7 Executive Sales Tips – Introduction

Account Managers are always looking to have meetings with the executives from their customer; this is entirely laudable, but is fraught with danger as well as opportunity.  It is very important to plan these CxO level engagements with great care and also to be aware of the potential surprises that await you as you cross the threshold of the corner office.

You will need to take the long-term view on executive relationships – it takes time and hard work to develop the kind of connections with high level individuals that can be leveraged to enhance sales.  The overall approach is a very sensitive one – you are unlikely to become the friend of the executive – she will have enough trouble managing the friends she’s already got – but you should aim to become a partner that can add value from the outset and then a trusted advisor as the rapport  builds up.

As table stakes, you need to research the likely top of mind issues that the executive will be focused on when you meet her.  Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that these will all be to do with you and the way your account is managed – this is unlikely to be of immediate concern to her.  What is important in terms of preparation is to anticipate what her big issues will be and make bridges between those issues and the value that you could offer.  Life being what it is, you won’t be able to cover every base prior to the meeting, but the more you think about possible angles, the more you will be able to think on your feet when you are in conversation.

7 Executive Sales Tips – Case Study

As ever, the best way of understanding how to construct successful executive conversations is to look at a real-life example and pull out some lessons.  In this case, the account manager of a networking supplier was working with a global Internet Service Provider (ISP).  The AM had a clear idea of what he wanted to achieve with the customer:

  • Enhance the amount of revenue with the customer – not an unusual aim!
  • Increase the profitability by widening the range of equipment sold into higher margin product categories.
  • Begin to sell software to allow the ISP to market Software as a Service (SaaS).

The AM was also very aware of how the ISP viewed his company – a low level network supplier who was becoming ever more commoditized by intense competition from overseas vendors – his value was in a state of continuous erosion.  This had to be redressed urgently and he made the correct decision of taking it to the top of the ISP to tackle the issue with the CEO.

He was smart enough to figure out that going to the CEO and saying something along the lines of “You are commoditizing the products of my company and it’s not fair” was probably not going to work.  He adopted a much more intelligent strategy by anticipating the key issues the CEO would have at the top of her priority list and tried to build links between them and his objectives.

His analysis of the CEO’s likely issues was as follows:

The ISP’s stated objectives were:

  • Launch new services for clients to enhance revenue
  • Drive more value-added benefits for their customers to improve margins
  • Cut costs and improve free cash flow

There was nothing too unusual here of course, but the AM looked a bit further than just this top level strategic wish list.  His contacts in the account were good, allowing him to build a picture around the official and unofficial communications in the company.  To further build up the intelligence picture, he had strong financial acumen enabling him read the published numbers carefully, adding concrete figures to support the more subjective feedback he was getting from his middle management associates inside the customer.

The ISP was suffering from a drop-off in profitability and issues with insufficient free cash flow caused by high operational costs and lower than expected revenues.  There were obviously a set of opportunities lying in wait, albeit hidden behind  the threat of spending cuts, demands for discount and extended credit lines.

In preparation for the meeting the AM was able to build up a compelling story around how profitable revenues could be generated from investment in his company’s hardware and software solutions.  Funding could be made available to ease the cash flow issues being experienced by the customer and assuming willingness to dialogue constructively, he felt that he was set fair to have a good CEO meeting.

As always, the plan of attack lasted about 30 seconds into the meeting – the CEO was not interested in spending a penny with the vendor and felt that the AM was partially responsible for the ISP’s current somewhat impoverished state!   Despite this discouraging start, the AM kept his composure and started to probe for penetration points; if he was to take away the cash flow issues and assist in building and selling a successful and profitable service, wouldn’t the CEO be interested in talking further?  Having achieved that foundation, he then offered the prospect of the sales force from the AM’s company  getting behind the ISP service offering and selling it to their customers – a new free sales force for the CEO.

The makings of a deal were thrashed out fairly quickly and another meeting was booked into the schedule with a great deal less fuss than previously. 

I think the key lessons here are:

  • The AM was well prepared – he knew what he wanted out of the customer relationship, but much more importantly, he had made a series of assumptions about what his customer may want.  He built up this picture from formal and informal messaging and from the published financial results of the customer.
  • He had made some assumptions about how his aspirations and the needs of the customer may overlap and at least had a framework for discussion.
  • When the meeting took place, even though it appeared to start badly (very much the norm), the AM recovered to position the framework of progress based on his preparatory work.
  • He established the fact that he was an adder of value and was able to book up a second meeting in which more detail and value would be brought to the table.
  • The CEO immediately ceased to view the AM as just another vendor hungry for her funds, but a partner willing to adapt his approach to the needs of the ISP – a perfect place for both the CEO and the AM to find themselves.

