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5 Myths About Selling to the C-Level


5 Myths About Selling to the C-Level

Written by: David Robinson

This MMD speaks about technology sales, but not really. 

Substitute your vertical wherever it says “technology” or “IT” and the same principles apply in your world.

1)  The objective of a C‑Level meeting is to start to develop a relationship

A decade ago, this was one of the main objectives for seeking a C‑Level interaction. But the 2008‑2009 financial crisis left executives shaken, focusing on survival. While the sense of “my company is at risk” has abated, growth remains elusive, and the habits and psychology that were developed after 2008 have persisted. There is limited bandwidth at the C‑Level for activities that don’t have a strong and fairly immediate business impact – and developing new relationships with outside salespeople has zero priority.

Reality: When I talk to C‑Level executives, they tell me that when they agree to meet with salespeople, they aren’t looking for relationship – they are looking for value. Translation: significant economic benefit. Accordingly, the dominant focus in C‑Level competency development has shifted from soft skills to value propositions, and to the capabilities needed to convey them succinctly and powerfully.

That’s not to say that relationship development is off the table. But one (or both) of the following two elements needs to be in place for C‑Level meetings to go beyond value proposition discussions and actually advance relationships:

  • Positional relevance – Does the outside individual have a continuing reason to be in relationship with a C‑Level executive? Someone from the tax practice of an accounting firm certainly has positional relevance with the CFO. Likewise, someone from an I/T firm selling software has positional relevance with the CIO. But that same software salesperson does not have positional relevance with the CMO, for example. In that case, a meeting with the CMO will rest on the value proposition and will be more transactional.
  •  Subject matter impact – The best example here is a strategy firm interacting with the CEO – or the investment banker’s relationship with that same individual around a M&A transaction. The subject matter they deal with has a broad scope and huge impact for the whole company, naturally promoting a continuing relationship.

2)  If we can get to a C‑Level executive early in the sales cycle, we can gain powerful direct sponsorship that will overcome other internal obstacles and speed up the sales cycle

On its face, this assertion is largely correct. If a company can get a C‑Level executive to directly sponsor a new value proposition in the very early discussions, it is much more likely to move forward quickly through the sales cycle.

Reality: The issue here is that C‑Level executives seldom move to direct sponsorship of a value proposition based on an early meeting. Most often, if they find the idea potentially appealing, they will “endorse” further discussion with their staff. But that endorsement typically only gives the outside company permission to proceed with collaborative discussions at a lower level – it is not an authorization to “steamroller” things through. The expectation is that the discussion will return to the C‑Level executive only if his/her staff finds it attractive.

The difficulty for the outside company is one of the reasons for seeking the initial C‑Level meeting: there may be a real gap between the C‑Level executive’s strategic perspective, and the tendency of the lower level discussions to get bogged down in tactical detail or slowed by risk aversion. It is therefore critical for the salesperson to secure agreement for a return meeting with the C‑Level executive after the staff review, to ensure that the strategic perspective provided by the C‑Level executive stays in play.

While salespeople are trained to ask for a return meeting, their error is thinking that they are in a continuing 1-1 discussion with the C‑Level executive and asking from that perspective. As a result, they frequently don’t get that agreement. If instead they acknowledge the need to create consensus inside the C‑Level executive’s organization and then return for a review, they are much more likely to gain agreement for a return meeting.

3)  Bringing a peer senior executive from our company will help the meeting succeed

There is a belief that having one of the external company’s C‑Level executives participate in a meeting will help in securing it and will raise the probability of success.

C‑Level executives tell me that when they are approached for a meeting that will include a peer executive, they will be somewhat more inclined to take the meeting as a courtesy – even in cases where they would not do so with the account manager only.

Reality: At the same time, they tell me that they accept these meetings with low expectations that they will be valuable, given their previous experience with these “peer‑to‑peer” meetings.

Often when salespeople utilize this “bring our peer C‑Level” approach, the external company’s senior executive does not devote the time to be adequately briefed on the details behind the value proposition. (Salespeople tell me about “briefings in the taxi on the way to the customer.”) As a result, he/she isn’t positioned to add value. The salesperson who understands the value proposition will often defer to his/her senior executive to lead the meeting, and it becomes a relationship meeting vs. one that deals with value – which makes it of low utility for the customer C‑Level executive.

One C‑Level executive puts it this way: “I don’t have time any more for tea and coffee meetings with outside companies. I need meetings that focus on business value and specific propositions to achieve it.”

Bringing a peer executive doesn’t have to fall into the myth category – a thoroughly briefed senior executive who can speak directly and specifically to business value in the meeting can in fact increase its chances of success and will certainly increase the chances of obtaining the meeting.

But the reverse is often true. The inclusion of the peer executive does help to secure the meeting, but with a poorly prepared peer executive the customer C‑Level executive has a low value experience. It’s all courtesy and smiles as the meeting ends, but the prospects for continued engagement have in fact been seriously damaged, as has the external company’s image in the C‑Level executive’s eyes.

4)  C‑Level executives beyond the CIO are interested in hearing our views on new information technologies

Information technology companies love new and emerging technologies, because they create excitement and new opportunities. They tend to believe that C‑Level executives beyond the CIO share that same fascination, and their salespeople will often lead C‑Level meetings with “here’s where things are going” presentations in a given area of information technology, believing that they are responding to inherent C‑Level interest.

Reality: There are two kinds of C‑Level meetings with I/T companies – those where the expectation is that the outside company will bring a value proposition, and those where the expectation (and specific request) is to hear perspective on new technologies. Mixing the latter into a meeting where the expectation is a specific business value discussion is a serious mistake and can lead to a difficult interaction.

Technology companies frequently fail to understand the difference between these types of meetings, and their salespeople are seduced by their company’s internal messaging about new and emerging technology into believing that the same level of interest exists at the C‑Level in their customers.

What’s most interesting is what a number of C‑Level executives have told me: that if they really want to understand the implications of new technologies, they’ll call in one of the major strategy firms for a briefing – not a technology firm.

5)  C‑Level executives are interested in learning more broadly about the supplier company and its strategies

Surprised that this is even on the list? I was when I first encountered it.

I know of multiple large, well-known companies whose sales management executives believe that C‑Level executives will be interested in their company and its strategies – broadly, and beyond what is needed to qualify a specific value proposition under discussion.

These companies have given their salespeople guidance to include broad information about their company’s strategy in meetings as a precursor to value proposition discussions, and they have created other kinds of programs whose intent is to help C‑Level executives in their customers understand them in more depth.

Reality: C‑Level executives care about their own companies — period. They aren’t at all interested in their suppliers’ strategies or business – other than to learn information directly relevant to specific value propositions that can add significant benefit to their own companies. There are some very specific cases when elements of a supplier’s strategy are relevant: for example, a software company may discuss its forward plans to keep a software offering relevant with continued investment.

Related: What to Do When the Big Deal Has Gone Bad

I have puzzled over what could lead companies that otherwise counsel their salespeople to be “customer-oriented” to believe in this myth, and still haven’t figured it out, except that it clearly comes from an “inside-out” way of thinking about customer interactions. It remains for me one of those unexplained mysteries of large corporate thinking.

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