High-stakes poker

Some time ago, I offered up in these pages a few guidelines to follow when attempting to gain access to executives. The gist of that piece was that you’ll have more luck if you think about executive access in terms of “confirming alignment” more than “making the decision.”

Let’s drill down a bit and talk about the when of executive access, because timing is very, very important.

I’ll describe the four most common types of sales situations and address when, during that particular type of sales scenario, you should – and should not – attempt to gain access to senior management.

1. Situation type: Win a defined opportunity

A new prospect or existing customer has decided it is going to make a purchase. It is seeking prices and proposals from two or more potential suppliers, and you’re one of them. Your goal in this sales situation is to outsell your competition and win this particular deal. In most “defined opportunity” sales situations the prospect has defined a buying process that they expect – in some cases, demand – you to follow.

When to attempt executive access: Early or late in the sales cycle, never in the middle. In this classic, “win the deal” type of sales situation senior management will often be involved with a buying decision early in the process as the buying company defines the strategy for the purchase. They then pull away while the designated buying team evaluates vendors. After a short list is arrived at, senior management is likely to pulse back in to check out the finalists.

2. Situation type: Retain a customer –

You have an existing customer that you would like to keep as a long-term customer. This customer is not currently looking to make any particular purchase and there is no identified growth opportunity you’re looking to cultivate. Your primary goal in this type of sales situation is to protect your base of business with this account. There may or may not be a specific competitive threat to your business with this account.

When to attempt executive access: Any time the executive isn’t distracted by some other major issue. Some of my clients conduct periodic business reviews with customer executives. They do this to make sure the power players at the account appreciate the value the supplier is bringing to the table. These business review meetings are outstanding executive access opportunities.

3. Situation type: Cultivate growth in an existing account –

You have a customer with whom your company is currently doing business (even if only a minor amount). You suspect – or know – that there is additional business you could be doing with this account and you are trying to harvest that incremental business. The account is not soliciting alternatives from you or your competitors.

When to attempt executive access: Any time the executive isn’t distracted by some other major issue. Like the customer retention situation you can approach executives in an existing account, even if it’s to directly pursue an opportunity, at almost any time. However, you must always manage your request with your everyday contacts lest they get the impression that you are going around them.

4. Situation type: Displace an incumbent at a targeted account –

This is the classic, “crack an account” situation. You are trying to capture the business of an account that currently uses your type of product/service, but they’re not currently getting it from your company. In most cases, the targeted account is buying the product/service from one of your competitors. Alternatively, the targeted account could be producing/performing the product/service in-house, in which case, the “opportunity” is one of the account outsourcing to you. Either way, the targeted company is not actively seeking suppliers of the product/service at this time.

When to attempt executive access: Before you appear on the account’s radar screen. Here you have the element of surprise. If you can approach the executive before the lower level contacts — who usually are gatekeepers — get wind that you’re snooping around you can avoid being told, “we make those decisions, there’s no need for you to see our executives.”

A good meeting with the right executive…which means at the right time…can be a life-changing experience for you. But a bad meeting with an executive is worse than none at all! This is truly high-stakes poker. Play that hand carefully, starting with knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.

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