7 Keys Themes

By now we have established that as an Account Manager you will need to build relationships at CxO level in order to really get ‘under the covers’ of your account, exert subtle influence and reap the rewards of adding value to your customer.  Reciprocal altruism is the name of the game – your aim is to become a trusted advisor in the corridors of the executive suite.

Your only hope of getting to this stage is to have a series of ever more productive executive conversations and it is the purpose of this section to provide you with some critical tips on how to make these interactions work well.  While these conversations are a critical part of success, if they go wrong, they are the death knell of many aspiring account managers who lose credibility, self-confidence and trust by running poor meetings that tend to be one-off occasions that are never rewarded with a follow-up because they were executed so badly.

With that in mind, here are my 8 ‘Top Tips’ for executive conversations that should stand you in good stead as you begin the journey to better customer relationships:

#1 – Make Sure It’s a 2-Way Street

I hope that we’ve established that unless you can be seen to be giving something to the executive, you’re going to be having a very short meeting indeed.  It should go without saying that the best strategy for success it thorough preparation – glean as much data as you can from all of your contacts and the published information of the company in question.  Build up a picture of the overall situation and try to envisage synergies between the issues the executive is facing and your value proposition.  Oftentimes it’s the small things that make the most impact, so don’t be dismissive of requests or value-add opportunities that seem too insignificant to be of value.

Here are some examples of the kind of relatively small things that are impactful in the at this level and provide the groundwork for the bigger stuff which we’ll get to later:

  • Feedback on your customer’s products and services is always gratefully received (avoid sycophantic praise and at the same time, do be careful with constructive criticism – diplomacy is the key).  You will often find that you are a direct consumer of your account’s products or you know about B2B customers who are clients of your account.  Direct feedback is always appreciated – it’s actually really surprising how difficult it is for executives to get street-level  opinion on their market offerings and so the provision of this kind of feedback is not just an ice-breaker, but a very useful business input.
  • Industry insights which you may have – you will have been reading trade magazines and web sites to build your knowledge and you may well have access to useful market research.  Do not assume that your target executive will have read as much as you – she will be under huge time pressure and stress and so having some useful tidbits served up by you can be very enlightening – again, subtlety to avoid being patronizing or looking idiotic is important – my message here is, be prepared with a lot of knowledge and do not assume that all of it is generally known.
  • Follow up conversations about interesting topics with links to web sites, Tweets and blogs – most account managers I talk to assume that this kind of thing just hits the Deleted Items folder without being opened – while this of course does happen, if you have made an impact in the meeting, people are usually rather interested in what you’ve had to say and will be keen to pursue follow up material.  So don’t just send rubbish in the hope of staying ‘top of mind’.  Find useful material and send it through – and don’t forget that even CxO’s like to get parcels (honestly it’s true) so if you can find a relevant book on a particular topic, buy it and post it to her.
  • Try to promote executive contact with your own organization.  At this level, you will always have ego playing a role in behavior, so pander to it in a non-obsequious way.  How you approach this depends on the relative size of your companies and the profile of your own CxO’s.  Work it out so that meetings can be arranged and your customer is made to feel that she is an important part of your CxO inner circle of strategic customers.  This has a long term effect of driving closer relationships and the immediate effect of building trust and customer intimacy.
  • Nowadays executives are making appearances on TV and Radio all the time as well as publishing content on the Internet such as blogs, Tweets,  YouTube postings etc.  Executives are only human and they really like to hear that you’ve seen and enjoyed their performance or posting.  This is useful in conversation and it’s always a great idea to drop a mail or SMS to the executive after an appearance to say well done and that you enjoyed it.  As ever, avoid being a suck-up – the trick is to be natural and sincere rather than contrived and calculating – it’s easy for the executive to spot the difference.

Those are the small things that you can do that provide the foundations for making progress with executives.  On their own, they won’t win you multi-million dollar deals, but they are the baby steps that you are looking for in starting to build a long term relationship.

