EP - 062

Selling To C-Suite

With Guest Julie Thomas

Master the art of value selling and open doors to the C-suite

The How To Sell More Podcast


April 10, 2024

You’ve finally landed a long-sought after meeting with C-suite executives. Now what?

Time is of the essence, so forget the demo and focus on what’s important to them.

In this episode of “How to Sell More,” host Mark Drager explores ways to establish credibility carly and win over C-suite executives. He’s joined by Julie Thomas, the president and CEO of ValueSelling Associates. Julie is an expert in sales leadership and value selling strategies, specializing in helping organizations effectively engage and sell to high-level executives. They discuss some of the secrets to getting in the room with C-suite executives, and how aligning with their objectives rather than pushing your own agenda is key to forming successful business partnerships.

Get in the room: Gaining access to C-suite meetings often comes down to the power of referrals. Being recommended by a trusted colleague or another executive significantly increases the chances of securing a meeting, as it comes with an inherent level of trust and credibility.

Be diagnostic before prescriptive: A thorough understanding of the client's problem is essential before proposing a solution. This involves asking insightful questions that dig deeper into the underlying issues they face and allows for a more tailored and effective solution.

Continuous learning and adaptation: Success in sales, especially in complex scenarios, requires an ongoing commitment to learning and adapting strategies based on feedback and outcomes. Recognizing that not all sales efforts will result in success, but each provides valuable learning opportunities to refine and improve future approaches.

“C-suite doesn't care about the solution. They care about getting rid of the problem that's getting in the way of their business outcomes.” --Julie Thomas

Links to This Episode

Key Takeaways

  • Building Trust with the C-suite - To effectively engage with C-suite executives, credibility must be established from the outset. This involves being well-prepared, understanding the business and industry of the executive, and demonstrating a clear grasp of the challenges the company faces.
  • The art of value selling - Successful sales strategies focus on selling the outcome or the value the product or service brings to the business, rather than the product itself. This shift from a product-centric to a value-centric approach is particularly important when dealing with the C-suite, who are more interested in how a solution can impact their bottom line and achieve business outcomes.
  • Navigating complex sales processes - Sometimes, navigating through an organization to reach the C-suite involves using mid-level managers as bridge builders. Establishing trust with these individuals can lead to opportunities for higher-level discussions.

Top 3 Reasons to Listen

The importance of value selling: Learn why focusing on value over product features is crucial when selling to C-suite executives.

The role of authentic conversations: Discover why genuine, insightful conversations are more impactful than perfect product demos in the eyes of C-suite executives.

Strategic preparation for C-suite meetings: Learn about the importance of thoroughly preparing for C-suite meetings, including researching the individual, their company, and industry trends.

Follow Julie Thomas on Social

Website:  www.valueselling.com

Get a copy of her book: The Power Of Value Selling

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/julieathomas/

More About Today's Guest, Julie Thomas

Accelerating Your Revenue Performance with the ValueSelling Framework

Julie Thomas works with revenue leaders across a variety of industries, guiding them to achieve results beyond their expectations. She is dedicated to steering revenue organizations through uncertainties, building resilient, engaged teams that drive predictable, sustainable revenue results, and fostering lifelong customer relationships.

As the President and CEO of ValueSelling Associates, Inc., Julie is at the forefront of the company's global expansion, securing its status as a market leader in providing a mix of on-demand, instructor-led, virtual instructor-led, and hybrid learning solutions worldwide in more than 17 languages. With a career that spans over 24 years, Julie attributes her rapid advancement through sales, sales management, and corporate leadership roles to her expert use of the ValueSelling Framework®.

Julie began her illustrious sales career at Gartner Group (now Gartner, Inc.). By 1999, she was appointed as Vice President of Gartner’s Sales Training for the Americas, where her responsibilities included the successful onboarding of new sales hires and promoting the adoption of the ValueSelling Framework. She boasts extensive experience in applying, coaching, and reinforcing the ValueSelling Framework and ValueSelling Essentials®, benefiting customer-facing roles throughout the revenue engine.

