The Simple Secret to Selling to the C-Suite

The Simple 
Secret toSelling tothe C-Suite

Nearly every client engagement or workshop I conduct attendees want to know the secret to getting in at the C-suite level in prospect organizations. I have to admit, I’m pretty good at this, but my approach my surprise youthere is no silver bullet.

First let me say, not every product or service requires you to enter companies at the C-level. C-level decision makers focus on decisions that create a material impact on the organization, usually revenues, profits, future growth, customers or competitors.

Typically, one level down deals with business operations surrounding manufacturing, marketing, sales, and customer service. Most of us sell at this level with the aim to help companies solve operational problems or boost efficiency. Frankly, we find it easier to research these issues and use our findings to set an initial meeting to discuss situational improvement.

Avoid Support Levels

The next level down puts us square into support-level decisions, which encompasses areas such as human resources, accounting, purchasing, legal, and training. Often, the products and services sold at this level are perceived as commodities, and the best price dictates success.

Unless you can bring a strategic view to your discussion, and even then, direct access to C-Level decision makers can seem unreachable. This simple chart will help you visualize your access path:

All of us know the frustration of this scenario: You get a solid introduction to the C-Level only to be turned around and referred all the way back down to the support level.

Here’s the ticket. You must always work to solve the business issues the C-Level focuses on if you hope to enter at this level. And because we know hope is not a strategy, you must act decisively in key areas.

For example, if you sell a basic product required in the company’s manufacturing process, the support level owns the relationship. If you bring measureable efficiency to the process, the operations level becomes your turf. But to rise to the level of the C-suite, you need to design a custom solution for its customer, or improve profit margins, or uncover a sustainable competitive advantage. Not for the faint of heart, I should say. This work is not sales 101. It’s consulting on steroids.

Forget Cold Calling

You don’t get to the C-Level by cold calling. According to Nicholas Read and Stephen Bistritz in their book, Selling to the C-Suite, cold calling ranks lowest of any sales approach; only 20 percent of prospect executives say they would grant a meeting. Not surprising.

The Secret

The best way to the top: Don’t start at the top. My secret is not to start at the top, but rather to get referred internally to the top. According to the 2012 Benchmark Report, a study extensive conducted among B-to-B buyers, buyers select services providers by referral from colleagues (79 percent). Equally important, referral from other service providers ranked second at 75 percent.

Approach someone of influence down the corporate ladder who’s dealing with a company issue or focused on a C-Level initiative. In order to pinpoint this flashpoint, you’ve got to do your research to uncover his or her identity.

Simple Tools

I find success in dealing with the mid-level executives in operations who report up to C-Level executives. Read the company’s annual report, pay close attention to the letter the CEO writes to the shareholders. Read between the lines. He will give you all the ammunition you need to craft a strategic approach into the company.

With this information in hand, I set a meeting with my operational-level target and plan to focus on the company’s overriding issues. Operational issues trigger a ripple effect across the company, so the pain is both acute and widespread. At the same time, remember that even operational-level contacts may need C-Suite approval, especially for large purchases. Help your target build her business case for the C-Suite.

Right Question

Once at the operational level, frame your value proposition in a way that allows your contact to sell it to higher-level executives. Asking one simple question early onwho has the final say on a decision like this?will spare you months of frustration and cleanly identify the C-Suite pulse point. Find the champion within the operational level who can refer you up to the C-Suite.

Here is an example: Recently, I was engaged by a wealth management firm which sells financial planning services to companies for their executives. I had accumulated a sizeable amount of solid research in this area and capitalized on it to frame my strategy for the client.

Good Case Study

One of my client’s advisors was calling on a large non-profit healthcare organization with 500 physicians, who were logical beneficiaries of my client’s services. The advisor had a choice to make: 1) Bring his services to the human resource department (support level) and discuss the value his program as an employee benefit; or, 2) Take his approach up one level to a physician (user-buyer) and explain how his plan could benefit the physicians and his colleagues personally.

After reading the annual report, the advisor discovered that the CEO had launched a $50 million fund-raising capital campaign to expand the healthcare organization. So our advisor approached the operational-level person in charge of the campaign with ideas on how to reach fund-raising goals.

Power of Collaboration

The two put their heads together and brainstormed a strategy to educate the physician groups on financial and estate planning by sharing certain tax planning ideas that would benefit both the physicians and the organization. When the ops level contact admitted that the campaign project was the CEO’s baby, the advisor knew what he had to do. He built her confidence and trust and soon she opened the door to the CEO’s office.

The secret to walking through the C-Suite is as simple as it is difficult:

  • Do your homework to identify what key issues the organization cares about.
  • Study these issues from as many angles as possible.
  • Identify an internal target one level down in operations that can refer you up to the C-Suite.
  • Focus on these key issues in all your conversations at all levels you touch.
  • No selling. Restrain yourself. You’re collaborating on solutions.
  • Create an open discussion on realistic alternatives to solve your prospect’s problems.

If you learn how to spark conversations at the C-Level that allow top executives to self-discover the seamless fit between their issues and your value solution, I promise you, you’ll be invited in to many more C-Suites.

Imagine, walking into the CEO’s office, quietly closing the door behind you, and sitting down to sign your multi-million dollar contract. You’ve earned that wide smile on your face.

See You on the Upside,


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