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3 Tips for Selling to the C-Suite

How to Sell to the C-Suite

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Written by Ago Cluytens
Practice Director - EMEA, RAIN Group

Most sellers want to have better meetings with senior executives but don’t know how to do so. They want to get away from surface-level pitches and have actual conversations. They envision meetings that build deeper relationships and uncover more ways they can help their clients.

Speaking to senior executives can be intimidating. Many sellers, when asked what’s holding them back from talking with the C-suite, say 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 the most difficult part isn’t getting the first meeting, it's getting the second or third one.

It's keeping the relationship going.

Selling to the C-suite is a process that starts by recognizing the ways in which selling to senior executives differs from other sales and taking steps to adjust your approach accordingly.

8 Tips for Selling to Senior-Level Executives

From before the first meeting to the follow-up, these 8 tips will help you make a good impression and give you the best odds of a second conversation when selling to the C-suite.

1. Do Your Research

When sellers prepare for meetings, they typically 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 meeting, 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 one of two opposite ends of the spectrum. They might overprepare 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). Alternatively, they might just decide to hand over the reins and ask the executive what they want to talk about.

In both cases, they virtually ensure the executive's agenda gets addressed 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 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?

Preparing beforehand 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 executives 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 like to throw the occasional wrench in the works just to see how someone handles themselves.

Most of us can pass these tests but might trip up when under pressure. We start fumbling our words and give lengthy defenses to prove our points. 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’re collecting your thoughts and putting together a well-thought-out response. Don’t be afraid to ask a follow-up question for additional context and to give yourself more time to recover.

4. Speak to Them as People

It’s easy to get nervous when speaking to a senior executive, but it helps to focus on the person, not the title. Senior executives are people with goals, fears, families, and hobbies. They’re bombarded by business the whole day. When you come in and focus on them as a person, you immediately stand out. If you’ve done your research, you might already have a talking point or two to bring up.

That said, you need to be careful with this. Before getting too conversational, get a sense of their buyer persona—their buying styles and preferences. Regardless, it’s usually a good idea to talk to them as a person.

5. Address the Whole Issue

Don’t just focus on one selling point with senior executives—talk about the whole issue. By the whole issue, I mean three things:

  1. Afflictions are the kinds of things they want to get away from. Commonly, they’re referred to as pain points.
  2. Aspirations are where they want to be. Often, the higher up you go in an organization, the more you want to talk about aspirations. Executives are all about growth and market share, and that’s what you want to focus on.
  3. Risks are things you want to minimize. Whether it's the risks of doing the project, working with you, or working with your company, there’s plenty worth being conscious of.

6. Balance Advocacy and Inquiry

It’s common wisdom that sellers should be doing 70% listening and 30% talking. This is true in most cases, but when you sit down with an executive, you need to deliver value. They don’t just expect you to ask questions, they want you to share your experience and new possibilities. Bring case studies, stories of helping clients in the past, and intelligent suggestions or scenarios about how you can help them with their situation.

This is what we call advocacy/inquiry. Talking to senior executives is a delicate balance of both. Having some good questions before your meeting is great, but you need to demonstrate that you know their industry and can deliver value.

And here’s something to think about: the fact you’re meeting with them says they’re interested in what you’re selling.

7. Establish a Clear Next Step

You want to return a clear next step at the end of the meeting. Sellers will do one of three things at the end of a conversation: do nothing, ask the client what they’d like to do, or suggest a next step. With senior executives, a combination of the latter two approaches is often most effective.

Senior executives love making decisions. It’s a major part of their jobs, and they’re often good at it. You’ll want to have two or three scenarios prepared and ask them for their opinion.

Don’t be surprised if they take some element of one scenario and apply it to another. This is ideal; they not only made a choice, but also invested in it because they proposed it. When the next step comes, they’ll be that much more committed.

8. Overdeliver

Go beyond what you’re promising and overdeliver. If you tell a senior executive you’ll get back to them in a week, make it three days. If you told them you’ll send them a proposal, send a proposal and two case studies.

The way you act and behave in the sales process gives them an idea of what it’s like to work with you and your company. Time and time again, I’ve seen a seller’s behavior have a disproportionate influence on an executive’s decision making. When they have to justify a decision, it often comes down to which seller impressed them the most.

Using the 8 tips outlined above will get you out of “fight or flight” mode and back to where you belong: leading the conversation.

Last Updated April 24, 2024

Topics: Sales Conversations