In 2003, Julie assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer and President at ValueSelling Associates. Under her leadership, the company has emerged as a leading force in competency- and process-based training, significantly boosting sales performance for business-to-business sales organizations globally. Julie is proud of ValueSelling Associates' consistent recognition as an award-winning Sales Training Service Provider.

Beyond her executive role, Julie is a renowned speaker, consultant, and author of “ValueSelling: Driving Sales Up One Conversation at a Time” and “The Power of Value Selling: The Gold Standard to Drive Revenue and Create Customers for Life.” She also contributes to Forbes.com, the Forbes Business Development Council, and the LinkedIn Sales Blog.

Additionally, Julie serves on the advisory board of the eWomenNetwork Foundation and is actively involved with local charities in the San Diego area, demonstrating her commitment to giving back to the community.

A Transcription of The Talk

Mark Drager: You of course have made a career out of focusing on value selling. I mean, you are a speaker, and your organization focuses on value selling, and you've written a book on value selling. And so, I think I've had many conversations on this podcast where people talk about understanding your customers, and bridging the gap between sales and marketing. And, you know, being relationship-driven. And if you're selling to someone lower in the organization, it's different than the C-suite. But very few people that I've spoken to on this podcast have talked about how we get in front of the C-suite, how do we get the meeting? How do we get the opportunity? What do we go in with? How do we even make the most of the let's say, we're lucky enough to get half an hour or an hour of someone's time? How do we go about that?

Julie Thomas: Well, you know, that is the conundrum, right? Because people spend their time and their attention before they spend their money. So the reality is, you've got...

Mark Drager: What does that mean? I like it, I was thinking about it. I was like, wow, that should be on Instagram. What does that mean, they spend their time and attention before their money.

Julie Thomas: Time is probably one of the scarcest resources for most executives like they're back to back in meetings. Meetings that go longer than they should, meetings they don't want to have about things they don't want to talk about. So, time is at a premium. I mean, if you consider, maybe they work eight hours a day, maybe they work 10 hours a day, that's still a limited amount of time to meet with all the vendors that would love to meet with them. So the first thing is, when you get that meeting with them, and when you ask for a meeting with them, it can't be to talk about you. Like, I can't just say, hey, how would you like to spend 45 minutes and let me tell you how great I am or how great my product is? Or better yet, let me just do a demo of my product for you.

Mark Drager: But let me interrupt real quick because I love this. We've already jumped to when you get the meeting with them. If we take a step back, are we typically going you know, mid-level and then selling through mid-level up and then earning the right to the meeting? Are we talking about a situation where for whatever reason, we've been able to get maybe a network referral or a link into that C-suite person? And we're like, first point of contact to C-suite, what are we talking about typically?

Julie Thomas: Well, I think it could be either, right? I mean, in an ideal world, if you sell something that you know is going to require C-suite involvement, if you can get there either through a referral, or through some sort of a top to top executive alignment type meeting, and you've got either you or your company have the credibility that they'd be willing to meet with you. You're going to take that meeting, and obviously, you're going to work to get that meeting. Most of the time, I think, while we shoot high, we land low, and then we try to navigate from there. So how do we either bargain for access to that? I mean, in some cases, it's hard for the sales rep to even identify who is the right executive that they should be talking to let alone know how to get on their calendar. So, I think you've got to identify them, you've got to have a number of strategies to gain access best is always a referral. If I can get referred to somebody, by somebody that they trust or respect, I've got the best shot of getting a quick meeting with that individual.

Mark Drager: Another great way in, and I'm hesitant to share sometimes these things because I don't know if it's just really worked for me and the people in my network, or if it's more universal. And maybe you can help us understand that. But, you know, I found that often with really complex situations or complex sales, you can answer all of the mid-level or even senior-ish level questions. But then when they have to turn around and create a value prop internally in a business case, often they can't even speak to the level of detail that a sales rep can. So, I tend to try to offer to suggest that you bring me in as a subject matter expert to help guide the conversation between mid-level and senior level because I happen to know more about it than anyone else. And I found that this worked well, but don't know if that's the case across the board.

