January 21st, 2016

So, You Want to Sell to the C-Suite?


It’s difficult to secure a meeting, or even get through via phone or email to prospect and sell to the C-suite. I am well aware of the degree of difficulty, as I am one of those targets defending my time against countless sales professionals trying to get in the door. For the past 15 years, I have held C-suite positions with commercial training and education companies. Now, as CEO of Richardson, I am continually struck by how many sales professionals try to sell me solely by virtue of my position.

They might have better luck contacting someone on my team, someone responsible for the particular area of business that aligns with their offerings. But, they start at the top, and because I head an organization focused on helping other organizations improve their sales execution, I feel compelled to share my reflections on what works — and what doesn’t.

Epic fail on homework

The first mistake in prospecting to the C-suite is coming in totally unprepared. Instead of impressing me with their persistence in securing a meeting, some sales professionals demonstrate that they’re lazy sellers. It becomes apparent within the first 30 seconds that they don’t know very much about my business. It’s not hard to figure out that they haven’t done their homework, and they’re dead in the water from the outset.

My argument is that it’s easy to find out not only what my role is, and what Richardson does, but to have a reasonably clear idea about the direction of the organization. And, if sellers do their homework, they can ultimately segue into presenting hypotheses about the business issues that I face and possible solutions.

Never has the ability to research sales targets been easier. There’s a whole world at your fingertips, with LinkedIn profiles, Web searches, Google alerts, Twitter feeds, and any number of other social media platforms — not to mention industry trades and business publications, both online and in traditional print formats.

So, don’t be lazy. Show the C-suite executive how much you value his/her time by doing your homework and coming to the meeting prepared to initiate a dialogue worth having.

Tricks and fancy talk will backfire.

Some sellers use tricks to get in the door, and that is a real turnoff for me personally. Maybe they’ve used some ruse to get past my assistant or the receptionist. Or, the e-mail promises something that the sales call doesn’t deliver.

The sellers might think that they’re being clever because they’ve gotten through to the C-suite executive, but all I see is a disingenuous sales approach. Once again, it takes less than 30 seconds of conversation for it to become apparent that they’ve gotten in under false pretenses. And, again, they’re dead in the water, stranded, with no hope of recovery.

My advice is to be honest. That goes for all forms of communication, written and verbal. And, what’s just as important as being honest is to use plain and simple language.

Several years ago, I gave a presentation that included good and bad examples of the selling e-mails that I receive. The examples that I used then are just as valid today. One was filled with big words and puffy language, talking about how the sender is known for specializing in optimizing and regionalizing and other kinds of “-izing.” The e-mail went on and on; at the end, I still didn’t have a clear idea what the company did.

The second e-mail was from an organization in the business of collections. I wasn’t the right target for this e-mail, as it should have gone to the financial services group. Still, I found myself reading the entire message because it was refreshingly honest, simple, and direct. The content was along the lines of the following: “Hello. My name is John. My company is in the collections business. We focus only on this area of business operations, and we’re very good at what we do. I’d like to have a conversation about how we might help you manage collections at your company.”

My advice to sellers, whether you’re writing a prospecting e-mail or trying to get through on the phone or in person, is to be honest about your intentions. Be clear in your proposition. And, be concise in your message.

As I said, I can tell in 30 seconds if something is worth my time, so make those seconds count. If you engage me in an honest way, there’s always a chance that I’ll put more time on the clock.


About The Author: John Elsey

John Elsey is CEO of Richardson. He has transformed early-growth businesses into multi-site, international corporations with revenues exceeding $200 million annually. He has provided performance-improvement products and services to a variety of vertical markets, including healthcare, energy, technology, telecommunications, transportation, and government.

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John Elsey

3 Responses to “So, You Want to Sell to the C-Suite?”

  1. January 21, 2016 at 11:28 am, mark gibson said:

    Good advice John,
    Any rep who thinks they can create value in a conversation with a CEO had better have done their homework.

    The sad fact is that there are probably only 6% of salespeople in any sales organization who are up for this level of call, but “call high” and call often is still a rally cry in many sales organizations.

    Those 6% will have done their homework, will lead with a hypothesis and hook the buyer with an insightful question that begs another 2 minutes of the CEO’s time.

    There are no shortcuts to sales excellence, it takes cognitive agility, discipline, practice and deep homework on the company, to produce genuine insight. Together, they produce the confidence needed to succeed in calling at the top.


  2. January 22, 2016 at 12:06 am, Kalyanaraman said:

    Loved the posting. Apt and precise, the way sales professionals need to operate. The homework part and being honest is the crucial.


  3. February 09, 2016 at 7:46 am, zaivenvia said:

    I am well aware of the degree of difficulty, as I am one of those targets defending my time against countless sales professionals trying to get in the door. Where such information?


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