#2 – Run Your Value Proposition Past the Executive

No matter how big you perceive your brand to be, or alternatively, how insignificant you fear you will appear on the CxO’s radar, it’s always going to be critical to be well prepared to pitch your value proposition at the earliest opportunity.  You should assume no real knowledge on the part of the executive – she will be in information overload mode and will have forgotten or never really known what your company does.  If you fail to articulate the value proposition, you’re going to have an unproductive meeting – she will not want to reveal her lack of familiarity and you will have the uncomfortable feeling that everything you are trying to discuss is not being fully registered.

The delivery of the proposition in these types of meeting is critical.  A stumbling and muddled overview will cause instant dis-engagement and an early end to your meeting.  An overbearing and arrogant sermon will have similar results.  You have to pitch it right and here are some pointers:

  • Continually look for visual clues that the customer is engaged – as soon as you see a glimmer of attention loss, ask a question to get re-connection.
  • Be brief – no more than 5 key bullet points.
  • Be relevant – it is of no value whatsoever to recount information that is not relevant to the executive’s environment (a classic mistake is telling her about your company re-organization – she doesn’t care)
  • Ensure that you look for benefits and synergies with the executives to encourage interest
  • Get some numbers into the discussion – make sure they’re realistic or you will be ripped apart – executives are usually focused on business information and their ears will prick up as soon as you start talking statistics or accounting ratios.  If you’re talking about margins, make sure they’re in the expectation range for the customer.

Here’s a good example of what you should be looking for:

Our key areas of focus are in virtualized computer hardware and cloud based software services – particularly important to you because of your move to new consumption models for IT.  We’ve been talking to your team about launching a mobile sales solution and we’re getting some excellent traction – right now we think it will turnover $15 million in the first year with a gross margin of 20%.

That’s about 20 seconds of pitch with a lot of information passed and some juicy numbers thrown in to bait the hook.  You also take away the fear for the executive of getting involved in something completely unknown because you have built a bridge between her desire to launch cloud services and your product set.  In addition, you have indicated the involvement of one of her teams in previous discussions – this will be a relief – in 90% of cases, executivess will then ask “Who have you been talking to?” and you will have the key to the door of an extended conversation.

You will also need to be prepared to talk knowledgeably and confidently about the business case – if you raise numbers into the discussion, be prepared to field a lot of detailed questions:

  • What’s the investment?
  • What is the break even point and when will we achieve it?
  • How did you estimate your sales volumes?
  • Have you run a sensitivity analysis?
  • How competitive is your end user pricing vis-à-vis the competition?

I know that all sounds a bit scary, but don’t shy away from it – it’s an intensely engaging conversation as long as you’re well briefed.  It shows prior preparation and planning, thorough knowledge of the executive’s  business and a real desire to add value.

The mistake made by many account managers in this type of scenario is to launch into a description of the details of the service – this will catch the executive out because she will not really know what you’re talking about, get defensive and want to disengage as quickly and politely as possible. 

Circumvent this danger by having a short, sharp and punchy value statement ready to go at the start of the meeting.

#3 – Look for Insights That Are Unique to Your Position

This is without doubt the toughest thing that you are going to have to try to pull out of an executive conversation.  How can you build differentiation in the eyes of the customer by showing that your value proposition is unique from her perspective?  The key skill here is discovery.  Careful questioning and quick thinking is required to build up a picture that positions your offering in a unique way.

Here are some common areas of differentiation:


Capital Expenditure – Can you assist with financing purchases?  A common objection when selling capital equipment, software or extensive service suites is that there is no budget available.  The question should then be, ‘If we were to alleviate the budget issue, would you be able to consider moving forward?”  At that point it’s about finding a way to finance the deal and if you’re in a position to do that, then you have gained a valuable piece of differentiation through insightful discussion.

Do you offer enhanced Return on Capital Employed vis-à-vis other suppliers?  You should be asking the executive what kind of returns she is looking for from investments similar to the ones you are discussing.  You will need to be able to make sure that you can create a match between your offer and her expectations – again, this is a phenomenally good way of really understanding what your customer is striving for.

Can you offer a way to move Capital Expenditure to Operational Expenditure through an operating lease scheme?  It is important to know if customers are anxious to minimize capital expenditure to keep fixed assets off their balance sheets or not.  If so, and you have a way of assisting ,  then again you may have found a unique entrée into a deal.

