In major accounts it is more important than ever to have an effective strategy for selling at the senior executive level. But a warning … you don’t have many opportunities to get it right and if you get it wrong the first time, you probably won’t have a second time.
Obviously successfully selling to senior executives is a book with many chapters. However, one of the underlying success factors for developing the right strategy relates to timing – when in the buying cycle do you want to engage at the senior level and what do you need to do before you get there?
1. Senior executives are not equally engaged throughout the buying cycle. They often are involved early and late and tend to delegate the middle of the buying process to others. Let’s focus on the issue of early engagement.
Senior executives attention is merited early on since that is when the scope and operational and financial parameters of the project are defined. In the middle of the buying process, attention turns to evaluating competitive options which is usually handled by others.
The trap for sales people is getting to the senior executive too late after they have turned over the decision process to others. By then, you have lost your ability to help shape the scope of work and to position the fit of your capabilities. This is particularly telling when the competition has done it right.
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A critical second reason for getting in early was pointed out in an excellent post by Steve Martin in the Harvard Business Review. Martin interviewed 1,000 customers as part of a win-loss analysis study. He found – “Approximately 30% of the time, the winner of the sales cycle was determined before the official selection process started. Another 45% of the time, customers had already made up their minds about whom they were going to buy from about halfway through the process.” This means “75% of the time, customers make their final decision halfway through the selection process.”
The moral of the story is if you don’t get it right and if you don’t do it early all, the rest of your selling effort may not matter.
2. You need to not only get in early; you need to be prepared. There is a conventional piece of wisdom that even if you don’t know much about what’s going on, if you get a chance to see a senior executive, you ought to get right in there. This idea makes no sense and should be labeled a “worse practice.”
You have to be prepared. Being prepared means you understand the industry and company. You have developed a lay of the land by talking to key influencers in the organization. So when you meet with the senior executive you know the outline of the challenge and you have spent the time to develop a point of view about the path forward.
Senior executives are not interested in “discover my pain” dialogues and standard capability presentations; they are interested in people who can provide creative and imaginative insights.
The notion that you need to get in early and also be prepared may appear to be in conflict. Can you do both? The answer is “yes” and that is exactly what top sales performers are doing. To get it done they are aware of and leverage all of their company’s capabilities – they recognize you can’t do it by yourself. It is also the reason why so much recent attention has been given to the topic of sales enablement.
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