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What You Can Do to Successfully Sell to the C-suite


It’s not surprising that we all feel a little panic when it comes to selling to the C-suite. Often it’s a place we’ve never been before, and the boardroom setting can be intimidating.

Several years ago, I set out on a personal challenge to figure out a formula for how I could sell directly to a CEO myself. My goal was to win business with 10 CEOs and then introduce them to Salesforce Chairman and CEO Marc Benioff. It took me about two years to get there.

At Salesforce’s annual sales kickoff in 2015, I was asked to stand up and share what I’d learned. I let our team know that I was no different than they were and had just taken it on myself to actually devise a way to get it done. We now meet with more than 50 CEOs a year, and have also been invited to meet with the boards and executive committees of many customers and prospects.

Here are a few pointers on how to up your game:

1. Remember, a CEO is a person.

The first practical thing to keep in mind is that a CEO is somebody’s dad or mom, grandfather or grandmother, son or daughter. CEOs are human beings, and therefore are, in a way, just like you — they’ve just had a difference set of experiences in their careers.

Start by looking into their backgrounds and where they are now. What communities do they live in? What are the nonprofits they support? What are the interesting things that they do outside of their jobs? You can do the same with their direct reports. Start to build out a personality profile for each of them as well, as they’re important influencers on the path to the CEO.

Here’s something I learned from Tony Owens. Before I meet a CEO, I watch existing videos of them that are on YouTube. This helps me learn their mannerisms and understand any signals that show if they are comfortable or uncomfortable. I pay attention to how long they focus, so I can be sure my message fits inside that window.  It’s a way to keep from being thrown off of your game.

I’ve played a lot of team sports and one of the great things my very first coach taught our team was that each team member was responsible for making sure our opponent didn’t surprise us. We were assigned three players on the other team whose playing style we needed to know really well so they couldn’t disrupt us as an individual player or as a team.

2. Leverage their professional network.

Once you’ve got a CEO’s personality in mind, start on a more traditional preparation task: networking. Obviously you can look on social networks to see who you might know in common. Talk to others in your professional network, your network of customers or your colleagues, and ask them what kind of person the CEO is, business challenges the CEO may be facing, and their general opinion of the CEO.

I like to take it a step further and look for five people who the CEO knows and trusts, and who could serve as a reference for your company. Nothing is better than when I can deliver this list to the CEO personally. Then simply say, “Please check with the people on this list about their experiences with us. Be sure to ask them about what they would do differently and/or what they learned.” We want all our customers to learn from each other and to be more successful.

Another thing that works really well is creating a chart of their key customers and suppliers that are also our customers. It’s an eye opener for CEOs and lets them see that the world they and their community operate in is already in our organization’s community. They’ll ask, “What are you doing for this one or that one or this one?”  You’re addressing them at a different level, which can be a big differentiator. And make sure you know the answers.

3. Speak to them in their own words.

I think it’s super important to read a CEO’s letter to the shareholders. The CEO is ultimately responsible for delivering shareholder value and that letter serves as the contract. You should highlight words that relate to the value you’re offering with our products. Even more importantly, it allows you to speak back to the CEO in his or her own words. That is really a sincere form of flattery.

Also note the words that are not included. For example, I find it interesting the number of CEOs who don’t use “innovation” in their shareholder letter. It will save you and your account team from going in there and blabbing about innovation if it isn’t top of mind for the CEO. Don’t just look at this year’s letter; look back at least four years. You will see what makes up the CEO’s rolling five-year plan and the journey he or she is taking shareholders, customers, employees, and partners on toward their future.

Of course, the CEO’s job is not to deliver everything in that letter without help. It’s to operationally and organizationally parcel out the responsibilities to the executive committee: production, finance, human resources, customer service, operations, and marketing, for example. If you’re meeting with this group, it can be difficult to understand how to map the politics and the relationship for all of these personas, especially when they don’t all agree with each other. The typical reason for tension is the annual budgeting process.

If you get a chance to sit down with this group, have someone on your team watch their faces and body language. Every time one of them writes something down during your presentation, note where it happened and who it was. After the meeting, you can create a chart of this and figure out what your follow-up strategy should be with each individual, based on what sparked his or her interest. It also helps you build a broader set of relationships that ultimately have a vote on whether or not they buy from you.

4. Change their environment when possible.

Not only is meeting with the C-suite intimidating due to the boardroom environment, you also don’t know what happened right before you walked in the door. As a result, it can be incredibly hard to change that “mojo” at the beginning of your meeting and to get them to focus on you. One advantage we have at Salesforce is the Executive Briefing Center (EBC) at our San Francisco headquarters.

The magic of the EBC is that the visitors are not in their environment. It’s new. When they come here as a team, they perk up. They realize it’s not business as usual. They’re tasting our culture from the moment they step into the elevator. Although it’s not always an option, meeting with a CEO and their executive board outside of their office is a great way to alter the dynamic in your favor.

5. Follow up with them professionally.

So now that you have had a successful meeting, how do you follow up? First meet with your team and review everyone’s notes, group them into themes, and prioritize each theme and link them to the CEO’s objectives. Next, draft a note back to the CEO that follows this pattern:

a) Thank them for their time and participation, sponsorship, or support.

b) List each theme in the priority order of the CEO. This could also be timeline-based if that’s the context from the meeting (i.e., short-term, mid-term, long-term). More often it will be based on their priorities for the business (i.e., accelerate growth, commercial excellence, drive efficiency and productivity, open new markets, etc.).

c) Name who is assigned from your company to each follow-up item and ask for a name from their team if you don’t already have one.

d) Close with a commitment to deliver the status of each theme in 30 or 60 or 90 days. State that you will drive this.

e) Thank the CEO again and close.

CEOs are human beings, and therefore are, in a way, just like you — they’ve just had a difference set of experiences in their careers.”

Polly Sumner | Chief Adoption Officer, Salesforce

Learn More

How to Craft the Perfect Sales Pitch By Annie Simms,
Account Executive, Salesforce
The Simple Client Meeting Rules Every Salesperson Should Follow By Laura Stack,
President and CEO, Productivity Keynote Speaker and Author, The Productivity Pro, Inc.



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