Julie Thomas: I think that's a great tactic. And that's kind of what I call negotiating for access. So that is working; that's turning what some people might say as a gatekeeper or the middle manager, who's responsible maybe for making a recommendation but certainly not responsible for the decision itself, into a bridge builder to go through that. But what has to happen for that to work well is they have to trust you. Because if they think that they're going to bring you into that C-suite, and you're going to make them look like an idiot, you're dead, right? So, you've got to build that trust, build that respect, build that credibility, and then negotiate for that access. And I think that is a very powerful way to do it.

Mark Drager: Okay, so I love how we're going to get into some nuance here. So, if that were the case, you spend the time, you build the trust, you put the time in, you do what you need to do. And then now we're in front of the C-suite. And now, it's almost the exact opposite. Like, we almost will never have enough time to be able to lead in scope as we should, right?

Julie Thomas: Yeah, but I think you have to also understand that the conversation is different. So that middle manager or that director level, or the user buyer level that you're talking about, you're talking about tactical problems, and components of your solution that are going to address that. When you talk to that C-suite, they don't care about the solution. They care about getting rid of the problem that's getting in the way of their business outcomes. And then how quickly can they get to those outcomes? There are other people that are going to worry about the details of how it all works. They want to talk about big problems, big impact, and how are we going to partner with them to make sure they get the results they want.

Mark Drager: And so, thinking of these situations, I'm not sure I accounted for this properly. And the reason why it's coming to mind is that I naturally, you know, if you're sitting across from someone who is outcome-focused, of course, you're not going to sell the solution, you're going to sell the outcome. And as soon as you start to sell the outcome, you go very high level, you go very generic, they tend to be broader strokes, broader terms. But in the back of my mind, I'm always thinking, "Shoot, I need to figure out the specifics of how it will work and brief my team on it, and how do I onboard them? And how do I transfer? And can we customize that over here?" Naturally, by the fact that I can have an outcome-based conversation with another outcome-based person, but at the end of the day, my team has to be able to deliver. We have to deliver; we have to get into the nitty-gritty. And I think I've fallen into trouble when I start to worry about those things when I'm sitting across from someone who's not worried about those things at all. Right?

Julie Thomas: Well, I mean, I think it's interesting. You get the C-suite meeting, right? And the question is, what's the objective of that meeting? Is the objective of that meeting to recognize that there is a solution to something that they might not have thought they could have addressed? Is the objective of that meeting to establish some credibility, and give that executive confidence that you've been there, done that, have the T-shirt? You know, we are a riskless alternative or option for you. But I think too many people don't think about what's my purpose of being there. They're just told, "Call high. Get high. That's where the budget is, that's where big decisions are made. Get high."

Mark Drager: But is it? That's it? That's all good. Hi, thanks. Now, this episode is not going to be able to make it on YouTube. I appreciate that. But that is of a higher calling. But aside from that, is it always our objective? But should we also be focused on their objective as well?

Julie Thomas: Of course, you do. You have to align to their objective first. It's not about your agenda. If you go in with your agenda, you're pushing a rope. And what happens, you know, it's like when you've got your arm out, and somebody starts to push on it, you build resistance. So you don't want to push; you want to create that pull. While it's easy to say, the elegance is in how you conversationally prepare to have a deliberate, intentional conversation that gets you to where you're trying to go with that executive. And, so how are we preparing? What questions are we going to ask? What stories are we going to tell to, to kind of illustrate or get that executive thinking about the potential of what we can bring to the table? And how do we get them to lean in 90% of the time when I have an executive meeting, my objective is another meeting.

Mark Drager: Yeah, I love that because I used to wait for the moment in a meeting and I subscribe, you know, so B2B business. We are a service-based business, and we have a fairly complex, customized delivery. So all I was ever looking for was more time, more access. I don't care how long the sales process takes. Because if we're getting board access, if we're getting C-suite access, senior executive access, if we're bringing 13-15 people around a table for a two or three-hour meeting pre-sale, I feel like there's some level of commitment that's being given towards the process. So I'm always looking for that, but you said lean in. And I would always look for that time where if it was a question or if it was an idea, if it was a thought, and there was this moment where like you could almost feel the energy change in the room. You can feel the excitement; you can feel them start to lean forward or lean in or think, "Oh, that's interesting." And you can feel this dynamic change. And that is what I was always going for with any time that I'm sitting across from anyone, is just trying to break down whatever walls might be there to get to the point where we are co-creating some kind of outcome together, hopefully.

