Selling To The C-Suite

By: Stephen Bistritz and Nicholas Read



According to Stephen Bistritz and Nicholas Read, selling to senior-level, or ‘C-Suite’, executives requires different skills and strategies from the more traditional departmental-level sale. It’s all about timing.

In the first phase, executives are most involved because a new sale is usually strategic and significant.

During the middle phase of the buying cycle, executives tend to reduce their involvement and delegate fine detail decisions to subordinates.

In the third phase, executives get involved again to make sure the vendors can really deliver and to ensure the benefits are achieved. So we need to be in tune with the C-suite.

Join with us for the next ten minutes to find out more from Bistritz and Read about what you need to know about selling to the top.

Lesson 1: The Four Types of Salespeople

Bistritz and Read identify four types of salespeople:

Type 1. The Commodity Supplier
Salespeople who are Commodity Suppliers see the world through a pair of product glasses. They believe that if they just get the opportunity to show their product or service, the features will make the sale. They have a belief so focussed on their product or service that they pay no attention to a customer’s needs. If the customer isn’t interested, they move on to another, thinking there’s plenty of fish in the sea. Executives tend to avoid commodity suppliers – passing them down to lower levels in their organisation.

Type 2: Emerging Resource
A persevering commodity supplier – one who has established some rapport with operations or middle management, may be considered an Emerging Resource. They have perhaps spent a bit more time doing homework on the customer. Their reward is identification as a “preferred supplier”. But often this is offset by the need to give preferential pricing or service.

Type 3: Problem Solver
A shift in focus from internal (a salesperson’ s products) to external (a customer’s issues) creates the Problem Solver. They see and talk about issues that aren’t immediately connected to a sale. Problem Solvers are usually forward-looking and more strategic, which gives them the opportunity to meet with executives who are looking for answers.

Type 4: Trusted Advisor
Trusted Advisors focus on the value of a personal relationship with the executive. They develop the relationship by first understanding the executive as a person, then secondly, the executive’s vision for their business. This enables the salesperson to extend a meeting with an executive into a greater opportunity by going beyond the sale and continuing a dialogue with the executive.

Lesson 2: Understanding What Executives Want

Bistritz and Read suggest that to motivate senior executives requires an understanding of the company’s key business issues, including the business drivers that are creating the need for change. These issues may have a different impact on each senior executive in the client organisation, depending on their function and role.

The authors tell us to immerse ourselves in our customers’ world to help us rise above the competition and be recognised as a real participant, as well as a real contributor to their success. So how do we do that? They give us four tasks.

Task 1. Get Into the Game
We need to get into the game of being rainmakers and not wait for customers to approach us. Here is our new mantra: “I will maximise my value to my customer executives this year by learning all I can about them, their company, their competitors, and their industries, and bringing them new ideas that they will then pay me to implement. The more I mean to them, the more they will mean to me.” Remember, selling is not a spectator sport.

Task 2. Work Backward
If our vision is to create value for executives, we must first anticipate what our customers want to achieve, then work backward from there to identify ways in which we can help them achieve those goals. When we begin with the customer’s destination and work backward to the solution, we will uncover useful information that people in the executive’s own company haven’t thought of. That’s valuable. It makes us a Trusted Advisor.

Task 3. Adopt a Routine
Researching your customer is a matter of personal accountability. If you don’t take time each week to sit down and study your customers, nobody else will step in and do it for you. Except maybe your competitors.

Task 4. Ask Lots of Questions
When we research our customers and understand their hot spots, we are equipping ourselves to have the conversations that an executive wants to have. Let the executive talk. Understand their point of view. Then they’ll eventually turn the discussion to ask, “So what do you do and how can you help me?”. Then it’s Ka-ching!

Lesson 3: What Drives an Executive Decision?

There are many factors that affect an executive’s decision and each of these factors need to be weighed up by both vendor and buyer. Bistritz and Read believe the following are the most important.

Financial Drivers: Every executive is under financial pressure to perform. If our solution positively affects these financial or industry drivers, and we’ll get the executive’s attention.

Operational Drivers: Executives concern themselves with trying to determine how to improve the internal organisation and affect the financial return based on that improvement. Look at how you can help executives do a better job of making, quality-controlling, selling, and delivering their business plan.

Supplier Drivers: If an executive is on the selling side of the supply chain, their concern is first about winning the contract, then about preserving quality and margins with buyers. If you are an executive on the buying side, your concern is with the reliability of supply, quality, economies of scale, inventory turnover, warehousing and distribution technologies. Where do your products or services address these concerns?

