Selling to CEOs: Powerful Conversations with C-Suite Executives

Welcome back to the video series, where we cover how to sell to small business owners more effectively.  What have we covered so far? 

In Video Number 1, we covered the opportunity. We showed research that there are hundreds of thousands of small business owners to be served,  the kind of services they buy, and where you can go to put yourself in front of those opportunities.

Video Number 2 covered the Expert’s Error, that fundamental mistake that we make as experts. We assume that explaining equals selling, but don't realize how our desire to explain actually pushes away opportunity. We have to flip that attitude so we can be seen as a doctor, an obvious, trusted professional.

In Video Number 3, we covered the foundations of a good consulting offering. There's no amount of salesmanship that can make up for a poorly designed offering. We defined the term “offer,” we looked at its structure, and we saw its application so that you can create and sell an offer that establishes leverage for you, maintains your doctor positioning and satisfies the needs of your clients.

Today's video covers the conversation.  What does it sound like to talk to a CEO? How can we approach decision-makers and have the best conversation each and every time? 

Without any further ado, let's get started.

Video Transcription

Cut the Confrontation

The typical conversation outline has you on one side of the conversation versus the client on the other side. Your job is to get the sale. His job is to avoid the sale. There we are. Round one. Fight! This is confrontational. It's adversarial. Nobody likes this, but we do it all the time.

Here's a better model. You and the client should be working together to achieve a common goal. In this conversation, this person is the CEO, the core decision maker. You are the CXO in whatever your expertise happens to be. Approach the conversation as if you already have the job. You and the CEO are now working together, thinking together, to solve the problem or reach the goal.

Well, that's simple, isn't it? It's so simple it's almost offensively obvious, but it's actually a lot harder than it looks. There are nuances here.

I didn't learn this in some book. I didn't learn this because some mentor poured it in my ear. I learned this trial by fire, in the field, real stakes on the line.

What Typically Happens in a Sales Call: The Talk-a-Lot Technician versus the Know-it-All CEO

The typical framing has you, the consultant, on one side, and the CEO on the other. This happens in a variety of formats: over coffee; in a virtual meeting; in a formal proposal.  Now, depending on how this conversation is initiated, you can end up in one of two categories.

  1.  If you initiate this interaction, asking the CEO to talk through some projects, some services you might be able to help them with.  In that framing, you become the Talk-a-Lot-Technician. So you talk at him for as long as he can stand it, you explain option A, option B, option C, you talk, talk, talk yourself out of a sale. You’re so excited about what you do, but you talk way over your client’s head.  I've done this more times than I care to admit.

    When's the last time you sat with a doctor who explained medicine to you? Never. Doctors don't do that. In the culture of talking to a doctor, we don't expect them to explain medicine to us. We do expect for them to hear about our symptoms, our situation, talk about how we're feeling and to make appropriate recommendations as a result.

  2.  If the CEO initiates this interaction; maybe there is a proposal he's asking you for, or he calls you in to discuss some possibilities. The moment you walk into the room, he's dictating terms to you. “This is what we want, when we want it, this is how we want it to go.” So your expertise isn't valued or appreciated, because he's got it “all figured out."  He’s a Know-it-All CEO, and you have become the devalued vendor.

Why do CEOs behave this way? Are they on a power trip? Are they just trying to give you a hard time? Perhaps. Or maybe, it's because he's had this meeting before and he's had his time wasted by a Talk-a-Lot Technician. What he's learned to do to protect his time and to get efficiency in his meetings by coming with his mind already made up. He’ll say what he wants, and you say if you can do it or not.

Once more, how would a doctor act? If you told your doctor, “I want this surgery done in this way with this medication because I know all the cutting edge approaches,” would your doctor accept that from you? Absolutely not. Because your doctor knows that even if you've done some research, you don't know medicine like a doctor knows the medicine. You don't have the depth of knowledge, the depth of study, the practice through repetition, or the network of fellow experts that can be leveraged to find cutting edge solutions.

Selling to CEOs: a simple outline for powerful conversations

The worst part is, as consultants, we’re horrible at measuring the success of a conversation because we only measure in terms of “Buy” or “Don’t Buy.”  We leave a meeting with this binary metric.  Did he buy or not?  And this doesn’t give you enough information to know whether or not you should have been working together.

Let's start over here.  You don't have to accept this framing, even if everybody around you thinks that's how it's supposed to go.  Eliminate the “versus.”  The two of you are sitting on the same side: We’re getting this done together.  Let's be clear about the goal because then we can discuss which scope of work will help us get to this goal.

Now, this is the kind of thing that people see and say, “Alzay, obviously it works this way, duh!” But there are some new muscles you have to exercise to behave in this fashion. Remember these two points:

  • It’s not about you, it’s about the goal.  You may have the entire conversation and never talk about what you do. That's going to sound weird at first. What we're prioritizing, instead of your explanation, is an understanding of his expectations, What is this CEO trying to do? Because as a doctor, what you know is that if you change the goal, you change the work. It’s really important to understand what the clear expectations are, because when they are clarified, then the scope of work can be clarified.

  • You are not trying to force a sale. What you're asking for is a decision. Did you discuss this well enough so that a comfortable decision can be made? Remember you're functioning as the CXO right now, this person is functioning as the CEO right now, you're working together to figure out what makes sense. Both of you are collaborating to make a clear and comfortable decision.

Three important takeaways here. 

  1. You are a doctor and it is your job to understand this situation before you make a recommendation, that's what good doctors do.

  2. Having the conversation in this way gives your CEO client space to make a good decision. He can now breathe for a second and think through all the details. So as the two of you think it through you make a decision, if that decision is to work with you and execute there's your sale, he can write the check right there with a clear conscience and press on.

  3. Even if your CEO client doesn't buy in that conversation, now you have context to review what happened. Did you understand his goals? Did he understand your scope of work needed to reach those goals? Did the two of you reach that conclusion together?

When you get it right, every conversation you have should produce clear and structured notes that are useful in the live conversation. During that conversation, you should be able to document: 

  • this is where that person is now
  • this is the work that they're trying to get done
  • this is the goal that matters most to them. 

Then in the conversation you can play it back and you should get confirmation from your prospective client on each point. The two of you should agree on this path together, live on the call.

It’s not a “Sales Call,” it’s a “Problem Call”

When you get it right, you can repeat this over and over again. Having conversations in this flow forever changes how you think about the term selling. In fact, in my business, I don't use the term “sales call.” I use the term “problem call” because I believe the core intention is to understand the problem facing the person you're talking to. I use a simple note-taking structure so that I can document that problem clearly and then offer an appropriate recommendation. That's what doctors do.

Well, there you have it! Thank you for your time today! We're learning now that you can change an entire conversation for the better simply by asking better questions. Please post in the comments below. What one question is the new question should you ask your prospective client? 

Leave a Comment