How to Sell to the C-Level

Q&A | Steve Martin

This week we’re going to stay in that rarefied air around selling to the C-level. Earlier this week we discussed a recent a Webinar that tackled myriad ways that B2B sales reps can get in front of C-level execs. In a similar vein, we recently spoke to sales consultant Steve Martin about the delicate yet crucial role ego plays in getting buy-in from the tippy top. Martin, author of “Heavy Hitters Sales Psychology: How to Penetrate the C-Level Executive and Convince Company Leaders to Buy,” stressed that, contrary to conventional wisdom, B2B selling is not necessarily about alleviating pain.

ZoomInfo: When trying to reach C-level buyers, there seems to be an increasing number of gatekeepers in the purchasing process, from “fans” to “champions.” How do B2B sellers navigate this matrix in order to get to C-level executives?

Martin: There are two strategies. One would be the top-down strategy, when you’re contacting [the C-level] directly via one of three communication modes: e-mail, letter or cold call. The other is an indirect strategy, whereby you’re using your internal ‘champion,’ as an internal advocate to relay your message to that C-level executive so that you can get the meeting with the C-level executive directly. Both strategies require very clear messaging and the messaging has to be based upon a ‘business-operation’ language: how the solution you sell impacts [the buyer’s] day-to-day operation. If you have an internal champion, the psychological theory of ‘attached relationships’ comes into play, meaning if you have a strong relationship with that internal champion and that champion has a strong relationship with the C-level executive, the attributes of the relationship between the two of them will be imposed on you and you can get that meeting.

ZoomInfo: Once sellers do get an opportunity with a C-level buyer, why do they tend to ‘show up and throw up’ and bombard the buyer with information about products and services?

Martin: The number one reason is that it’s hard to get that meeting. And when sales reps do get that meeting there is a tendency for non-senior salespeople to feel compelled to explain the worthiness of their products and how great their company is. And it’s the exact opposite. You’ll be granted continued access to that C-level decision-maker when you’re able to explain how you help that person’s business. Remember, in [the buyer’s] mind you’re just a footnote to his day. You have to stand out and, instead of doing an infomercial, you’re there to understand and do an investigation of the person’s business and find out what’s on his mind and where the problems are. And then you can tell the buyer how your other customers are solving those [particular] problems.

ZoomInfo: Do think this notion that B2B reps should sell on alleviating pain for the buyer is a misnomer? If so, what are the alternatives to getting prospects’ attention and subsequently getting them through the sales funnel?

Martin: Pain is a great motivator. However, the greater motivation for big B2B purchases is ego.  Behind every major purchase there’s a huge ego that’s driving the purchase through the organization. There are two other elements to ego. The first is appealing to self-preservation; that is, buyers need to maintain position and status within a group. For example, a company buys SAP software, not just solely for the software, but now it puts them in league with the other companies using the software and allows the buyer to put SAP on his resume and be in league with people who are competing for jobs [at the C-level in that sector]. The other element is physical and mental well-being. Everyone wants to keep their job and a lot of products are bought so buyers can keep their jobs and stay mentally prepared for the future.

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