4 Realities Sellers Need to Align With and Engage Executives

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling® – The Sales Training Company

1. Stop relying on product and features to sell.

If sellers are unfamiliar with a vendor they are competing with, some companies have competitive analysis groups to help them with positioning. These groups often arm sellers with “knock-offs” (specific features they feel are advantages). There are two dangers with this approach: The differentiators are the opinions of the vendor, not buyers; and focusing on a handful of features can interfere with sellers doing a good job of selling their offerings.

Today’s reality is that development times and product cycles are getting compressed. Professor Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School has written books on the subject and indicates that long-term sustainable competitive product advantages are the exception rather than the rule.

Even if a vendor enjoyed a product advantage, it would be hard to leverage it when calling at very high levels. Consider a seller calling on a CFO to pitch a hosted customer relationship management (CRM) offering. I’d venture to say that as sellers climb the ladders of prospect organizations the calls should become less product-intense. The calls four CRM vendors would make on a CFO would sound hauntingly similar. Few executive buyers will tolerate sellers getting granular about product differences, so save the product pitch.

2. Focus on business issues and outcomes.

Old selling habits linger. Salespeople are expected to be product experts. Companies continue to provide extensive product training to sellers when the current marketplace needs more business experts. In today’s environment, whom are sellers “educating?” Mid- to lower-levels educate themselves via the Internet. They don’t want to be influenced or manipulated when determining their requirements. Meanwhile, few senior executives would tolerate product presentations. They’re very busy and just want to understand the potential value that can be realized.

3. Realize that time is not on your side.

A recent study funded by Microsoft reached a disturbing conclusion. It found that the average attention span of people has fallen significantly in the last few years. Since 2000 it has decreased by one-third and now stand at eight seconds. To put that into context, we now have attention spans that are one second less than that of a goldfish.

With the proliferation of technology in our lives we’re bombarded by constant interruptions. I can’t help but wonder what the result would have been if it the study had focused solely on senior executives. In my experience, many CEO’s appear to suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. They struggle to stay focused, living instead within a swiftly moving stream of consciousness.

If and when sellers have an opportunity to talk with senior executives, they should be aware of the buyers’ attention span. Failure to do so can lead to dreaded referrals to lower level staff somewhere in the middle of meetings.

4. Provide superior buying experiences to get more.

The reality for sales organizations is this: One of the few sustainable competitive advantages is providing superior buying experiences for executive buyers. This can be achieved by doing these six things:

  1. Discovering business outcomes they would like to achieve.
  2. Helping them understand why outcomes are difficult to achieve in their current environment.
  3. Providing only the relevant capabilities that are indicated.
  4. Establishing value.
  5. Empowering buyers to achieve their desired goals.
  6. Integrating an executive’s buying process with the vendor’s selling process.

After successful calls, it is important to summarize what was discussed via an email and/or letter and specify some next steps because executives usually want to see a path forward. If and when you need to be introduced to lower levels, make sure you maintain a lifeline to the executive by keeping him or her abreast of what you learned. Failure to do so can make opportunities drop off the radar screen.

Several studies show decision makers like to be involved early and late in buying cycles. A technique that I’ve found invaluable through the years is to try to establish fairly early on that if a written recommendation needs to be issued, that the decision maker will review a draft copy to ensure the proposal is written and allow any necessary changes to be made. This will mean no surprises to the prospect and allows a seller to get the proposal right the first time. What I find is that once the proposal has been reviewed and any changes have been made, it may be an ideal time to ask for and close the business.

It used to be that if all things were fairly equal (price, product, etc.) the better salesperson would win the lion’s share of opportunities. Today, vendors (website, messaging, and sales approach) that provide superior buying experiences are most likely to prevail.