May 5, 2011

Four Ways to Offer Powerful Value to Executives

By Heather Baldwin

Scoring an appointment with a top executive at a high-powered company is a major achievement, but it can also cause major anxiety. To hold a top dog’s attention and move the deal to the next level, sales reps need to go into this kind of meeting with their eyes wide open. It goes without saying that a successful meeting will require a presentation that goes above and beyond the norm. Intelligent questions and free-flowing, problem-oriented dialogue should be center stage.

“Executives believe that meetings are a forum for exchanging ideas, and they are prepared to be led by a skilled questioner along a path of discovery,” say Nicholas Read and Stephen Bistritz in their book, Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top. “Salespeople who ask the right questions to uncover problems impress senior executives.”

Those “right questions” comprise the biggest portion of an effective executive meeting, say Read, president of SalesLabs, and Bistritz, a veteran sales trainer. In all, that meeting should include four parts: an introduction, exploration of issues, a brief look at solution options, and a plan for next steps. Here’s a look at each of those parts in more detail. (Note: The times given are for a one-hour meeting. Adjust them proportionately for the time you’ve been allotted.)

1. Introduction (10 minutes). Refer to the call that got you the executive meeting, citing your sponsor or the person who referred you, if appropriate. Briefly mention your past experience, either in the executive’s organization or with companies similar to his or her own. Finally, “set the expectation for the mutual value you expect the meeting to deliver,” say Read and Bistritz. “Meetings without a stated outcome are usually a waste of an executive’s time.”

2. Issues and Implications (25 minutes). This is the meat of the meeting, where you’ll ask questions that show you’ve done your homework and reveal issues the executive might not have considered. This is your chance to develop an understanding of the issues and the key people you should be talking to. Leave solution-related questions for later.

3. Solution Options (15 minutes). Once the issue has been clearly defined, offer your thoughts on potential solutions. “Waiting until the end of the meeting to explore solutions builds credibility with the executive,” explain Read and Bistritz. Keep in mind that the conversation must remain at all times on a peer-to-peer level, discussing problems and solutions, not products. So address your solutions from the perspective of delivering business value to the company and personal value to the executive, not from a features/function standpoint.

4. Moving Forward (10 minutes). Agree on next steps and an action plan that includes a follow-up meeting with this executive to further explore these issues. To the second meeting, you’ll bring an expert who can help move the conversation to the next level.

It’s important not to script the meeting too much. Sure, showing up with 50 slides and talking about how wonderful your products are feels more comfortable, but that comfort level will last only the few minutes it takes the executive to decide you aren’t going to offer any strategic value and end the meeting. To avoid that embarrassment, arrive prepared to “listen, ask questions, and let the executive reveal the problems and impact that these problems are having on the organization,” conclude the authors.