A few years ago we published the results of a research study on the changing roles of account managers and new challenges coming from customer buyers. We thought this quote from one of the study participants summarized the main messages from the research pretty well.
“The classic older, golfing-type relationship manager is being replaced by younger entrepreneurial account managers who can cover the numbers and all the surrounding issues, rather than show the product benefits and let the customer figure out the business impact for themselves. Customers are demanding that account managers are not only aware of the customer’s current business situation, but are thinking ahead to what their situation will be in the future and coming up with ways to help them deal with it. Clearly this new role of ‘strategic business partner’ will continue to be more critical in the future.” – Future Focus: selling and account management in the new global economy, Velocity Magazine
Engaging CXOs is difficult. Even experienced sales people admit that getting the executives at their customer to stop thinking of them as “the local account rep” and start thinking of them as a business colleague is a huge change. And internally, their own managers’ willingness to let them take the time to build those relationships, rather than focus on closing short-term deals, lessens significantly as the end of the quarter closes in. When asked, “What’s more important, closing deals or building long term relationships with executives?” most sales managers say, “both”.
The reality is that sales people do have to invest the time and energy to building trusted business partner relationships with customer executives. There is simply too much evidence, much of it coming directly from CXOs themselves that sales people who want to differentiate themselves from the competition have to demonstrate how they can help executives improve their business and achieve their most important outcomes. At the same time, sales people have to leverage those executive relationships successfully to close deals.
Our experience indicates that sales people who have succeeded at building these relationships and leveraging them to grow their business overcame four critical barriers.
- BARRIER #1: The first barrier involves planning and preparation time. We continually hear from sales people that they simply do not have the time to do the necessary work of researching customers, their business environment and the critical issues of each CXO. They can read the annual report (if it’s available) and some LinkedIn profiles, but otherwise they rely on their own experience and knowledge when trying to initially engage with executives. The problem is that Executives already know what the sales person knows and a lot more. So without determining a new insight or providing new information that will grab the attention of the Executive, the sales person quickly falls into the trap of pitching the features and benefits of his products. The Executive decides early in the conversation that the meeting is a sales call after all and loses interest.
- BARRIER #2: Getting the meeting with Executives where the topics to be discussed are not specific to the supplier’s products is the next critical barrier for most sales people. Executives naturally expect that when a sales person requests a meeting, the purpose is to talk about his latest products, services or solutions. With this in mind, the Executive either delegates the meeting to someone else or takes the meeting, expecting to hear about the supplier’s latest products. When that doesn’t happen, the Executive can become confused and even suspicious of the sales person’s intent – not at all a healthy environment for the meeting. To avoid this, sales people can reference trigger events that the Executive has recently experienced, industry trends that affect the Executive’s business or other changes in the business environment as the reason for the meeting. The important thing is to be very clear with the Executive that this is not the typical sales presentation meeting.
- BARRIER #3: The next barrier is also about a lack of information. In this case however, sales people find that they do not have enough information about their own company’s strategic solutions, or contacts that would be valuable to the Executive, or success stories, case studies and new information that could add value in a discussion with the CXO. As a result, sales people try to steer the discussion away from what the Executive wants to talk about and towards a topic that the sales person feels comfortable talking about. This also causes the sales person to revert to pitching and with the same result – the Executive disengages.
- BARRIER #4: A lack of skill in conducting what we call a Business Dialogue is perhaps the most significant barrier that prevents sales people from engaging with Executives as a trusted business partner. A Business Dialogue is a discussion that stays focused entirely on the Executive’s business issues, challenges and opportunities. It starts with the sales person ‘grabbing’ the attention of the Executive by providing new information or insights about the Executive’s urgent business issues, then staying engaged with the Executive on these topics. Even if AMs can initially engage Executives in a high-level, strategic discussion, they often find it difficult to keep the discussion going at this level.
The outcome of a Business Dialogue is not the Executive’s commitment to the sales person’s proposal or the next step in the buying process, as it might be in a sales call. Instead the meeting and the Business Dialogue are successful when the Executive and the sales person have agreed on the next steps to be taken to address the business challenges that were discussed in the meeting.
Are you trying to improve your engagement with Executives? Which of the four barriers are you struggling with? What are you doing to try to overcome them?
Note: The term CXO refers to any senior decision maker who has the word ‘Chief’ or similar in their title, e.g. Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), etc.