Can you alleviate working capital issues through enhanced credit?  Somewhat surprisingly, many large businesses and less surprisingly, all medium and small businesses, suffer from lack of working capital and cash flow issues – this is an important insight to gain – you may be able to work out a way of matching customer revenue or savings with your payment scheme giving you an excellent advantage over your rivals.

Can you demonstrate more rapid Break Even Points on investments than those of your competition?  Oftentimes in conversation you will discover that the executive is under pressure to see more rapid pay-back periods on their investment decisions – if you can find a way to an early break even point, then again, you are going to put yourself in an advantageous position.


Can the features and benefits of your products and services be enumerated in financial terms and if so, do they show differentiation vis-à-vis the competition?

One of the most common mistakes made by sales people is the need they feel to blurt out ‘speeds and feeds’ at customers – technical information that is rarely comprehensible – this is seldom appropriate at any level, but likely to get you kicked out of the executive suite in very short order.  You should always be talking about the benefits of your products to your customers, but specifically at executive level, you need to be able to put numbers against the benefits.

Here’s an example of a compelling sound bite from a pitch for a Customer Relationship Management software product:

Customer details are automatically popped onto the screen of the contact center operator based on the ‘phone number he is calling from – this saves 1 minute of call time which would have otherwise been used to establish and verify the customer’ identity – each minute saves you $1 per call and you are taking 11 million calls a year….

This is a lot more compelling than the alternative:

When the call is routed to the IVR, the CRM database is queried for the corresponding CLI and user data is popped to the operator screen within 750 milliseconds….

Most executives will either glaze over or ask ‘So What?’ and mentally check out of the meeting. 

By going with the more compelling approach, you greatly enhance your chances of gathering more information and gaining insights into what the executive is looking for.  This example is a good one because it alludes to cost cutting which always elicits a response – for example:

 “We are very concerned about the high costs in our contact centers – I need more information about how we could make a technology investment to alleviate that – it would need to have rapid pay-back though”

You’ve not only managed to generate a spark of interest which you can nurture into a fire, but you have also gained an important insight into the executive’s mind set with respect to contact centers and her investment  strategy.  This kind of knowledge is critical and will not only accelerate your sales cycle, but give you serious competitive advantage in the market.

Commercial Engagement
Joint Marketing

Could it be that you can assist your customer with a joint marketing effort?  You will frequently be involved in Business to Business (B2B) sales where your product becomes an important part of your customer’s market offering.  When this is the case, there are always opportunities to jointly market.  This may be as simple as co-branded advertising but can go as far as establishing a Joint Marketing Fund – in any event, as you progress in your conversation, you may well find that theexecutive discusses issues around marketing or you may choose to inject it as a topic.  You’re looking for an insight into what would be of value and what you could uniquely address.

Joint Sales Engagement

Is there an opportunity for joint sales engagement?  All executives will want to talk about sales volumes and how they can be increased – it’s a constant worry and bug-bear – is there any possibility that both companies could work together to go to market?  Are there complimentary accesses to market that could be leveraged?  Could the sales forces be incentivized to sell joint products and services?  Would it be possible to set up a governance mechanism between the two companies?  If you can think creatively about these approaches, you will be surprised at the amount of insight you will gain.  As ever, the key to success is to develop a set of actions that will result in successful execution.


Having gained valuable insight, the biggest crime you can now commit, is to follow up half-heartedly or slowly.  I can assure you that in the vast majority of cases, the executive will have forgotten about what she spoke to you about before you have gotten out of the elevator on the ground floor.  The onus is very much on you to encapsulate the discussion and distil it into action points that require follow-up.  Here are a series of actions that you must fulfill quickly – within no more than 24 hours.

  • Write a very brief thank you note with five bullet points summarizing the key issues that were covered.  I work on the premise that any more than an iPhone screenful of text will not be read, so brevity is the key.  Make sure that all other attendees are copied as well as the executive’s assistant.
  • As a hot follow-up, send out a list of actions to the same team, and make sure that you are the person carrying out the actions.  Even if the exec has told you that John Smith has to provide you with an overview of contact center call charges, the action should read “Account Manager to work with John Smith to obtain contact center call charges”.  This means that you have a mandate to get hold of John Smith and harry him for the information rather than hoping that he will act his own initiative and send you the information himself (he won’t).
  • If possible, book an appointment to review progress on the actions within a fortnight– this won’t be easy, but given the amount of mail traffic you have already generated, the executive’s office will have a tough time denying you a follow-up meeting.
  • Go into overdrive producing as much targeted information and proposal material as possible to address the insights you have gained.  You will want to be seen as super-responsive, innovative and on exactly the same wavelength as the executive.  Be ready to deliver in short, sharp, punchy bursts.

