If your well-trained salespeople are having trouble getting into the C-suite, you aren’t alone. It’s pretty common. There are a couple main reasons, some of which are easier to correct than others.
I’ve been in the sales training game for almost a decade, and have engaged with a a lot of sales forces in a lot of industries. Through my past experience as an executive, bolstered by my work selling to them, I’ve observed a couple of major problems.
Problem 1: The “Salesperson Doesn’t Add Value” Loop
This is a problem wider than just C-suite selling. The sales profession has hurt themselves. CSO Insights published a research note which describes what they call the apathy loop(contact me if you’d like a copy). The basic idea is this:
- When sellers act unremarkably, customers no longer consult them (currently B2B buyers prefer company salespeople 9thout of 10 information resources…ouch!).
- Sellers self-inform using one or more of the 8 better information sources and self-diagnose their solution.
- They then distribute a requirements document and ask sellers for proposals/bids/etc.
- The request traps most sales teams into a response every bit as standardized and unremarkable as the customer expected in the first place.
Sellers need to add value–go beyond customer expectation– to break out of the apathy loop. Challenger salespeople shake up a customer’s thought process by challenging (hence the name) assumptions and thought processes – generally by “telling”. Insight sellers might ask questions or tell stories. Perspective sellers build credibility, then offer business insights. These insights might take the form of:
- Enlarging – or shifting– the customer’s conception of their situation and/or problem.
- Altering – ideally expanding — outcomes that a client envisions and desires.
- Helping a group improve the quality or efficiency of decision-making. This kind of perspective is useful, but doesn’t move an executive’s needle – today’s topic.
A lot of training programs “yada yada” business acumen: they tell sales people to “just use yours” to provide perspective. Has everyone in one of your selling roles really mastered the business acumen to provide insights?
It’s pretty hard to provide insights into something you don’t understand.
Some of the highest end sales forces in the world buy their sales people MBAs. You can build a lot of business acumen for a lot less…why are you choosing none at all?
Problem 2: Executives Only Want to Talk About Executive-Level Topics
Top executives organize their companies. That is, they define and arrange organizational silos, then direct how work flows between them. If an operation or process lives inside a silo, execs don’t generally want to hear about it. Instead, executives summarily refer functional-level subjects down into the silo (and place the offender on their “time-waster list”).
The work of getting executive time is often the work of making your topic relevant to them. While sellers should show the same respect for every persona’s time, the stakes are higher for executive meetings.
Only approach an executive on a topic/issue they will value.
If you don’t have anything, wait until you do. If your people can’t tell the difference, they need more business acumen.
Of course, your training and enablement included techniques and practice for talking to executives (it did, right?). Now, did you feed them executive-worthy issues…or the business acumen to find topics for themselves? Or, did you simply tell your sales people to “get out of your comfort zone.”? How did you coach actual conversations? Did you get out of your comfort zone in training and enabling them?
Problem 3: Customers often buy in silos.
Another reality: your customer reinforces the apathy loop via their own org chart. Organizational silos shape buying processes by simply existing. Companies tend to self-examine their needs through a silo filter. Requirements, RFIs, RFPs, etc. often signal how narrowly your customer is thinking through their own problem. The easy – almost automatic — reaction is to follow the customer’s self-limiting thought process.
Remember the customer who called your salesperson in after internally developing their own requirements? Have you explicitly trained your reps to ask:
- Who had input into the proposal?
- What other functions and silos were consulted? How heavily was/will their input be weighted?
- What functions/silos weren’t consulted…and why not?
If you haven’t trained reps to ask these questions, do you think they formulate and ask these questions on their own?
If your solution positively impacts more than one customer silo, you need to make sure you uncover every possible ally. Remember, cross-silo benefits are often a valid reason to engage with an executive.
Problem 4: Perhaps your selling activity is siloed too.
Maybe you’re unconsciously reinforcing the apathy loop yourself.
Your sales methodology is just as effective across silos as within, but I haven’t seen a single trainer encourage thinking outside of the box…well…silo. Ask yourself: what explicit skills, analytics, or tools did I give my people to carry their methodology across silos to hunt for value gaps? If you didn’t train and coach them to apply methodology outside of the comfort zone, you’ve reinforced a discomfort zone…and strengthened the apathy loop.
Business acumen provides a foundation. Sales people rely on their business acumen to talk comfortably about bigger business issues across organizations.
Articulating different ways your product or solution could impact functions and roles across a target company requires a different kind of product training. I know of some great tools to help sellers understand the networks of value their product/service can have at a customer.
Problem 5: You’re Rewarding Mediocrity
You may have also erected another barrier to your own success: your compensation plan. Do you have a compensation plan and discounting review processthat incentivizes sellers to get outside of the apathy loop and discover value? Or, do comp plan and discounting process reward commoditization equally? Humans– buyers and sellers — take the easiest route to an end. If sellers can, they will make discounted sales by sticking inside of the apathy loop: meeting expectations, acting unremarkably and not differentiating themselves or their offer. Ability to manipulate your discounting/price exception system is all that’s required.
Sales People Want to Be Great. Let’s Help Them
I am happy to talk about how to help close all of these gaps. Contact me if you’d like to discuss further. As always, like and share with your networks if you think they might find value.
To your success!