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Selling to the C-Suite: 3 Tips for Selling to C-Level Executives

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Written by Ago Cluytens
Practice Director - EMEA, RAIN Group

Most of my clients want to have better meetings with senior executives. Meetings that feel like conversations, not pitches. Meetings that build deeper relationships. Meetings that uncover more ways in which they can help their customers.

Behind closed doors, when I ask what's holding them back, many will tell me things like, "I don't feel comfortable," "I have nothing to offer to them,"" or "I'm not at their level."

Selling to the C-suite can be difficult, and getting a first meeting can be a real challenge. But, in my experience, the most difficult part is not getting the first meeting. It's getting the second one. Or the third one.

It's keeping the relationship going.

Back in college, I loved oral exams and consistently did very well at them. It wasn't because I was smarter than anybody else, because I studied harder, or even because I had better answers.

It was because I followed a simple three-step process, so that when I walked into the room I came across as confident, poised, and controlled.

3 Tips for Selling to the C-Suite

When selling to the C-suite, this is exactly how you need to come across in your meetings and using these three tips will help get you there.

  1. Do Your Research

    When I ask my clients how they prepare for meetings, most tell me they check out a prospect's website, read annual reports/quarterly updates, search for a given executive's name on Google or LinkedIn, and prepare a list of questions.

    That's a good start, but it's not enough.

    When preparing for a meeting with an executive, you'll want to accomplish four key things:

    1. Come across as an expert.
    2. Build the relationship.
    3. Stroke their ego a little.
    4. Discover their agenda.

    How? By carefully planning your first move.

    Call their assistant and ask a few questions to prepare. Get in touch with their business manager, or one of their peers. Review a talk they gave at a recent industry conference. Read a white paper they wrote. Find a quote from a recent industry magazine.

    Find one topic they care about and start the conversation by getting them to talk about it. When in the room, you might say something like: "Hey John, I was struck by one of your comments in the Q3 analyst update. When you talked about your firm's expansion into emerging markets, it seems you were very successful at capturing market share in Asia-Pacific. Our own research has shown that the real challenge is often not just capturing market share, but maintaining it over time. I wonder: what are your thoughts on that?"

    Bingo. You just demonstrated you did your homework, established yourself as an expert and invited them to expand on their views. On to the next step.

  2. Plan Each Conversation with a Goal in Mind

    When selling to the C-suite, most people find themselves on two opposite ends of the spectrum. They either over-prepare and walk in with an agenda that tries to accomplish too much and leaves little or no room for anything else (like discussing a potential new need they uncovered). Or they just decide to hand over the reigns and ask the executive "what they want to talk about."

    In both cases, they virtually ensure the executive's agenda gets addressed--but at the expense of their own.

    Rather than drafting a bullet-point outline of topics for the meeting, think about what you'd like to accomplish. Plan it out like you would a trip or journey. What's your final destination? Where do you want to stop over on the way? What are the "must sees" (must dos) while you're on the road? Which points do you want to hit?

    Starting off well (preparation) and planning the major points on your journey will help ensure you address your agenda as well as theirs.

  3. Be Confident and Poised

    Sometimes senior people in big corporations will throw you a challenge. Depending on how you respond, they'll either discard you as "another pair of hands"; or you'll get one step closer to being a part of their trusted inner circle. Many executives have privately told me they like to throw the occasional wrench in the works just to see how someone handles themselves.

    Intellectually, and in terms of our expertise, most of us can (objectively) pass that test. But many of us trip up when under pressure. We start fumbling our words and give lengthy defenses, trying to prove our point. Or we try to oversell something we've already sold.

    All of which can be avoided by using a simple technique.

    First, regain control of your breathing. If you feel you're getting nervous, take three breaths. As you breathe in through your nose, count to five; as you breathe out through your mouth, count to eight.

    Second, instead of focusing on what's (literally) right in front of you, activate your peripheral vision. Become aware of what's in the corner of your eyes. Literally see the bigger picture.

    Third, put both feet firmly on the ground. Remind yourself that you're grounded. And you know what to do next.

    Don't worry about taking too long to respond. Your counterpart will think you are merely collecting your thoughts, and putting together a well thought-out response.

Using these three simple tips when selling to the C-suite will get you out of "fight or flight" mode, and firmly back to where you belong: in control of the conversation.

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Topics: Sales Conversations