You will have made what many account managers would have allowed to become an interesting but ultimately fruitless conversation, into a catalyst for a series of on-going actions and engagements.  Because these are based on the useful insights that all good sales people derive from a short conversation, they will be relevant, and with careful positioning, will be unique to your company’s profile and capabilities.

#4 – Always Close for Something

One of the great dilemmas of the executive meeting is not to spoil it by asking for too much – something the exec cannot give you – but at the same time to avoid being so passive as to make the meeting completely innocuous and therefore a forgettable waste of time.  My advice to all account teams is to make sure that they establish up to three things that they want to get commitment on prior to the meeting. 

As a general principle, you’re looking to build a chain of upcoming events that will suck the executive into your sphere of activity and keep her involved over a period of time.  It’s about building and maintaining momentum.  Of course it’s hard to be specific on exactly what you should be closing for, but here are some generic examples that will provide food for thought:

Existing Projects

It’s good to talk about on-going work that you are engaged in, discuss progress and how challenges are being overcome.  Always avoid the temptation to point out to the executive the shortcomings of her organization vis-à-vis the project – it’s a great way of erecting barriers and shortening meetings.  The best approach is to propose to set up a follow-up meeting where you can present progress/completion data and also some numbers around the Return on Investment of the project.  That’s very engaging and marks you out as the type of sales person who not only says he wants to add value when closing a deal, but actually cares enough to make sure that value has indeed been added when the project is complete.  Closing for this kind of meeting is not only a good way of maintaining the relationship, but it also builds momentum because of the incremental worth you are bringing to the executive.

Close for a nominee that you can work with

Normally in discussion with executives you will hit on an interesting idea that she wants to move forward – a new product line, an application to improve process, a cost saving hardware upgrade etc.  These ideas can be like supernovae – they shine extremely brightly momentarily and then disappear forever; that’s a real tragedy  which you  need to avoid.  Own the idea and nurture it with great care and attention.  Never refer to it as anything other than, for example,  “Your concept of building a new demonstration center” to personalize it and tie the executive to it as a brainchild of hers.  In terms of closing during the meeting, you need to be able to get her to nominate someone to lead the investigation into making the idea work.  If you can get that in the meeting, you’re on your way to a big success – not only have you turned an idea into a nascent project, but you’ve got lots of reasons to call on the executive moving forward to help her drive forward with her initial concept.  In addition, you’ve got someone else in the organization to work with you with the extra  momentum of having executive sponsorship;  if used diplomatically, this can be a useful  lever to encourage activity.

Set a milestone that you can report back on

In any discussion there will be activities that require some form of structuring.  Account teams often miss the opportunity to formalize these situations and create a framework of actions that leads to engagement and progress.  If an executive starts to talk about your products as being good but too expensive (a popular refrain I think you’ll find), then start to build a set of actions around that.  Let’s analyze what you have been buying and the amount of spend over the last 24 months.  What are your purchasing plans for the next period?  How could we work together to improve the value for money you are deriving?  All of a sudden, what was a complaint about pricing becomes a project to work out what undertakings are coming up and how you will be involved in them.  Make sure that you close for a milestone on which you can then go back to the executive and address in detail her observation.  In the interim, document a set of actions that will provide the framework for an on-going engagement and use these to further build involvement and momentum.

New Opportunities

While the best ideas are going to come from the executive herself, you should always be looking at ways to introduce new concepts, ways of interworking and of course innovative products and services.  It’s important not to appear to be pushing a sales pitch – this will make the executive feel that you have underestimated her importance.  It’s more about launching a series of mini-elevator pitches into the conversation and seeing which ones get traction.  It’s difficult to coach this because no two conversations are ever the same.  I like to get sales people to think about building a bridge from what the executive is saying into something that will provide a target to close on and of course an on-going opportunity.  A couple of examples serve to illustrate:

Example #1

In conversation, the executive starts to discuss cyber security after reading in the press about a recent incident of a Denial of Service attack and the feeling of vulnerability that the CxO team are experiencing with regard to their e-commerce sites.  The account manager has a wide range of network consulting services in his portfolio.  Although he knows that Denial of Service attack mitigation is not necessarily an area of specialty, he suggests that a root and branch network audit and security overview might be a valuable project right now.  He suggests that the executive nominates one of her team to act as liaison and undertakes to get back to her with a skeleton plan within 7 days.  He also asks her if she would be interested in sponsoring the initiative.

