Is Your Sales Team Ready for the Executive Conversation?

According to IDC, 80 percent of all purchasing budgets will soon be controlled — and decisions justified — by companies’ senior-most decision makers, including the proverbial C-level executives.1 This means more deals at lower dollar amounts will receive higher-level scrutiny.How has this impacted your marketing messages, product positioning and sales training? Have you changed anything to make sure your sales teams are ready to talk the new talk with these executive buyers?

If you believe a Forrester study2 that revealed business buyers felt 88 percent of salespeople who call on them are knowledge-able about their products and services, but only 24 percent understand their business issues, the answer is probably “no.”

Combine that with some SiriusDecisions research that says executive buyers value business and industry insight up to four times more than traditional relationship and product knowledge from their salespeople,3 and you have a real challenge. Essentially, you have customer conversations that are four times less likely to focus on the content that is four times more desirable.

Business Acumen Gap

If you look at Figure 1, this research from Forrester and SiriusDecisions are paired together to reveal something I’m calling the “Business Acumen Gap” or BAG, if you will. Salespeople are literally “bagging” it when it comes to executive conversations. In one example, a prospective client of ours, a multibillion-dollar professional services company, recently examined its CRM system and discovered that less than 10 percent of the opportunities listed in the system had executive-level contacts attached.

One of the big barriers to salespeople being more effective with executives is them being aware of what they need to know to be relevant to this audience. After significant buyer-side research, we’ve identified five related but distinct core competencies that executives say are critical to getting value out of any sales conversation. They are:

•  Business knowledge

•  Customer insight

•  Financial consideration

•  Return on investment

•  Executive engagement

Over the last few years, we have assessed more than 35,000 sellers at Fortune 1000 companies to determine how competent they actually are in each of these five areas. What we’ve found is, on average, salespeople exhibit only 50 percent of the acumen desired by executive-level buyers.

Business-change messaging
So what does this mean for your messages and tools, and how you train for sales conversations?

Starting immediately, you must connect your story to the business issues that matter most to executives. At the risk of over-simplifying, I’d like to provide you with a basic template for re-configuring your messaging to sell a business change.

Current Situation: In the opening minutes of an executive conversation, decision-makers expect you to clearly identify a business issue at risk and describe the current situation that needs to change.

Business Change: Then, you must pivot quickly to describe how your company’s offering will change the way your prospects operate, enable them to do things differently and how that difference will be measured for business impact.

Best-in-class companies do it two times different recently compared the sales training emphasis between high-performing companies and average-performing companies. What it found is that average-performing companies are more likely to focus on traditional training, such as products and services training, significantly more than the high-performing companies.

Meanwhile, the high-performing companies focused on “executive selling skills” training, along with “business and financial acumen” training two times more than the average-performing companies.4

Best-in-class firms make twice the effort and investment in equipping salespeople for calling high and standing toe-to-toe with the CXO, while the average companies continue to push the status quo.  

1.  IDC, Top 10 Predictions (2013)
2.  Forrester Research, Technology Buyer Insight Study: Are Salespeople Prepared for Executive Conversations (2010)
3.  SiriusDecisions, Changes in Buyer Behavior. Summit Keynote Presentation, John Neeson (2012)
4.  TrainingIndustry, Inc., Developing Exceptional Sales Professionals (2013)

Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions, Inc., a leading marketing and sales messaging, tools and skills company.


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