Analyst firm IDC found that 80% of business-to-business decisions now require the sign-off of decision makers with VP or higher titles.
This finding corroborates what many veteran marketers and salespeople already suspected: Securing executive buy-in is critically important in your customer conversations. Easier said than done.
The following data points, also from a pair of leading analyst firms, begin to paint a picture of why executive buy-in is so hard to come by:
- SiriusDecisions found that executives value business expertise four times more than conversations about products and services.
On the other hand:
- Forrester Research found that executive buyers report that 88% of the sales professionals they encounter are usually knowledgeable about their products and services.
- Those same executive buyers report that only 24% of sales professionals were knowledgeable about the buyer’s business. (Think areas like market trends, key business issues, and the financial metrics that dictate buying decisions.)
Looked at in conjunction, these data points tell us something pretty alarming about many customer conversations. Basically, today’s sellers are four times less likely to be good at the types of business conversations that executive buyers desire four times more than product conversations.
A Business Value Gap?
This disconnect creates what I call a business value gap between the conversations executives want more of and the product-centric conversations they appear to be getting.
This gap’s negative impact on revenues is very real--and don’t just take it from me. This was validated in a fascinating study by TrainingIndustry.com, which compared the training emphases of both average- and high-performing companies.
It found that high-performing companies place:
- Three times more emphasis on developing executive selling skills.
- Four times more emphasis on developing their team’s financial acumen.
In view of these figures, the mandate for sellers is clear: Bridge the business value gap between the conversations your team is having today and the business conversations executive buyers are demanding.
Getting your message and sales conversations to that point comes down to addressing five key competencies related to selling a solution’s business value:
1. Shift your focus (competency #1: executive perspective): Influential external factors—trends, events, and changes in the industry—are core topics of conversation in the executive suite. To make your message and sales conversations CXO-relevant, you first need to develop a strong understanding of the initiatives companies are putting in place to deal with these factors, which may include economic conditions, regulatory challenges, or shifts in customer preferences. You then need to link your business value to these initiatives to create a buying vision. If you’re unable to speak about these issues with authority, you may get delegated down to whom you sound like.
2. Research with a purpose (competency #2: customer insight): When speaking to executive buyers, one of your first tasks is to align three pieces of information to shape your conversation: your prospect’s relevant external factors, the business initiatives they’re implementing to address them, and the financial metrics they use to run their businesses. To inform your approach, you need to be adept at distilling key information from management presentations, earnings calls, and annual reports in the case of publicly traded prospects. For privately held companies, resources like analyst reports and industry-specific news can give you the research foundation you need to be compelling to executives right away.
3. Address the “money flow” (competency #3: financial acumen): To get executive decision makers excited about what you’re saying, you need to be proficient at clearly attaching your story to real line items in a company’s balance sheet (assets, capital) and income statement (revenue, costs, and profit/loss). This, in turn, demonstrates how your solutions can free up cash flow and improve a prospect’s business performance.
4. Contrast the status quo with a change scenario (competency #4: current situation and business change): Understanding why your prospect is buying depends on understanding their current situation, and more specifically, what’s driving their business initiatives. What external factors are dictating their status quo? What limitations exist? What is absent that’s leaving them vulnerable? From this foundation, you can then determine what’s impeding their performance. How can your prospect enjoy better sales growth? What’s blocking their cost savings? What information can allow them to make better business decisions? Remember, what you say is as important as how you say it. When contrasting their current situation to an envisioned change, use language that highlights prospects’ business challenges without offending them.
5. Quantify your impact (competency #5: economic justification) You’ve sold your solution many more times than your customer has bought it. This reality positions you to work with customers to make sure your projected ROI is accurately and fully captured. To that end, consider the “three Rs” in your customer conversations: 1. The returns you can fully quantify (the “hard Rs”); 2. the strategic advantages that can influence the investment decision (the “strategic Rs”); and 3. the subjective returns that are difficult to measure but which you may be able to convert into quantifiable values (the “soft Rs”). Also, because most sales professionals ignore ROI, working jointly with customers to financially justify deals presents a major opportunity for differentiation.
The best customer conversations are born of an awareness that companies only have one shot to demonstrate value to executive decision makers. Because of this, you can’t afford to squander that chance by not speaking with authority about the business concerns that are most important to them.