Choose your words well in sales

Approach to senior management can make you a hero – or a chump
Fifth in a series
Last month we discussed getting to executives through a carefully positioned access letter. This month and next, we’ll talk about how to work through a contact at a target company to reach an executive.
No sales dialogue better tests a salesperson’s mettle than a discussion with a lower-level contact regarding getting to senior management. That single conversation requires every ounce of confidence, business sense and relationship skills you possess, along with a deep sense for the subtleties of the spoken word. Do it right, and you just might become immune to competition for the account. Do it wrong, and you could wind up toast.
You must consider several things as you decide how to frame your dialogue:

  • Situation. Is the customer in the midst of a highly structured buying process and simply selecting a vendor after having made much earlier a firm decision to buy something? An existing customer with whom you have a well-established relationship? Or a new prospect with whom you are seeking to identify or create a sales opportunity?
  • Timing. Early in the cycle you can seek an executive meeting to demonstrate alignment with senior management philosophies, objectives, strategies, priorities. Late in the cycle you can use similar positioning, but also address such issues as how the solution will be implemented and the results measured. In the middle of a campaign, however, it’s extremely difficult to get to senior management. The buying company is hunkered down to pick a vendor, and the executive – to boost his own status, if nothing else – falls back on the clichÃ&Copy;: “My people make vendor selections.” At a buying company in full vendor-selection mode, the gatekeeper forces are nearly insurmountable and it’s a very difficult time to try to get to senior management. Usually you’re best off not even trying.
  • Personal relationships. Surprisingly, a positive longstanding relationship with a contact can actually be a hindrance. The contact frequently feels insulted: Having believed all long that he has been able to make these decisions, he or she suddenly hears you saying you need to go to the boss instead. You must factor this perception into how you word your suggestion of an executive meeting.
  • Intervening layers of management. It’s one thing to suggest a meeting with your contact and his or her boss; it’s quite different to suggest a meeting two or more layers above your contact. If you’re attempting to get a meeting simply with your contact and his or her boss, ask your contact to schedule the meeting and invite the boss to it. When you’re going more than one level above your contact’s boss, however, float a trial balloon with your contact. Indicate you intend to seek a meeting with the executive, but don’t ask the contact’s permission, don’t ask if he thinks it’s necessary, and don’t ask him to arrange it. Instead, let the contact know your rationale for meeting with the executive, and explain that you’ll handle the request on your own, as you usually do in such situations.
  • Influence. Always remember that most executives will meet with salespeople when requested to do so by almost any subordinate. However, a salesperson referred by a subordinate whom the target executive regards highly will go into the executive’s suite pre-sold. That same executive might agree to meet with a salesperson referred by another subordinate whom the executive viewed unfavorably. This time, though, the salesperson goes into the executive suite at a distinct disadvantage. Of course, you don’t always have the luxury of choosing the contact who will introduce you to the executive. In many cases, you must work through the nominal contact in the buying cycle or your own day-to-day contact. Still, as a politically savvy salesperson, you should know if this contact is a heavyweight or a lightweight, and let that guide your decision either to work directly through the contact or to approach the executive yourself.
    The one variable that trumps all others when it comes to getting to executives through a contact, however, is how you word your request. The No. 1 mistake is to ask: “Do you think we need to get [executive’s name] involved in the decision?” Such a request is almost certain to annoy your contact, who probably believes he or she, not the higher-up, makes the decision. It’s also almost certain to elicit the response, “[Executive’s name] doesn’t get involved in these kinds of decisions.”
    As a business resource, you’re not there to ask permission or advice of your contact. Instead, you need to advance with confidence the idea that the time has come to discuss with senior management the direction you’re taking.
    Indeed, you need to carefully plan your entire discussion with the contact, even to the point of trying out phrases and words with your manager or other salespeople whose judgment you respect.
    A contact who says “no” to arranging a meeting with an executive usually means one of four things:
  • “I’m threatened by your meeting with senior management because I’m either going to look bad or lose my job.”
  • “I don’t want you to know that I don’t have enough pull to get the meeting that you’re looking for. If I attempt to get the meeting and I’m unsuccessful doing that, I’ve just demonstrated my lack of influence in my company.”
  • “I don’t think you – the salesperson – are executive credible, and my name is going to be on that meeting.” This is a very common response – not one that’s ever voiced by contacts, but quite real nonetheless. Everybody wants to look good; if that contact thinks he or she is going to look good in the course of arranging a meeting between you and the executive, you will get the meeting. That is one more reason to continue working hard on your own executive credibility.
  • “I don’t understand what’s different that now requires senior management to meet with you that didn’t require senior management to meet with you before.”
    Once the contact actually says “no,” however, that almost always shuts the door soundly. Therefore, you need to thoroughly analyze the potential for that outcome. If there’s a realistic chance your proposal to meet with senior management will result in a rejection for one of those reasons, planning will help you anticipate the problem and perhaps prevent that “no” from ever being uttered.
    With those basic principles and guidelines in mind, next month we’ll take a look at how you actually conduct the dialogue with your contact.
    Jerry Stapleton is president of The IBS Group, a Brookfield-based consulting firm. He can be reached at 784-0812.

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