No real work of genius here – simply the building of a bridge between a concern (that couldn’t be directly addressed) to an area of strength (network consultancy).  Having convincingly described how security could be enhanced by this service, the account manager closed not only for a nominee to work with, but a follow-up meeting with the initiative’s new sponsor.

Example #2

Executives always like complain about costs in meetings with vendors and partners – even if they’re not related to the person they are talking to.  In this case, a CIO was bemoaning the high costs of his telecommunications charges to an account manager from a network equipment vendor – in principle, it should have been very difficult to find a bridge from this line of discussion into an opportunity and close.  In reality, however, he was able to position some optimization hardware that would drive down bandwidth requirements and allow the CIO to reduce the size and cost of his telecom circuits – the hook suitably baited, the account manager closed for a proof of concept trial at the earliest opportunity and undertook to get back to the CIO with progress and ultimately results.

The CIO is now anxious to see progress and rather than having to lobby for the next meeting, the account manager will actually probably be chased if his follow-up is too slow.  The principle remains the same – find things of interest to the executive, make a bridge to something practical that you can deliver on and then close for follow-up action.

#5 – Executives Don’t Prepare for Meetings with Vendors – So You Need to Prepare Instead

Here’s some breaking news for you – executives don’t prepare for meetings.  It’s a shock isn’t it?  All of the issues that are very much top of mind for you and your team appear to be of no consequence to a member of the CxO suite of your customer.  While this is a little bit dis-spiriting, it is completely normal – you will never go and see an executive that has any idea  about  what to discuss with you – with the one exception is that they may have a check list of things to complain about.

You are not going to have much time to grab the exec’s attention and establish interest in what you are going to address.  You will need to be well prepared, punchy and engaging.  If you are hesitant, boring or nervous, you’ll be looking disaster in the face. 

My favorite anecdote on this comes from the Middle East. One of my teams was visiting the offices of  the CEO of a major service provider in the Gulf.  In that neck of the woods, it’s part of business culture that a waiter comes into the meeting in the first couple of minutes and asks you if you would like tea.  In this case, the team fumbled at the start of the meeting and so 90 seconds in, when the waiter looked around the door, the CEO waved him away, indicating the meeting was not going to last long enough to even drink a small glass of tea!  Sure enough, the team were dismissed after 5 minutes with their tails between their legs.

This is quite a funny story and we enjoyed the opportunity to castigate our colleagues for a few weeks, but it was a serious failure and one that is repeated all over the world every day.  The question is, how do we avoid this type of humiliation in the future?

Firstly turn the situation in your favor.  You know that the executive will not be prepared, so that means that you don’t really need to worry about her dominating the conversation with her issues and you have a clean canvas onto which you can paint the picture you want. 

All executives care about competitive advantage:

  • Selling more
  • Increasing profit
  • Cutting costs
  • Enhanced market penetration

These are always at the forefront of their thoughts.  Make sure that whatever you are pitching addresses at least two of these key areas and practice delivering the associated value proposition before the meeting.

In the meeting, get through the pleasantries quickly and get straight to the point – which of the four competitive advantage drivers are top of the executive’s mind?  Think on your feet, get those drivers built into the pitch and deliver it with confidence and panache.  The key issue here is how you are able to work the information that is being fed to you from the executive into the pitch in an effective manner.  It takes thorough knowledge of your value proposition, mental sharpness and imagination.  It also means that you’ve got to ask the right questions in order to solicit useful and relevant responses from the executive.

Illustrative Scenario

I had been coaching a team who are trying to sell video conferencing solutions to the CIO of a retail bank.  The team assumed it would be a normal type of video conference requirement allowing bank executives and product development teams to communicate with one another in a quasi face to face manner without having to travel.  They had figured out the customer’s competitive advantage angles as follows:

  • Selling more – More effective collaboration between the bank’s product, sales, marketing and IT teams would decrease time to market, produce more attractive products and consequently create more revenue.
  • Increasing profit –  More revenue with differentiated products and consequent margins drives higher profits.
  • Cutting costs – Lower or eliminate the travel expense of having teams interworking by moving to a virtual environment for collaboration.
  • Enhanced market penetration – better products brought to market quickly before competition can catch on, gaining first mover advantage and therefore market share.

