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Selling to the C-Suite

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Over the last decade, I was involved with a research project involving CXO-level executives who were interviewed to learn about their relationships with professional salespeople. The research was conducted in North America, Asia and Europe and involved more than 500 interviews with CXO-level executives. The data gave birth to our new book, “Selling to the C-Suite” (McGraw-Hill, 2010). Initial questions were asked about when and why executives get involved in the buying process for major purchases. Here's what we discovered:
  • Salespeople who want to build executive-level relationships must enter the picture early in the buying process because this is when 80% of executives get involved when major purchase decisions are being made. The executives' motivation at this stage is to understand current business issues, establish project objectives and set overall project strategy.
  • During the middle phase of the buying process, executives tend to reduce their involvement and delegate decisions to lower-level subordinates or committees.
  • Late in the buying cycle, senior executives said they get involved again, but this time they're typically seeking to monitor implementation plans and measure results.
When these executives were asked what has to happen in meetings with salespeople for them to feel these meetings were effective, they said they want salespeople who are willing to be held accountable, provide value and deliver results. Also, they don't want to educate salespeople about either their business or their industry—they expect salespeople to have that knowledge before making the first call. And, most important, they want salespeople to listen before proposing a solution—not someone with a solution looking for a home. When we asked those same executives what characteristics salespeople have to demonstrate to become perceived as trusted advisers, the answers were very similar:
  • Ability to marshal resources;
  • Understood my business goals;
  • Responsive to my requests;
  • Willingness to be held accountable;
  • The ability to marshal resources was the single most important factor cited for building credibility. In other words, these executives want a single point of contact who has responsibility and accountability for the solution, even if multiple business partners are involved. With the complexity of today's solutions, which potentially involve global partners, this was seen as an evolving issue. The bottom line is that executives are looking to build relationships with salespeople whom they perceive to be involved for the long term, not just for any particular buying decision. They also want to build relationships with salespeople who deliver significant business value and are responsive and accountable. Stephen J. Bistritz is president and founder of SellXL, a global sales training and consulting firm, and co-author of “Selling to the C-Suite” (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He can be reached at steveb@sellxl.com.
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