Calling on Executives . . . Don’t Get “Referred Downward”

Not long ago I was talking with a senior executive about the barriers confronting salespeople who want to meet with their customers’ top leaders. I mentioned the common complaint that executives are hard to access and often refer salespeople right back down the line to their functional department heads. His response stuck in my mind: “You get referred to who you sound like.”

It made me think about the access barriers in a new way. It’s true that most executives are wary of meeting with salespeople—they expect their time to be wasted on a product pitch. Though the decision authority has moved up in recent years, it doesn’t make strategic decision-makers more interested in hearing about products; they want to hear about solutions that address their top-priority business issues and concerns. When salespeople talk about product features, they “sound like” their typical contacts at the functional level, not executives concerned about competitive strategy, financial returns, or improving the global supply chain.

The best advice I can give to salespeople who want to call on executives is simple, and as true as ever: “Leave your bag at the door” and prepare yourself to talk about the executive’s business. What I mean by that is to become familiar with the language of finance (given that financial metrics drive executive priorities) and learn how to focus in on what is most important to a specific business leader. That means discovering the handful of things that keep executives awake at night—the things that have to go right for them to reach their goals. These “critical success factors” (CSFs) are what’s most important to executives and are also where our solutions can have the greatest impact on the business.

But how would a salesperson find out what these are? With all the resources available on the Internet, I’d start with research to learn what’s going on in the customer’s industry. If you know something about the industry, you can say, “Such and such is a concern for many companies in your industry. Is it a concern for you as well?” This is a great way to catch attention and establish credibility right up front. The next step is to ask questions about the executive’s goals, and follow up with questions about what has to happen to achieve those goals. Most leaders haven’t thought about these issues in quite this way, and they are interested in discussing them. Now you don’t sound like a salesperson; you sound more like a business consultant. Now the conversation is interesting. Instead of wasting the executive’s time, you’re providing an opportunity to gain some insight.

The big reason salespeople are reluctant to call on executives is that they don’t feel confident about what to say to get an appointment, or what to say when they get one and are face-to-face with a senior leader. But if the salesperson is really prepared to talk about the business, and not about products, the probability of access and a successful call goes way up.

Have you found that your sales team is hesitant about calling on strategic decision-makers? What seems to get in the way? What have you found to be effective in making successful calls on executives?