Gaining executive access: what messaging approach wins?

Tim Riesterer

Conventional wisdom says if you want to talk to an executive, you need to win their attention with case studies, ROI and other quantified strategic results. But does this conventional wisdom —which is at least 25 years old — still hold up? That’s what we set out to find in our latest research study.

What’s the best message to reach the C-suite?

In collaboration with Nick Lee of Warwick Business School, we recruited over 400 executive-level participants for this study. Participants held VP or higher titles in companies larger than $50 million in annual sales across multiple industries, and had authority over budget and purchasing decisions.

In a simulation-based test scenario, the executives were told they were reading an email from an outside vendor sales rep they didn’t know and had never met with before. Participants were randomly divided to receive one of four messaging conditions:

  • Known business initiative + ROI: This is the “best practice” approach that’s been promoted for over two decades. The seller demonstrates they understand the executive’s challenges and shares quantified ROI results from similar customers. They then offer estimated impact on the executive’s business.
  • Unique product value proposition: This approach shows how the seller’s solution helps solve a problem in a new, different or better way than competitive alternatives. This is a proven model we’ve been teaching for 20 years, but we’ve never promoted it as an executive access approach.
  • Provocative industry insight: This approach introduces an unconsidered or underappreciated need to the executive, based on the seller’s experience with other customers. This is an approach that we’ve tested and proven, as have others, but it has not been specifically tested with executives.
  • Competitive benchmark offer: This approach has generated a lot of buzz recently. The seller offers benchmarking information comparing the prospect’s company to similar companies.

Afterward, participants were asked a series of questions, including whether they would take, decline or delegate a sales meeting based on the message. While no clear winner emerged, there was a definite loser. The “known business initiative + ROI” condition — the one promoted by so many sales training programs — finished last in all essential questions.

How confident are you the vendor can help?

Executives in the known business initiative + ROI test condition were 9.5% less confident in the vendor.

How likely are you to take a meeting?

Executives in the known business initiative + ROI test condition were over 10% less likely to take the meeting.

How likely are you to decline the meeting?

Executives in the known business initiative + ROI test condition were 12% more likely to decline the meeting.

Why was conventional wisdom wrong?

All four test messages in this study represent a “best of breed” set of examples. Each one is an approach that has been supported by experience and even our own research. They’ve all been recommended and apparently used with some success for 20 years or more.

Why did the approach advocated by so many executive access strategies finish dead last? Decision science has the answer. If you’re trying to get an executive’s attention, you need to overcome what behavioral scientists call preference stability.

In a selling context, it means that once the buyer acknowledges a problem, they quickly form an opinion or preference on the best way to solve it. Once that happens, just telling them you can meet their stated needs isn’t enough to change their mind. You can only destabilize their preference by offering new information that either changes how they define the problem, or the range of options they have available to solve it.

The losing “known business initiative” message offers no new information and does nothing to destabilize preferences. The other test messages, however, tell you something that you weren’t aware of previously. You learn about a potential solution to your problem (unique product value proposition), something new about the problem (provocative industry insight), or about your competition (competitive benchmarking).

What message should you use?

After discovering almost equal performance results across three messaging approaches in this research, the big question remains: which message should you use?

While we have to extrapolate somewhat, prior research from Corporate Visions provides some insight. An earlier study conducted with an almost identical executive panel examined which messaging approach persuaded executives to move forward with a proposal in a meeting.

It turns out an approach based on the same concepts as the “provocative industry insight” condition was the most effective way to add urgency and value to executive conversations.

The goal in your executive conversations is to generate enough curiosity that you elevate your value beyond what you’re selling and into your conversation as a whole. If an executive perceives that you’ve delivered a valuable conversation, you’ll get them to take the desired next step toward a decision.

It’s a slightly different situation when you’re trying to convince an executive to take a meeting versus persuading them to buy now. But research has already proven that introducing unconsidered needs is an effective way to add urgency and value to your executive conversations. It’s reasonable to assume that a similar approach will grab an executive’s attention earlier in the sales process.

Using ROI the right way

It turns out that when you introduce ROI, information matters a lot. This latest study shows that quantified results like ROI aren’t effective for piquing an executive’s interest or destabilizing their preferences. But ROI plays an important role after you’ve won the meeting.

The winning condition from our earlier study, which combined industry insight and ROI, represents a later moment in the sales cycle, after you’ve won the meeting and you’re actually talking to the executive. Also worth noting is that in the meeting scenario, the ROI information came after introducing the provocative industry insight.

While this all runs counter to conventional wisdom and best practices, it’s completely consistent with decision science. Decisions are made in the emotional, intuitive part of the brain, which responds to new information and risk avoidance — like learning about an unconsidered or underappreciated need. Once the decision is made, the rational, analytical part of the brain takes over to justify the decision.

Executive buyers don’t use ROI to drive a decision, but rather to explain the decision to others. And they justify it to themselves in the process, priming them for action.  

Tim Riesterer is chief strategy officer at Corporate Visions, a sales training and marketing consultant.