53% of Executives say they differentiate suppliers on the basis of the relationship they have with the supplier’s account managers. 
88% of Executives surveyed said that while a typical sales person was knowledgeable about their products and services, only 24% were knowledgeable about the customer’s business. 
Despite all of the research supporting the importance of engaging with Executives, we continue to hear skepticism from account managers, sales people and their managers about whether or not engaging Executives really works and if it will deliver real value for their organizations.
So we decided to share the 5 most frequently raised questions about Engaging with CXOs. Of course we provide the answers as well.
Nagging question #1: What metrics support the success of engaging with Executives? Does it, in fact result in higher sales?
This question is what we call a ‘magic bullet question’. Of course, engaging CXOs is not the magic bullet that, by itself will quickly result in jumps in sales and solve a sales person’s problems hitting quarterly sales goals.
Having said that, there are four ways that sales people and their organizations can quantitatively measure the impact of engaging with Executives, all of which can be directly linked to higher sales and margins.
- Start by measuring improvements in the breadth and quality of relationships with Executives. This can initially be measured in terms of simple headcount, i.e. how many Executives would take the sales person’s phone call or respond to an email. Likewise the quality of Executive relationships can be measured simply by tracking how frequently the sales person meets with each Executive. It’s obvious that if the sales person never gets a second meeting with an Executive, they failed to establish the quality relationship that would get them invited back. Another relationship metric that can be used as a leading indicator of future sales is the follow-up actions that come out of each Executive meeting. The actions committed to by the Executive and the sales person will eventually lead to new sales opportunities and favorable positioning as a Trusted Business Partner.
- Measure improvements in competitive win rates. Many factors can influence competitive win rates. However, it is well known that engaging with the customer’s Executives very early in the decision process – even before the formal buying process starts – is one of the best ways to gain the lead position and influence a competitive buying process. In addition, having a good relationship with Executives often results in getting details about the deal (and even about the competition) that others won’t get.
- Measure expansion of your offer portfolio sold into the account. As sales people develop Trusted Business Partner relationships with CXOs, they find more challenges, issues and opportunities that can be addressed through a product or service in their existing portfolio. At the same time, the sales person learns more about what is in his own offer portfolio and the experts within his own company who can best present those products and services to the CXO.
- Track new opportunities identified and sold. When sales people focus on the CXO’s challenges and how to help address them, they learn that the CXO starts thinking more in terms of investing the money to address his issue and less about the cost of buying a product or service. This new way of thinking leads to new opportunities to provide products and services that directly address the Executive’s issue. Sometimes, the supplier can even create new value-added services by turning an existing capability into a commercial offer.
Nagging Question #2. If you are spending the meeting with the Executive discussing only his problems, how do you move the conversation to something you can sell? Sales people are also taught to ‘ask for the order’; what does that translate to in a Business Dialogue?
Our favorite example of this came from a young, successful and very aggressive Russian account manager we were working with. When we explained that we did not want him to sell anything to the CXO, he was openly shocked:
“You mean that when I finally get a meeting with a CXO, you don’t want me to try to sell him anything?”
We answered him this way. When you are in a meeting with the CXO, he knows perfectly well that you ultimately want to do business with his organization. When you start proposing your products and services too early, the CXO confirms that you have little interest in helping him to address his most urgent concerns. On the other hand, if you are genuinely interested in discussing his business challenges and communicate that, there will be a tipping point in the conversation – a moment when the CXO has developed the level of trust and interest in you to suggest the need that you can address. When you think about it, the idea that an Executive has no need that you can address is most likely not true – these people have many needs that aren’t being met. The challenge is to get them to expose these needs because they are convinced that you can really help – and want to.
Nagging Question #3. How can you get the Executive meeting in the first place?
We would qualify this question a bit before answering it. What sales people need to do is get the right meeting with the CXO. There are some CXOs who will take a meeting with the supplier’s sales person, expecting to hear about new information about the supplier’s products and services. What you need to do instead is pique the interest of the Executive before the meeting. The approach is simply to let the Executive know that you want to bring her some new information, insights or help address her urgent challenges – and then tell her what those topics will be. The best example we have seen of this was an account manager for a life sciences company. He first leveraged his good relationships with non-CXO contacts at his pharma company customer by asking them what the most urgent issues were for each of the CXOs. He then did a bit of research to determine what new information, insights or connections he could bring to the CXO in a meeting that would address their specific challenges.
Lastly, he created a meeting agenda based on the specific topics for each CXO and sent it in an email. He got the meetings with every CXO, had the discussion on the priority topics and firmly established himself as a Trusted Business Partner to the Executive team.
Nagging Question #4. What if the salesperson really can’t provide a solution to the CXO’s challenge?
No matter how broad and deep an offer portfolio, sales people will sometimes find that there really is nothing that they can offer that will address the Executive’s challenge. When that happens, keep in mind that you can still provide advice, information or an introduction to a resource that can help. You may not be able to bill the customer for it, but providing value, even if there is no immediate payback for you contributes significantly to building the perception of you and your organization as Trusted Business Partners. Very often we find that as a result of this ‘business partner’ action, the Executive will pro-actively look for new business opportunities for you as a way to return the favor.
Nagging Question #5. Developing relationships with Executives is a long-term process which may have little immediate impact on short-term revenue, yet sales people have to meet those short-term goals. So, how can sales people find the time to work both on building long-term relationships and meeting short-term (i.e. quarterly) sales goals?
Here are some of the best practices we have found for developing and executing a CXO engagement strategy efficiently and maximizing its impact on short and long-term results:
- Start with prioritizing and focusing first on the CXOs that are involved most often in the types of deals you pursue. For example, if you represent a high-tech company, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) would be your priority CXO. For a supplier of facility management services, the Chief Operating Officer (COO) would be your first target.
- Build on and leverage information you already have. For example, start with customers where you have current relationships and a good amount of knowledge and experience.
- Connect with people in your own organization that have had contact with your customer organization and get as much information as possible from them about the customer and CXOs. Likewise, use lower level contacts within the customer organization to collect additional information, help connect to the CXO and get the right meeting.
- Use existing meetings and opportunities that present themselves to practice your new Business Dialogue skills. After effectively using Grabbers several times, you can begin to develop ones to use to get meetings with new Executive contacts.
- Perhaps most importantly, share your results; discuss what works and doesn’t and why. And use this knowledge to continuously adapt and improve your approach.
We hope the responses provided above help answer some of your questions about engaging with CXOs. What other questions do you have about building better relationships with Executives and the value it can deliver?
 Customer Experience Diagnostic; Sales Executive Council research, 2011. The Corporate Executive Board Company.
 Scott Santucci. Technology Buyer Insight Study: Are Salespeople Prepared For Executive Conversations?, 2010. Forrester Research, Inc.
Image Credit: Charles Chan