How to Sell Software to C-Level Executives

By Geoffrey James

Software sales once were made almost exclusively to IT managers. The increased attention to ROI for software purchases now means that non-IT top executives must be wooed and convinced before any large software purchases will be approved. Software sales reps increasingly are finding that a strong customer relationship with IT is no longer enough. To make a big software sale you need access to the real decision-makers – the C-level executives. Here’s how to get that access.

First, find out everything you can about your customer’s business. This is important because executive decision makers are more likely to buy based on what you know about their company and business rather than on what they know about your software. Start your research by gathering enough public information to provide a strong overview of the target firm and its strategies and challenges. Then use that public information to identify private individuals who might be willing to coach you in more detail about the company, such as organizational structure, lines of control, decision-making power, software buying patterns and so forth.

Contact the sources you identified and ask for their assistance, using your sales skills to determine how the coach can benefit from speaking with you. Then, using the public and private information you’ve gathered, locate decision makers that can personally authorize the software purchase you’d like your customer to make. Once you know with whom you must meet to close the sale, determine the best way to obtain a meeting with that decision maker. There are four basic approaches.

1. Personal introduction. In most cases you’ll find that your best point of access is one of the coaches who helped you develop the private information segment of your research. It’s vitally important to have your coach position your request for a meeting in a way that enhances your credibility, however. For example, suppose your coach says: Sue wants to talk to you about her company’s CRM software.” The decision maker is likely to respond with something such as: Albert in purchasing makes those decisions. By contrast, the executive is much more likely to agree to a meeting if your coach says something such as: Sue wants to talk to you about how her company can affect your revenue growth and profitability.”

2. Direct access. If you already have a relationship with the decision maker, perhaps through prior business or social contacts, you can approach the executive directly. Your request for a meeting must be carefully couched, however, so that it motivates the decision maker to meet with you personally and not delegate downward.

3. Indirect access. If you attend a meeting where the decision maker is present, such as a presentation as part of a sales call, you can ask for a one-on-one meeting to discuss issues that aren’t appropriate for the current meeting. For example, if the purpose of the sales call is to provide product information to a group of buyers and the real decision maker is present, you can request a meeting to discuss larger business issues.

4. Access letter. As a last resort you can write a letter describing why you would like to meet with the executive personally. This letter must be finely crafted to communicate your understanding of the customer’s firm and that your company can provide value significant enough to warrant the executive’s personal attention. Try to talk the executive’s admin into hand carrying it to the executive.

This above is based on a conversation with Mark Shonka and Dan Kosch, co-authors of Beyond Selling Value – A Proven Process to Avoid the Vendor Trap (Dearborn Trade, 2002).