Trust and Capability: The Keys to Achieving Credibility with C-Suite Executives

Trust and Capability

Sales executives are always asking what salespeople need to do to become trusted advisors to senior client executives. From my perspective, there are two ingredients to obtaining credibility with executives: trust and capability.

As a young salesperson, I was sitting in the audience at a recognition event at IBM and the featured speaker was Buck Rogers, an IBM executive who had an amazing presence. He could captivate an audience of thousands and never used any notes or teleprompters when he spoke. His messages were always profound – but none more than what he said that day.

He simply said that “if you lost your job, it was significant, if you lost your health, it was catastrophic, but if you lost your integrity, you lost everything.” In both my business and my personal life, I always remembered those words and have tried to always live up to that motto and maintain the highest level of integrity in everything I do.

Integrity, But Not Integrity Alone

Clearly, if you consistently demonstrate integrity in every relationship with an executive, you’re half way to creating a trusted advisor relationship. The other half is capability – and you also must find ways to continually demonstrate your capability to senior executives in order for you to be well on your way to becoming that trusted advisor.

Salespeople often ask, “How long does it take to become a trusted advisor?” The answer to that question is simply, “It depends.” The realistic answer is it will usually take many meetings, perhaps over several months, and sometimes, you’ll never get there because the executive is not looking for that type of relationship with professional salespeople.

However, in a recent meeting with the CIO of a Fortune 500 company, I asked: “Why would someone at your level ever agree to spend time and meet with a professional salesperson?” The CIO’s answer was straightforward: “In my experience, professional salespeople offer me suggestions about solutions to business problems that even people in my own organization can’t solve. Some of these salespeople have encountered similar problems in other organizations and have creatively addressed them. I want the benefit of their experience and knowledge.”

This taught me a great lesson and it validated me as a professional salesperson. What the executive was saying is, “I’m not concerned about your rank or your position within your company. I’m more concerned about the potential value that you could deliver to me!”

Integrity and Capability In Action

This was made very clear to me when I was a salesperson working for IBM. I had been in several previous meetings with the CEO, many of which where we continually confirmed the value that we were bringing to his company. But one day, the CEO pulled me aside and asked me to come to his office. He then shared with me that while his company was currently No. 3 in the industry, he had a vision of becoming No. 1, but he needed a revolutionary solution in his manufacturing process to accomplish this. He also told me he had not yet shared this vision with his executive team, so the CFO (and most of the management team) had no idea of his visionary objective.

He asked me if I would be willing to meet with his manufacturing guru who knew the intricate workings of the manufacturing process. This person’s name was Mark and Mark didn’t appear on any organization chart, but Mark had been with the company for nearly 30 years and had the best knowledge of the manufacturing process. I told the CEO I’d be delighted to do so if he would be willing to introduce me to Mark and also if he would then allow me to review my findings with him after I met with Mark. The CEO agreed to both requests.

The outcome of my review was a recommendation for a unique process control computer that could manage the manufacturing process and increase throughput by a factor of 20. The ROI was less than 12 months, and the solution would provide for substantial growth over the next 10 years. Most importantly, it would replace the machines that my company was soon to place out of production! During my presentation of this solution, the CEO kept nodding positively, then turned to the CFO and asked, “Do you see any reason why we shouldn’t do this?” A year after the new computer system was installed, the firm was No. 2 in the industry!

Flexibility With a Focus On Adding Value

After I retired from IBM, I was working for a small sales training company based in Atlanta. We developed an opportunity management process and system that was originally focused on high-tech, computer hardware and software companies and the like. This instructor-led workshop was delivered over three days and was structured and focused. The CEO of our company had major objections to making any changes to the workshop materials or content.

We were approached by a major professional services company to discuss the possibility of using this process throughout their worldwide sales organization. Several executives from their company came to our office in Atlanta to review our solution; however, I was not part of the meeting on Day 1. At the end of that first day, I had a brief discussion with the CEO of my company when he basically told me that he didn’t think he was interested in doing business with this professional services company because they were becoming too demanding in terms of wanting to change the content of the methodology.

I asked my CEO if I could take control of the meeting during Day 2 and see whether I thought we could work with them. If I came to the same conclusion as he did, I would also recommend that we disengage from this opportunity. During the meeting on Day 2, surrounded by five of their executives, and with two people from our team, I quickly was able to identify the relevant executive for the sales opportunity we were discussing. That executive was asking tough questions and he always followed up to drill down on the initial question he asked. It was clear that this executive (who I’ll call Norm) was the person who had the most to gain if the opportunity was successful and also had the most to lose if it was not a success.

During the meeting, Norm asked me if I would be willing to customize our materials and make changes to them that were more aligned with their industry. I said I would be willing to make changes as long as those changes did not compromise the integrity of the outcome of the workshop, because I knew that our current methodology would deliver a successful outcome for them.

As the meeting went on, we continued to discuss the workshop methodology in greater depth, and I answered all of the questions the executives posed. They told us that we were competing against four other vendors and that we would not hear from them for several weeks, until they had vetted the remaining vendors.

That evening, I shared with my boss, the CEO, how the meeting progressed, and I told him that I didn’t think we should disengage from a deal this large over semantics. I told him that I could minimize the changes to content, while still maintaining the integrity of our process. Several weeks later we heard that we had won the deal and they had selected us as their solution provider, and we started to develop a detailed implementation plan that would encompass their entire global organization and result in more than $2 million in revenue to my company over 18 months.

As we started to develop the details of the actual implementation, I worked closely with Norm, the relevant executive. At one point, I asked him how he chose us to be their vendor. His replied that he viewed me as a trusted advisor because of my response to his question about making changes to the methodology. He explained further, saying he thought I truly had their best interest in mind and would make certain our solution would deliver value to them.

He also related that many of our competitors simply said they would make any changes the customer wanted. It was clear to him they were simply trying to win the deal and were less concerned about delivering value or having his company’s best interests in mind.

This was a quick example of how becoming a trusted advisor could be obtained in a single meeting. By my demonstrating both trust and capability, I had quickly achieved a level of credibility that enabled that level of relationship.

In a nutshell, to become a trusted advisor, you need to develop relationships with the right executives, using the right message, at the right time.


  • Stephen J. Bistritz

    Stephen Bistritz has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management and training management experience. He is a published author and lecturer in the field of sales, sales management and selling to executives and is the co-author of the 2nd edition of "Selling to the C-Suite."

    View all posts

Get our newsletter and digital focus reports

Stay current on learning and development trends, best practices, research, new products and technologies, case studies and much more.