Business Partner Drivers: Your customers may be evaluating their business partner relationships in light of changing business environments. This is an opportunity to create value by demonstrating your understanding of their pressures and offer solutions through access to your network of people, partners, and affiliates who can add value.

Customer Drivers: Maintaining and growing their existing customer base, creating and enhancing loyalty, and delivering value are of prime importance to most executives. Again, where do your products and services fit in?

Competitor Drivers: Direct competitors are easy to identify, but nontraditional ones are more difficult to spot. We need to offer something the executives are looking for: insight into marketplace trends. We need to share ideas and help them see how other companies are solving the same competitor drivers they face.

Regulatory Drivers: Governments, industry regulators, and shareholders are demanding greater accountability and transparency from corporations. Companies must operate under new regulations designed to maintain stability in financial markets that are already under pressure, and to protect shareholder interests by restoring investor confidence. Can you help?

In most sales situations, if we ask questions about and do research on the ways in which these six external drivers affect our prospect, it will identify the people inside the company who are most affected by those drivers — those with the most to gain or the most to lose, and more importantly, those who will buy.

Lesson 4: How to Gain Access to the Executive Level

Gaining a first meeting with senior-level executives is relatively straightforward. But gaining return access to those same executives is the real art. Executives don’t waste time with people who add no value. Here is Bistritz and Read’s guidance.

Befriend the office sentinel. An executive’s assistant hears his boss on the phone all day, attends many of the same meetings, and understands what’s current. Therefore, courting the assistant as though he or she were the executive shows respect for the role they play and often opens doors that might otherwise remain closed.

Find the Right Executive. Calling on the wrong executive not only wastes the time and resources of salespeople, but also damages credibility and the chances of a future relationship with that executive. We need to identify the relevant executive for each sales opportunity, and take time to understand how the customer’s organisation works to uncover where influence, power, and control reside.

Movers and Shakers. Look for the people who are regarded as movers and shakers. If they are perceived as creating value, have a decent track record, and are connected to the sale we hope to make, they’re candidates for being the relevant executive.

  • Look for the people whose names are linked to many projects and discussions.
  • Look for the people who attend meetings and say very little, but whose few questions demonstrate deep insight that’s beyond what they’ve heard from you.
Look for the people whose opinions others defer to, regardless of their rank.
  • Look for the people who seldom act surprised when they hear breaking news.

Lesson 5: How to Establish Credibility at the Executive Level

Just as you try to qualify customers, so too are customers trying to qualify salespeople. To gain credibility at the executive level you need to provide value.

Executives are looking for someone who can be their advocate in the salesperson’s company and want to know that when the salesperson says they’re going to do something, they will deliver.

So, to build credibility, not only does the salesperson need to be personally responsive, but they need to have enough influence to convince others to be responsive as well.

So how is credibility developed? It comes about when the salesperson demonstrates capability and integrity.

Bistritz and Read tell us that we’ll know we’ve gained credibility when the executive:

Shares confidential information with us.

Asks us for advice on issues that are unrelated to our company solutions.

Asks us to sit in on key strategic planning meetings or staff meetings, demonstrating that we’re part of the client team.

Lesson 6: Cultivating Loyalty at the C-Suite

Companies cannot succeed unless they provide their customers with better value than the competition. Measuring customer and employee loyalty can accurately gauge the weaknesses in a company’s value proposition and help to prescribe a cure.

Bistritz and Read tell us we need to find out what is important to the executive. In doing so we may get a glimpse of his personal agenda. Here’s how we can deliver value that addresses both their business and personal motivations:

Step 1. What’s on the Web?

Go to the client’s website and access the last few annual reports. Check out business, financial, and industry sites that allow comparison with competitors. More information can be obtained from quarterly earnings conference calls to financial analysts.

Step 2. Create the Initial Relationship

We should look for ways to create an initial positive experience to begin the relationship. This may be our first opportunity to communicate with the client executive on a business level, and we need to demonstrate how we operate.

Step 3. Continually Expand the Relationship

We should find ways to learn more about our client’s business and continually expand our relationships with additional executives in their organisation taking the relationship up a notch.

Step 4. Form Long-Term Loyalty
Long-term loyalty is the result of continuous commitment to excellence in every task. When our client faces difficulties we should make ourselves available when times are hard, offering our support whenever possible.

Step 5. Continually Seek Ways to Excel
Finally and continually, we should enhance the client relationship using every opportunity to add value to the client organisation and, perhaps more importantly, to the client as well.

So there you have it, a powerful set of instructions for taking your business further by managing your C-Suite relationships to new levels of success.