The C-Suite sale: Keys to determining the relevant executive for a sales opportunity

C-suite sale
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Competitive salespeople don’t waste people’s time, least of all their own. They identify the relevant executive for each sales opportunity, and they take time to understand the dynamics of their customer’s organization to uncover where influence, power, and control over a particular project reside. “It doesn’t have to be the CEO of a corporation,” said one senior executive. “It could be someone who has great influence with very little formal rank.”

To determine the right person to target, focus first on the project or application that’s associated with your sales opportunity. Then try to identify the highest- ranking executive who stands to gain the most or lose the most as it relates to the outcome of that project or application.

Typically, this is the relevant executive for the sales opportunity and the person you want to align with because that person possesses informal power that can be exercised over the buying decision. In fact, even if a buying decision has been made as part of the formal decision- making process, the relevant executive can usurp that decision because of the informal power they possess.

To further determine the right person to target, executives suggest that salespeople ask two additional questions.

1) “Who Will Really Evaluate, Decide, or Approve the Decision?”

An executive who initiates a project often reserves the decisionmaker or approver role before she hands down the role of evaluating vendors to others. By way of definition, a decision maker is the person who analyzes the results of a formal team of evaluators, listens to recommendations, and then makes the final commitment to a vendor or to a certain course of action. There is usually one decision maker who makes that commitment.

On the other hand, an approver is usually a more senior person who reserves the right to review and approve or veto the decisions made by the decision maker. If the decision maker owns the budget and is trusted to make choices that are in the company’s interests, the approver serves to offer objectivity but typically rubber- stamps what the decision maker wants to do. If the decision maker is new, under scrutiny, or about to leave the company, the approver’s role becomes more active to safeguard the right decision.

Anyone above the person you have identified as the relevant executive, who is not involved in the project or is not affected by it, is not an appropriate contact. Anyone below this person does not have a broad enough view of the project, can give you bad or misleading information, and through ignorance of the issues can even extend the sales cycle unnecessarily.

2) “Who Has the Highest Rank and Greatest Influence?”

Every company has the formal structure of leaders and followers, ranks and reporting lines. You see the structure and ranks printed in annual reports and on people’s business cards. It’s the legitimate chain of command that companies need in order to preserve order and divide labor, and it is easy to identify.  Some people obsess about climbing that hierarchy as a means of securing wealth, power, and control. But if rank works as a constant, do eight vice presidents in the same company all exert identical levels of influence? Rarely. Influence is the informal, political power that people wield. It rarely maps along the lines of a formal hierarchy, which makes it difficult to see. In reality, it operates exactly like a personal currency in that it rises and falls with how much of it is created, stored, borrowed, consolidated, exchanged, or spent. It is also affected by the relative influence of others in the community.

Do you have difficulty determining the relevant executive for your sales opportunities? This story serves as instruction.

Mike had been calling on the Medical Technology Director of a very large healthcare company for some time. He continually chased his target executive in an attempt to sell his solution, but to no avail. He then arranged for a meeting with the Technology Director and his boss, the Chief Medical Officer. This was achieved under the auspices of his own Regional Manager wanting to meet with a senior executive at that organization, which made a peer- to-peer meeting appropriate. This is a tried- and- tested door- opening tactic used the world over.

Mike and his boss flew into town for the meeting, but a snowstorm prevented the Medical Technology Director from attending. The CMO suggested they go ahead anyway. They discussed the client’s needs, explained their solution, and reviewed the value proposition. After this, the CMO asked, “Why haven’t we implemented this solution already, and what can I do to move it forward?” The salesperson learned he was now dealing with the relevant executive—the CMO—and the Medical Technology Director with whom he had the prolonged relationship was actually an irrelevant executive who clearly didn’t know what his boss valued, so hadn’t brought these ideas to his attention.

With access now achieved with a relevant executive, and having established credibility with him, Mike could now contact this higher level for other opportunities in that organization.

The key here is that irrelevant executives will never tell you that they are irrelevant. They think they’re a big wheel. They’ll make you jump through hoops to prove how important they are. They even compartmentalize and restrict information from reaching their peers and superiors. You cannot allow the attainment of your sales quota (or target) to depend on these people. If you feel you’re being blocked, you owe it to yourself and the executives of your customer’s organization to find a way to break through to the upper levels. In our research, executives were most adamant about this.

If you have value to offer that they will never hear about unless you circumvent a lower- level blocker, you should find a way to do so. Don’t fret about the consequences of going over someone’s head if that head is stuck in the sand. Chances are their boss knows it already and will reward you for getting past the roadblock.

Excerpt from Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top, reprinted with permission by McGraw-Hill, ©2018.


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Stephen J. Bistritz

Stephen J. Bistritz

Dr. Steve Bistritz has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management and training management experience and just released the 2nd edition of his best-selling sales book, Selling to the C-Suite. Steve spent more than 27 years with IBM in sales and training-related positions. He then worked for a sales training company where he led the development of sales training programs which were delivered to tens of thousands of salespeople worldwide. Visit his website at