Breaking Through to C-Suite Buyers


VP, Marketing Strategy & Communications
+1 763 746 8257
December 1, 2016

In 2008, while in Singapore for business, an officer within my company at the time facilitated an introduction for me with a prominent global leader from a Fortune 500 company, who happened to be in the same country at the same time. The leader willingly took a meeting with me because he knew and trusted the person requesting his time. What a pivotal moment in my career. It wasn’t the meeting that was significant. It’s how the meeting was arranged that’s important in the story. It completely solidified for me my understanding of selling, buying, trust, credibility, professional networks, and how all of these elements are critically linked together, actually inseparable, when we want to gain and keep access to executive leaders.

For many of us, calling on the C-Suite can be mysterious, daunting, and nerve-racking – even if we’ve been doing it for years. What if we could demystify the process, distill the plethora of information and opinions that exist, and simplify the strategies we need to be successful?

First, let’s make sure we are all on the same page with the terminology.

Most major organizations employ several key leaders with “C” titles – Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operations Officer, and the like.

It’s surprising how many sales professionals don’t know what someone means when he or she refers to the C-Suite. Those who do often consider it the Holy Grail.

The challenge isn’t a new one. For their 2010 book Selling to the C-Suite, Nicholas A.C. Read and Stephen J. Bistritz, Ed.D. conducted in-depth interviews with executive- level decision makers of more than 500 organizations. Here’s the good news. They learned that leaders at the highest corporate levels don’t avoid sales pitches; in fact, they welcome them—provided the salesperson approaches them the right way.

Before you launch your next call on the C-Suite, ensure you’re prepared to be successful by leveraging these tips.

Determine the Decision Maker.
There’s a chance your product, service or solution can be bought by lower-titled individuals. Be honest with yourself, and take a good look at what you are selling.

Early in my sales career, the leadership team for the organization I represented was pushing me hard to get access to CEOs and presidents. I was young and inexperienced and didn’t even consider taking a step back to confirm whether I actually needed C-Suite access to get the win. But, being a young professional, I did as told, and booked tons of appointments with top-level leaders. As it turns out, for that product, I didn’t need access to the C-Suite. Often my prospects were confused why I was there, as others, usually much lower in their organization, had budget and authority to buy what I was selling. I was wasting their time.

I knew how to secure the appointment, but didn’t know what I was supposed to do once I got there. If I would have worked smarter, and performed more research about the buying processes within my target markets, I could have won more business faster. I would have used my time more effectively, and booked appointments that would have been meaningful and productive.

When you are evaluating your prospect customers, and doing research about them specifically and their market in general, ask questions that will lead you to understand who the decision maker is for your particular product, solution or service. Remember, it’s not always the person who signs the contract. And, it might not be the title you were assuming it was. Asking about how similar decisions were made in the past, or about other comparable suppliers and where they interact within the buyer’s organization could help you clarify if being at the C-level is a must for you to secure new business. Sales professionals who prioritize determining who the key decision maker is early in the sales cycle within each prospect opportunity, and then plan a sales strategy accordingly, are well on their way to securing new clients faster than those who do not focus on this vital element.

Learn to Think Like an Executive
When we learn how to think like an executive, we earn the right to be in the C-Suite. The conversation drastically shifts from “price per unit” to “strategic fit,” and how a partnership between the two organizations would benefit the prospect company. Thinking like an executive will gain you credibility, access and respect.

Most senior leaders are focused on growing revenue, increasing profits, expanding market share, controlling costs, executing on their multi-year strategic business plan, or some combination thereof. For each of your prospects, do you know enough about their business direction and goals to engage in meaningful and productive dialogue with the business leaders? What additional research could you do to make sure the conversation is about their business and not your own agenda? Once you learn about their business direction, it is your job to paint the vision of the strategic business fit that could exist if you were to do business together.

At the C-Suite level, trust and credibility are paramount, and should not be overlooked as key factors to success. It could be easy to minimize the importance of these two elements, and accidentally think that your product/service/solution superiority (or at least your perception of its superiority) would compensate or be enough to earn their attention and interest.

Build a Strategic Network
If you are mindful of drastically increasing your success when interacting with C-Suite leaders, there are a few things you can tactically do now to improve your odds in the near future. Start by building a strong, strategic network of trusted professionals from whom you can seek advice, receive some informal career coaching, and discuss prospecting efforts. By focusing on your own development as a sales professional, you become part of the elite – those who dedicate themselves to their craft and fully embrace the journey to sales mastery. 

  1. Find someone (in your direct network or perhaps as an introduction through a mutual connection) who can act as a mentor for you at this moment in your career. Ideally, this person has been an executive leader or is one currently. Don’t overlook a retired executive as a person who can play this role. Share candidly with the person you identify that you are looking for coaching and discussion on how to better interact with C-level professionals as it relates to your current role in sales. Some “ah ha” moments are sure to ensue after just a few phone or in-person meetings.

  2. Ask a trusted sales leader (might not be your direct supervisor) to shadow you on several C-Suite prospect meetings and offer you candid feedback about what he or she observes on the appointments. Depending on your current assignment and reporting structure this might be difficult to execute. Another approach could be to shadow a sales professional as he or she conducts meetings at this level—and then emulate strategies.

  3. Call C-level leaders at your current customers and ask them to reflect on what it is they value from the professional relationship they have with you specifically, and the partnership with your company more broadly. This of course only works well if you already know C-level leaders within your client base. 

Answer Key Questions
As a final take-away, I’ll leave you with three questions to ask yourself when calling on the C-Suite at any of your prospects.

  1. Who is the executive I’m trying to meet with, and why?
  2. How will I secure an appointment with him or her?
  3. What will be my goal of the meeting?

Knowing the answers will empower you to breakthrough to top executives. With just a little time and attention to the topic of C-Suite selling, you can gain credibility and launch ahead of the competition.

This article is the final in a series of “6 Strategies to Maximize Sales Results.” The first focused on Growth Mindset, the second addressed Intellectual Curiosity, the third took on Showing Up for Sales Success, the fourth highlighted the importance of Understanding Your Customer, and the fifth showcased habits for a Healthy Pipeline. The series has been a collaboration among Amy Franko (Impact Instruction Group), Brittany Shonka (IMPAX) and Jen E Miller (Marsh & McLennan Agency)–to create a resource to help other sales professionals maximize results. The goal is to help you go farther, achieve sales success, and transform into top performers.