Mastering the Executive Conversation

Written by Tim Riesterer on 16 September 2015

Most salespeople recognise the importance of building a business case that passes muster with executive decision makers. They understand the ability to link your value to their business initiatives can make or break your deals.

But far fewer are actually proficient at delivering executive-level conversations. Far fewer are able to speak with confidence and authority about the issues executives care about most. 

More often than not, failed executive conversations come down to a lack of confidence and competence—both areas that can be addressed by the right skills training. And, if you’re serious about hitting your revenue targets, shoring up your executive conversations may be critical to your success.

Analyst firm IDC found that 80 percent of buying decisions now require the signatures of decision makers with VP or higher titles. 

But, some research from a pair of rival analyst firms begins to explain why great executive conversations are so rare:

  • Sirius Decisions found that executives value business expertise four times more than conversations about products and services.

But get this:

  • Forrester Research found that executive buyers report that 88 percent of the sales professionals they encounter are knowledgeable about their products and services.
  • Those same executive buyers report that only 24 percent of sales professionals are knowledgeable about the buyer’s business, in areas like market trends, key business issues and the financial metrics they use to run their business.

Together, what these figures show is that executive buyers aren’t getting the kind of business-focused conversations they want. In fact, according to these numbers, the modern salesperson is four times less likely to be proficient at the types of business conversations buyers desire four times more than product conversations.

A Value Gap?

So how do you address this business value gap that could be negative affecting your customer conversations? It’s not a problem to be taken lightly, according to a study from TrainingIndustry.com, which examined the training emphases of high- and average-performing companies.

The study found that high-performing companies place:

  • Three times more emphasis on developing executive selling skills.
  • Four times more emphasis on developing their team’s financial acumen.

How do get your training aligned to what the best companies are doing? It starts with getting salespeople to master the five key competencies of selling a solution’s business value:

  • Executive Perspective – Critical external factors including business trends, economic factors and regulatory changes are focal topics of conversation in the C-suite. Making your message resonate with executive decision makers means understanding the business initiatives they’re putting in place to deal with these factors. To create a compelling buying vision, you need to be adept at connecting your value to these business initiatives. An inability to do this could result in you being delegated down to a lower management tier to make your case, where you could struggle to generate enough influence.

 

  •  Customer Insight – The quality of your customer information will dictate how well you’re able to speak to the challenges they face. Above all, salespeople need to align three pieces of information to form the basis for a great conversation: your prospect’s relevant external factors; the initiatives they’re using to address them; and the financial metrics they use. Salespeople have to become skilled at harvesting information from management presentations, annual reports and earnings calls for publicly traded companies. Analyst reports and trade-specific news can give you the information background in the case of private companies.

 

  • Financial Acumen – Getting executives to buy in to what you’re saying hinges on your proficiency at connecting your story to real line items in a company’s balance sheet (assets, capital) and income statement (revenue, costs and profit/loss). Being strong in this area helps you demonstrate how your solutions will free up cash flow and improve business performance.

 

  • Current Situation vs. Business Change – What external factors are shaping your prospect’s status quo? What’s dictating their business initiatives? What are the limitations? What’s missing from the equation and leaving them exposed? Once you’ve got a handle on these questions, you can then prescribe a change scenario that will galvanize better performance. That change scenario might address how they could enjoy better sales growth, reap cost savings, or make better business decisions.

 

  • Economic Justification – Don’t underestimate the importance of the fact that you’ve sold your solution a lot more than your customer has bought it. Use this reality to your advantage—work with customers to make sure you clearly and comprehensively capture your projected ROI. Focus on the “three Rs”: (1) the returns you can fully quantify (the “hard Rs”); (2) the strategic advantages that can shape buying decisions (the “strategic Rs”); (3) the subjective returns which are hard to measure but which you might be able to convert into quantifiable values (the “soft Rs”). 

Great executive conversations happen when salespeople realise one fundamental truth: When it comes to justifying your value to executive decision makers, you only get one chance. Don’t waste that opportunity. Speak with competence and confidence about the executive-level business issues that impact their jobs and their business.  

 

About the author 

Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of Corporate Visions.​

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