As ever, no plan survives first contact with the customer and the team was no sooner into the meeting and talking about videoconferencing, than it became obvious that what was top of the executive’s mind was something rather different.  He actually was keen to enhance staff training in his branches by streaming live and recorded video sessions onto screens in each of the local bank premises.

Now as it happened, the company concerned had a solution for this type of requirement, based on video conferencing, but using servers as a ‘head-ends’ to stream video out to end points.  With the resourcefulness and quickness of thought that marks a great team, the value proposition pertaining to competitive advantage was changed ‘on the fly’ as follows:

  • Selling more –Effectively and regularly briefed bank personnel, exposed to multimedia training materials are bound to sell more product.  In addition, the same technology can be used to stream advertising content out to customers during hours of business (an nice innovative touch).
  • Increasing profit –  Bank teams can be briefed to push higher margin products to customers rather than leave the product mix largely to chance.
  • Cutting costs – Time away from branches and travel costs are eliminated.
  • Enhanced market penetration – well trained staff sell more new products enabling the bank to drive the first mover advantage discussed earlier.

In a perfect world, the team would have known what was on the executive’s mind prior to the meeting – this just never happens in reality – the executive will not have planned and the team will need to think on its feet to accommodate unexpected swings in the conversation.  The key message is – always remember it’s invariably about competitive advantage – if you want to make an impact in your 20 minute meeting, make sure you nail all four elements.

#6 – Executives Will Not Undermine Their Teams

A critical error in meeting with executives is to try and get them to reverse decisions that their teams have made or positions that they have taken.  As soon as you start to rubbish someone’s subordinates and encourage a contrary approach than has been adopted, you are asking for trouble. 

To understand this, put yourself into the mind of the executive.  We already know he won’t have prepared for the meeting so he is psychologically already on the back foot – you are already at risk of defensive or even passive-aggressive behavior on his part because he will probably feel ill at ease with a bunch of strangers who are going to talk about something he doesn’t really have a grasp of.  To make matters worse, you then ask him to disenfranchise his team  by getting him to make a call on a decision that they have made after what was probably a great deal of thought and effort.  It’s bound to fail as a sales approach. 

To make matters worse you will not illicit a reaction that is instantly readable – the executive will say something neutral along the lines of ‘Well we’ll certainly look at it with the team’, but in reality he is thinking ‘I need to get these people out of here so I can get on with my next issue – there’s no way I’m going back to the team to question what they’ve done – I’ve got enough problems already without going back on decisions that have already been made’.

A lot of teams react badly when I talk about this – they see it as ridiculous that an executive will not listen to a well-reasoned argument that challenges the calls his teams are making.  I understand the frustration – I’m just telling you it doesn’t work, so don’t waste your time and more importantly burn your relationship bridges on something that will not happen.  You have to find better ways of changing purchasing decisions than going to an executive.

#7 – Don’t  Ask for a Blockbuster

The idea of not asking and executive to undermine his team feeds nicely into the danger area of asking for a blockbuster when visiting executives.    There is a popular misconception amongst sales leaders that ‘calling high’ is the antidote to all problems being experienced by their sales teams.  By connecting with a CxO, the theory goes, hurdles will be leapt and orders will magically materialize. If you need to close a big deal, connect with the executive, ask for the order, and sweep aside all those pesky middle managers who are stopping forward movement.

I hear this type of language all the time when talking to managers and I think it is profoundly dangerous; it causes sales people to misfire in front of customer executives thereby eroding credibility and making it harder to build relationships and close business.  Asking a CxO for a blockbuster is a really bad idea – whether it’s to get an order, change a decision made by her team or get her to make a fundamental change of direction, it simply will not happen just because you turn up and ask for it.

That’s not to say that teams should not be working on CxO relationships – on the contrary, they are extremely important and need to be nurtured with great care.  Over the course of time, as long as you can add incremental value to the executive in question, you will be welcomed with ever more open arms.  As you move into the category of trusted advisor, it gets easier to start to position the background of particular situations and influence internal processes.  This is a sensible and moderate approach.

