‘Selling’ top executive customers

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Says the dog, lying on the couch in his therapist’s office: "And then one day it occurred to me: What would I do with that car if I did catch it?" Like the introspective dog that chases cars, your salespeople probably wonder, too, "What would I do if I did get a meeting with the customer executive?"
Getting to customer executives has long been a staple on sales’ wish lists. Today, however, the challenge of selling suites of services, or value over price, or total cost of ownership has elevated that wish to an imperative.
Though getting there is hard enough, there’s a dimension of executive access that’s too often overlooked: What do I do when I get there? Truth is, a bad executive interaction is worse than no interaction at all. So it pays to think about this question. Here are some best practices that can help ensure a successful interaction.

1. Plan a meeting, not just a presentation. The goal of executive meetings should be to take your company’s business relationship with the customer organization to a new level. A presentation should constitute part of the meeting, not consume the whole meeting. Business relationships are advanced through productive exchanges, not one-way presentations. From the outset, your focus should be on the kind of discussion you want to have. You will distinguish yourself and your company by providing a different kind of experience for the executive used to "let me tell you about us" vendor presentations.

2. Use the presentation to build high-level business fit. It is a sad fact of business life in general that presentations are too long and discussions too short. No more than 15 or 20 minutes of a one-hour meeting should be devoted to a presentation. It is also true that vendor presentations, as noted above, tend to be about the selling company’s products and services. To distinguish yourself as a Business Resource you need to address the executive’s sphere of concern — business issues and business fit. An equation for a compelling presentation to a CEO/senior executive is:
— Your company’s business issues
— My company’s value proposition
— A mutually beneficial business plan

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Begin with a summary of the issues facing the executive’s company — the issues that will shape buying decisions. These issues are what lie behind the product/service needs that typically get translated to vendors by purchasing or other departments lower down in the organization.
While you can learn some things from the company Web site, remember that is public information; to really learn the issues you have to ask your contacts and others in the organization. In the presentation, you are confirming that you have a good sense of the landscape (not telling them their business). Executives will be impressed that you have taken the time to learn about the business drivers that preoccupy them.
Next, introduce your company’s profile and value proposition. If appropriate, go over a brief history of your company. Focus on your value proposition — your philosophy of doing business, your operating principles and efficiencies, your customer relationships, etc. In this part of the presentation you are selling your company, not just a particular product or service.
Then, combine the two into a mutually beneficial business fit. The business fit answers the questions of why the two companies could work well together and why particular products or services should be purchased from your company. So, it advances the concept of a relationship and focuses on specific demand creation.
3. Start by "clearing the decks." It is not just a truism that success can be won or lost in the first few minutes. Don’t be tempted to plunge into the presentation after a brief warm up. Take the time to create the environment for the meeting.
Executives live their lives in meetings. Creating the environment for success means clearing their mental decks so they can focus on this particular meeting. If you are a current supplier, briefly summarize the relationship to date. If you’ve met with the executive before, remind him/her of that occasion. If you are in a new situation, talk a minute or two about how this meeting came to be. Then, repeat the objectives you had put forth when requesting the meeting and check to make sure they still make sense to your audience. Finally, make it clear that the presentation will take only 15 or so minutes (that could score you a point or two) to be followed by discussion. Remember, the presentation is important but it’s what happens around the presentation that makes the meeting.

4. Win by facilitating a discussion. In that spirit, this final point is about what happens after the presentation. We’ve all had the experience of wrapping up our last slide and ending with "any questions?" only to be greeted with silence. Grim. First of all, shorter presentations will help with questions — after all, if the audience has been listening for 50 minutes and now has 10 minutes for questions, how do they know where to start? Even with your shorter, highly focused presentation, you still need to be prepared to lead a discussion. End with a proposed next step slide that can lead to some dialogue. If you get only agreement, don’t declare victory and end early. Have questions you want to ask your executive audience.
While we said earlier that a bad meeting with an executive is worse than none at all, we should also point out that a good executive meeting can change a salesperson’s life — especially in the financial sense. And if your sales team is making money, well, that’s got to be good for you.

Jerry Stapleton and Nancy McKeon are with Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. They can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at www.stapletonresources.com.

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Feb. 20, 2004 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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