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Is your sales team calling on the right people?

By Bridget McCrea

Breaking through gatekeepers and getting to high-level decision makers is an ongoing challenge for distributors, and one that’s gotten increasingly difficult to overcome due to a highly competitive business environment. The good news is that there are ways to break through those barriers, get past the purchasing agent and user, and pave a path into the C-suite.

“Successful selling is about penetrating an account at all levels – not just purchasing,” says Tom Reilly, president at St. Louis-based Tom Reilly Training and author of Value-Added Selling: How to Sell More Profitably, Confidently, and Professionally by Competing on Value – Not Price.

Reilly, who helps sales and marketing executives achieve their strategic objectives by helping their salespeople achieve tactical sales goals, shows distributors exactly how to achieve that goal in this Q&A session:

Q:  Why should distributors be working directly with C-level executives?

Reilly:  We classify customers at three levels:  1) purchasing, 2) the user or reseller, and 3) high-level decision makers or the C-suite. Each of these three has a unique perspective on what they’re looking for in a solution. Purchasing, for example, is thinking about logistics (price, delivery, packaging, and shipping). Users and resellers are more focused on utility (how well it works, is it easy to work with, will you support it, do you offer training, etc.) C-level decision makers are different than either of these. They have financial responsibility and profit and loss responsibility. They take a broader, longer-term view of what something should look like. So where someone in purchasing defines low cost as a cheap price, someone who runs an organization looks at low cost in broader terms. If a distributor offers a number of sub-assembly options, for example, or vendor managed inventory (VMI) – both of which are designed to help customers operate more cost effectively – then the price of its goods may be higher, but the overall cost of business itself is much lower.

Q: What else are high-level decision makers looking for?

Reilly:  Someone in the C-suite will be more apt to look at the total cost, and not just the acquisition price. In most cases, someone at that level doesn’t buy products – he or she buys partnerships. They’re willing to look at the total value that a distributor brings, the management structure of the distributorship, and the partnerships that the distributor has with its own suppliers. They want to answer questions like:  Does the company represent the best brands? Does the distributor have the right depth and breadth of value-added services that we can tap into to make up for our own lack of resources? The definition of a solution is much broader and bigger when you call on someone at that level compared to the bottom of the pyramid, which makes simple, price-based decisions. To survive, distributors need to have bigger, better, broader, and longer-term discussions with customers. One way to achieve that is by focusing on higher-level executives within the customer organization.

Q: What are the hard parts of accomplishing this goal?

Reilly:  Roughly 90 percent of salespeople never get there due to four key reasons why:  They’re intimidated by the concept and/or the person; they don’t know what to talk about when they get in there (feature-benefit presentations are not a conversation that a high-level decision maker wants to have); they are afraid of offending a lower-level contact person (in purchasing, maintenance, or another department); and there’s a perception that “they won’t see me.” This simply isn’t true, but it’s a key factor that holds salespeople back.

Q: How can distributors overcome these obstacles?

Reilly: I recommend using an approach that we call the “high-level schmooze.” Try to schedule a “partnership meeting” that includes your own management and your customer’s management. The purpose of the pow-wow is to make sure that the distributor is moving on parallel tracks with the customer at about the same speed and in the same direction. Consider it a meeting where “my boss comes in to talk to your boss” about some of the higher-level stuff that bosses talk about. And if it sounds intimidating, consider the fact that surveys show that more than 80 percent of company heads say that they would meet with their high-level counterparts. Get the lower-level decision makers involved in the process and if they appear reluctant, tell them that it’s going to happen anyway, so why not make it their idea? Other good icebreaker strategies include using internal referrals (where someone within the customer’s organization puts a bug in the C-level executive’s ear about the need for a meeting); outside referrals (the same process, only with an outside source); and meeting up with the high-level decision makers offsite at trade and industry shows.

Q: What rewards can distributors expect from their efforts?

Reilly:  There are both quantitative and qualitative payoffs. First of all, the quality of the relationship will much stronger. The more levels at which you can connect with a customer – whether it’s purchasing, engineering, manufacturing, maintenance, and/or the corner office – the stronger the relationship and the greater the loyalty will be. Also remember that the C-level executives’ decisions are tied to broader issues. They look at things long-term. Your acquisition price may be a little higher, but these decision makers realize that the total cost of doing business with you is actually lower because of the depth and the breadth of your inventory, and the fact that you offer value-added services. These folks make bigger, better, longer-term decisions on broader decision variables than someone who is lower on the ladder. From a financial perspective, they’ll make solid choices that aren’t based solely on getting that last drop of blood out of you.

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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