If you go into meetings with the intention of throwing your weight around, not only will you be disappointed, but you’re going to find it difficult to get invited back. 

This leads me to a discussion around patient rapport building – it is really important to build relationships with CxO’s over a period of time – if you just wait until you need something, you are going to be on a hiding to nothing.  No one wants to feel that you have finally bothered to look them up because you need something – people are much more interested in talking to you if they get the impression that you are bringing something to them, adding value and looking to build a long term association.

When you’re doing your account planning, you need to make a provision for executive mapping – which executives in your customer’s organization are important to you and how will you contact them?  Will you need executive sponsorship from your own organization – who will do it and how will they be briefed?  What are the key themes that need to be discussed on a long term basis?  Most critically of all, how can we be seen to be adding value to the targeted executive?

As the plan is executed, the customer relationship will grow in a way that is mutually beneficial, with the account team delivering value at every turn and the executive becoming ever more favorably disposed  to the vendor.  When things do get tight (and they always do) then it is much easier to leverage the relationship to ease the situation – if discussion themes have been carefully managed over a period of time, then there should be no surprises and no ‘blockbuster moment’ – just an extension of business as usual to apply a modicum of lobbying to influence decisions in your favor.

To illustrate the point, I want to provide you with two examples of the blockbuster effect – one where and account team went ahead and asked for a blockbuster, and a second, where a far more subtle approach was adopted.

In the first example, a sales team had been working with a systems integration house which was procuring a telephony system to provide a solution to a government agency in Europe.  The team was competing with a number of vendors and as the decision came closer, it became clear that they were going to lose this sizeable piece of business to a competitor – never a good thing, but this deal was large and prestigious and was therefore very high profile in the account team’s organization.

Management intervened and a call was set up with the managing director of the systems integrator.  There was only a nodding acquaintance between the CEO of the vendor and his opposite number in the customer and so there were a few awkward moments at the start of the call as the vendor CEO introduced himself and explained why he had not really been in touch before (it’s already sounding quite bad isn’t it?).  Sure enough, they then asked for the blockbuster – ‘Can we have the deal please?’ – and were told in the very politest of terms that there was a decision making process underway and they would find out what that decision was in the fullness of time – in other words, ‘You’ve lost’.

My read out on this was that it was too little, too late.  You should not ask for a blockbuster anyway – if you do with a customer that you have not bothered to cultivate, then the results are entirely predictable – exactly what happened here – the deal was lost with no real serious attempt to save it registering in the customer’s CxO suite.

A second example serves to show a more successful line of attack.  In this case, the account team were trying to win a complete data center installation project in the Arabian Gulf.  They had spent months working with the COO of the organization involved and had brought him huge value by assisting him with emergency video conferencing equipment when flood damage had reduced his ability to communicate with his team.  They had also assisted in providing an emergency cyber security assessment after his network had come under a Denial of Service attack.  Executive meetings and briefings had been arranged and a mutually beneficial relationship had been established.

When push came to shove and the data center was being procured, it seemed that things had begun to go wrong for the account team vis-à-vis the competition (who appeared to be selling on price with very few pre-established account relationships).  An important meeting between the vendor CEO and the customer COO was arranged and of course the project was discussed.  The team did not make the mistake of asking for a blockbuster.  They talked about the relationship and the fact that they had always ‘been there’ for the COO when things had gone wrong and this was indicative of their high quality performance and the importance they placed on making the COO successful.  He data center was going to be a strategic asset for the business and it would be sensible to be working with a company that had a proven track record of bringing quality and service.

No commitments were made in the meeting, but the COO did promise to look at the procurement and make sure that alternative solutions were being considered in a holistic way rather than just opting for the cheapest compliant offer.  To ensure progress and maintain momentum, a follow-up call was booked between the executives and an agenda published.  Sure enough, when the call took place, the COO confirmed that they had had a ‘drains-up’ on the procurement and a low cost vendor had been eliminated from their thoughts because of the need to have trusted suppliers on such a strategic deal.

So although no blockbuster was requested, the net result was the same.  The team had taken the time to build a strong relationship and demonstrated their ability to deliver value over the course of a number of months.  When it came to the executive meeting, there was no need to ask for a very difficult alteration in plan – merely an application of some well targeted lobbying and then logic did the rest.

In summary – if you are in an executive meeting and you need to ask for a blockbuster, you are probably too late anyway.