What Does It Take to Sell to This Fortune 500 Executive?

I was introduced to the sales performance improvement firm, Executive Conversation, more than 15 years ago. At the time, I was consulting with a number of technology companies, assisting them in devising competitive strategies against some significant competition in some very big deals. Invariably those strategies included getting and maintaining access to high-level executives. I directed each of my clients to collaborate with their customers in building financial models to justify the acquisition of products and services. At that point I was more than five years into leveraging business acumen to win business for my clients and I knew what a differentiator it was. There were other levers that we used as well, such as acknowledgement of and collaboration with the customer on their business strategy. More about that below.

One of my clients held a two-day “Sales University” where I was one of a number of workshop facilitators. The university concluded with presentations by four different sales teams to a panel of very senior executives (including the CFO) of this Fortune 500 company. As each team presented their business case to the executive panel, I was more than impressed. Each team was able to articulate, in board-level terms, how their solution would contribute to the customer’s business. There was no mistaking it. Executive Conversation’s consultant had done a terrific job in a relatively short period of time.

So, I’ve been a fan of Executive Conversation since then  and am delighted that they are not only still around, but growing and delivering more value to their clients every day. Here is a podcast with Executive Conversation’s president, Mike Rohan, and executive instructor, Bob James, that I did a while back. You should know that Executive Conversation recruits former senior executives from large companies as consultants and facilitators. Bob James was one and so is Conrad Smith, whom I interviewed for this post.

Since I’m on a mission these days to convince more sales, sales enablement, product marketing, and corporate learning executives how important financial and business savvy is to their companies’ selling efforts, I thought I’d follow up on last week’s webinar on financial acumen featuring Mercuri International and Siemens with this interview.

Here is Conrad Smith, consulting executive with Executive Conversation, answering questions about the economy and business acumen as a selling capability.  Please take note that he is answering my questions as he would have during his executive stints with James River Corporation and GE.


Dave Stein:  Recent surveys show that executive’s expectations for business growth have really dropped, how are companies prioritizing CapEx/OpEx in this uncertain economy?

Conrad Smith:  It’s very interesting, while a number of consumer confidence surveys show upward trends, confidence among CXOs is down. Spending and hiring plans are down.  In fact, the Conference Board’s recent survey revealed that only 9% of CEOs believe economic conditions have improved since mid-year, and almost one-third have reduced capital spending plans since January.

For sales professionals, this matters a whole lot because it impacts their account’s near-term and longer term spending plans.  With key accounts, sellers absolutely have to know if they’re part of their customer’s plans.  Too many sellers mistakenly believe strategic planning is a process the customer alone must own.

Just the opposite is true, particularly amid today’s economic uncertainty.  Inserting yourself into a customer’s growth plans – by bringing ideas to the table, or sharing what’s worked for others – is what positions you to win the big deals that make a difference and to also preempt your competition.

DS: There’s a growing number of stalled deals out there, what are the key business case elements that can really accelerate an investment decision?

CS: The lack of clear, compelling financial justification is the number one reason deals stall.  Think about it, how many deals that are projected to deliver sizable financial returns fail to receive funding?

The growing backlog of deals stuck in situations where the ‘customer didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes either’ is another implication of falling CXO confidence.  Required approvals for even modest investments now often rest at executive levels.  And seeing credible financial rationale is the key requirement for business decision-makers to act in these uncertain times.

Knowing that financial justification is required to get my attention, I don’t understand why more sellers don’t emphasize this element.  I can only assume they’re not comfortable, or don’t know how to develop ROI scenarios for their solutions.

Of course, a sound business case must also recognize additional elements such as key risks, strategic rationale and required success factors.

DS: We all know executives are extremely busy with limited time to meet with sales people, but what are some reasons why you would take a meeting?

CS: Business leaders are continually under pressure to deliver growth, particularly top line and margin growth. Short, specific, growth oriented proposals catch my eye.  It’s easier to cut costs than grow revenue, so cost cutting proposals don’t hold quite the same sway.

When I meet with sales professionals I’m hoping they have expertise that can help me execute my priorities.  They may possess more practical insight than I can get from my traditional consultants and if we can collaborate and partner under the right circumstances it greatly accelerates my time to impact.  Unfortunately, in my experience this doesn’t happen too often as most sellers lack sufficient understanding of my business to connect the dots between their offering and business impact.

When a sales professional demonstrates they understand my business by linking their proposal to our strategic initiatives, and has taken the time to at least outline a financial rationale based on where it has worked before, that may be worth some of my time to learn more.

DS:  What do you expect a salesperson to know about your business when they engage you?

CS: I would counsel sales professionals to arrive prepared with a 3-part story when they engage business decision-makers.

Part one is the identification of 2-3 of my company’s strategic business initiatives.  I’m talking about initiatives that directly relate to your contact’s area of responsibility and that you can reasonably link to what you’re selling.

Second, I want to know how they’re going to change my business.  What’s going to be different after I invest?  If I’m operating this way today, how will my business operate differently after investing? If not much is going to change, there’s not much reason to move forward.

And thirdly, we’ve talked about this before; I need to see financial justification.  The proposed investment needs to be quantified using metrics meaningful to me and my business.  What range of ROI can I expect?  Early stage, I’m not expecting the financial justification to be fully developed, but certainly to be part of the conversation. For example, the seller could include a high-level payback analysis that they’ve worked with my team to develop.

Q:  What makes a sales call go wrong, or right, for you?

A:  When I meet with sales professionals, I’m not looking to make friends.  What makes a call flow favorably for me is when the individual respects my time by quickly orienting the conversation around my business.  Specifically, the 3-part conversation I just outlined:  the initiative the seller can help me with, how the seller can change my business, and how I can financially measure that business change.

What makes for a very short sales call is when someone starts telling me about their products or their company’s market leading whatever.  For example, I met with one seller who quickly jumped in to discussing some great financing programs their company was offering.  They completely missed the point.  Deciding to buy something and deciding how to pay for something, are two entirely different decisions.  In this case, they hadn’t yet made the business case for buying so why would I care about their capital group’s great financing package?


About Conrad Smith

After achieving distinction as a leader during his military career, Mr. Smith went on to hold senior executive positions in Fortune 100 companies James River Corporation and GE.  Today, Mr. Smith is a Consulting Executive with Executive Conversation who works with sales organizations to deliver sales and operational results.  View video of Conrad in action.

About Executive Conversation, Inc.

Executive Conversation works with sales organizations to build business acumen for effectively engaging and selling to business decision-makers. The company’s unique buyer’s perspective curriculum has been delivered in over 60 countries and in seven languages.  Executive Conversation subscribes to ESR’s research.

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