How to Enable Sales Reps to Win Over the C-Suite

Author: 
Jim Ninivaggi, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Brainshark

Nothing strikes more fear into sales reps than C-level pitches. I can remember countless times when sales reps approached me with that “deer-in-the headlights” look on their faces, seeking my advice.

Who can blame them? C-level pitches are nerve rattling and require a different approach, preparation and mindset. But, they are also crucial for long-term sales success and for bigger, more lucrative deals.

Many reps avoid C-level sales and many others do not approach it correctly. Consider these findings from Forrester Research:

  • Eight out of 10 executives say sales meetings are a waste of time.
  • While sales reps claim their meeting preparedness merits a “B” grade, C-level buyers rate them an “F”!
  • 75% of executives say reps fail to demonstrate knowledge of their business.
  • 77% of executives say reps present solutions that do not address their specific issues.

That’s the bad news. The good news for sales reps is that this is not entirely their fault. Some of the blame goes to their companies and their managers. Many sales leaders are simply not doing a good enough job of preparing their teams to capitalize on C-level opportunities. Simply telling your reps “you need to call higher” is not enough. Reps will retreat to their routines and old habits if they are not prepared for buyer conversations. Sales enablement leaders need to provide reps with learning and training programs, as well as ongoing coaching so they are ready for every buyer interaction, especially at the C-level.

Selling Up

Selling to C-level executives takes research, practice, coaching, humility and a great deal of patience. Some deals can take up to a year from prep to pitch.

Several years ago, I was leading the sales team of a major tire manufacturer. One of the inside sales reps was frustrated that he wasn’t getting anywhere with the VP of operations at one the world’s largest shipping companies. He was trying to sell him a tire that that would replace the eight wheels in the back of a delivery truck with four wheels, thus turning an 18-wheeler into a 14-wheeler. He couldn’t understand how the VP could pass on the benefits: it saved gas and enabled the trucks to carry more freight. Still, the process stalled.

I asked the sales rep if he thought about selling directly to the CEO of this major shipping company. After all, what he was selling was more than just a product (tires), it would save the company money. The VP of operations was busy keeping things moving but was blind to the overall business value this would bring to the company.

We decided to take a chance and go straight to the CEO. We knew we had to pitch someone who would appreciate this business value.

This started a nine-month process of preparing the sales rep to pitch the CEO. He did his homework on both the CEO and his company. He leveraged social media, signed up for news alerts, listened to the quarterly earning call, and even purchased stock in the company. But he did not stop with researching the company from the outside. He leveraged his contacts inside the shipping company for any information he could find. That’s when he discovered his "ah ha” moment. The company was shifting to the logistics business from the shipping business and the rep could help with this transition by reducing costs.

The rep began developing the presentation, practicing the delivery, and received coaching to perfect the pitch.

When the big day came, the rep was cool, calm and collected. When he finished the pitch, the CEO said, “I wish my own people understood our business as well as you do.” Not only did the rep get approval to move forward with a trial of the new tire, the CEO placed the company on the preferred vendor list – which resulted in several million dollars in new sales.

3 Tips to Sell to C-level Executives

Research the company you are selling to. Get to know their business by gathering public data and news via news sources, social media and financial reports. Get to know their key business challenges, industry trends and competitors. Make sure you leverage your existing contacts in that company to get the inside scoop about what’s going on in the organization. If you do not have existing contacts, try to gain access by developing and leveraging a champion.

Practice and preparation are key. It’s no secret, getting better at something requires practice. Lean on your organization’s sales leaders for coaching and feedback.

It’s all about the presentation. Traditional sales calls are all about discovery, where reps ask questions and try to determine the buyer’s needs. On the C-level side, it’s all about demonstrating that you’ve done your homework and have earned the right to have a conversation. It’s about demonstrating that you understand their business.

Selling to the C-suite is all about commitment, not only form the sales rep but from the entire sales organization. Management – from frontline sales managers, to sales and organizational leaders – needs to support training and coaching that empowers reps to become true masters of your products, messages and value.

Leveraging more than 30 years of B2B sales productivity expertise, Jim Ninivaggi drives key partnerships that extend the power of Brainshark’s solutions and platform. Jim previously worked as a sales enablement analyst with SiriusDecisions, where he provided clients with data, insight and thought leadership to maximize sales effectiveness and accelerate revenues. Today, he uses his knowledge and expertise of key sales enablement trends to help shape and execute Brainshark’s partner strategy.