely C-suite question: what is the bottom line impact? A Value Proposition does that. A quantitative Value Proposition does it better than a qualitative Value Proposition. Qualitative Value Propositions point to customer results. They highlight the two or three ways your product is better. Quantitative Value Propositions crystalize the business case for customer organizations to invest time, money and energy in your solution. Numerically, in dollars (or euros) and cents.

  • Deploy SMART, flexible, interactive tools to obtain and present content. The only way to deal with executive randomness is to expect the unexpected and control the meeting as best as you can. Linear PowerPoint presentations are scalable but they are so ‘90s and so inflexible. They don’t engage and they don’t invite a conversation. Smart tools let you deal with C-Suite randomness: pointing and clicking based on the questions on their minds, addressing their concerns, and adjusting to what they said earlier in the meeting. Not going any further than you have to go, but addressing an executive’s key questions. That flexibility can help turn a droning, one-way presentation into a customer conversation. A customer conversation makes it possible for an executive light bulb to blink on and stay on for the rest of the meeting. And afterwards.

3. Teamwork. Marketing and sales collaboration is a hot topic these days, but sales and pre-sales alignment is just as important. For complex products and solutions, pre-sales/technical sales are critical to the sales process. A study by a McKinsey team published in the Harvard Business Review found that the payoffs from augmenting presales are a 5-point improvement in conversion rates, a 6-13% improvement in revenue, and a 10-20% improvement in the speed of moving prospects through the sales process.

Sales is a team sport. Every team has members with diverse skills, diverse experiences, and diverse temperaments. Every player has roles to play. For any team, building and sustaining a good clubhouse is the difference between winners and losers.

Sales does not always understand pre-sales. Team tensions are bound to arise. Sales reps frequently think pre-sales professionals provide too much information that is too complicated. They tear their hair out as the customer’s eyes glaze over in face-to-face meetings or as they imagine a customer’s reaction in virtual meetings. Sales reps perceive patterns that turn into attitudes when pre-sales team members don’t listen to the customer, lack interpersonal skills, mismanage a meeting and don’t position for post-call follow-up at the end of the meeting.

On the flip side, pre-sales often does not understand sales. They think sales reps waste their time by bringing them to meetings with prospects that haven’t been well enough qualified. They see sales reps that don’t brief them adequately, don’t prepare them well enough, don’t orchestrate meetings well and overpromise to the customer. Good pre-sales team members try to work their way into a position of being a trusted advisor to customers and sometimes look down on pushy sales reps who don’t share this objective.

Shared Value Propositions between sales and pre-sales can be a great focal point for teams playing in the C-Suite. They provide clear and simple messaging and consistent meeting preparation. They are customer-centric, not product-centric. They get directly to results and the bottom line. They help develop customer collaboration and build trust. They’re about a conversation and a continued refinement of a value message to the specifics of the customer. Shared value propositions help build a winning clubhouse.

Direct C-suite engagement may not be necessary in closing all complex B2B deals. But customer executive involvement can make a critical difference in many deals and sales processes. Being ready for an executive conversation is not hard. A sales player/coach/manager preparing a team with X’s and O’s should recognize the need to prepare for executive encounters with useful, scalable Value Propositions. For many great organizations, shared Value Propositions are a focal point that mobilize sales team success.

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