Julie Thomas: Yeah, I agree. I think the mistake, you know, our going well typically is collaborative. Like you said, We're co-creating something; we're in it together to get you the outcomes that you're looking for. But the ones that get really exciting, I think, often are the ones where that buyer gets some level of insight. They, like, whether it's something that you said, or a light bulb went off, or that connection was made. And then they're like, "Aha, now I get it. Now I see where this is going. Now I see what the possibility could be." Yes, yeah, when I get that feeling. And it's rarely because we did a great demo or showed them a beautiful, elegantly designed user interface. It's usually because of a conversation. And something that came out of that conversation that was insightful, that we shared something that they hadn't considered, or they didn't know and helped them recognize a pattern that they might not have recognized before, whatever that is, it's in those moments where now we've added value to them during the conversation. So value selling is not just focusing on the value of doing business with me, it's also focused on the value of the relationship. Because how I sell today is just as important as what I sell today.

Mark Drager: Let's imagine that, you know, we're about to meet with someone in the C-suite, maybe we're a little bit nervous, or a little unsure of how things are going to go. Again, I've met with thousands of people. And every time that I think I've seen it all, I'm surprised sometimes at what happens. And so, try to go in, just like along for the ride, because I'm never quite sure. But if we're prepping, perhaps some ideas of stories we might want to draw upon, similar case studies we might want to leverage, or questions that we think might help open up a conversation. Aside from that, do you have a suggestion or process for the best way to prep, and I'm talking about the minutes before, you know, they walk in the room, or you're sitting in the lobby waiting, or you're about to jump on the Zoom call? And you're sitting there and as

you're counting down, there's like three minutes left? In those moments? What should we be doing to make sure that we show up with the full intention of providing value?

Julie Thomas: Well, I think there are a couple of things we can do. So first of all, if you've got a critical executive sales call, I hope you're spending more than three minutes thinking about what you want to accomplish in that call. So I mean, I think there's the things that we do right beforehand, which is take a deep breath, try to eliminate the distractions around us, kind of do it self-center, so that I'm focused on what I'm doing. But before that, I'm doing some research on the individual, and I'm not stalking you, but I'm going to know a little bit about you. The good news is that's not hard to do these days. I either have research, because we have some clients that have the research fed to them. But I understand the company, I understand the role that that individual's in, I understand a little bit about their industry. I don't need to be a financial analyst; I don't need to be an industry expert in their industry. But I need to know enough to be relevant to that individual. And then the questions that I'm preparing to drive the dialogue are not questions that I should know the answer to because I should have looked at their website. Like, they're the questions that go beyond the circumstances and the situations to the real root cause of why something might not be working the way they wanted it to work in their business. The first principle of value selling, and this is not rocket science, is that people need a reason to change. And that reason is not just that I haven't shown up yet to show them how great my product is. You know, so we need to tap into that and focus on that reason to change, and that's where the conversation starts. We want to be diagnostic before we're prescriptive. And sales reps that prepare for those types of conversations outperform those that show up as demo dollies and just want to talk about their product or their solution or show their widget or whatever it is.

Mark Drager: I'm going to be honest, I struggle with these conversations because everything you're saying sounds so correct, so right, it sounds so obvious to me. And I imagine that there are people who just show up and want to go through the steps and go through the demo. But I so rarely come across people who sell that way these days. And I'm wondering if this is still something that's really present, that people are really struggling with? Or, I don't know, have we matured out of it?

Julie Thomas: So I...

Mark Drager: You know what I'm saying, though. Like, I hear what you're saying. I'm like, yes, yes, I agree. I agree. I agree. That's why we have you here. It's amazing. You're preaching, I love it. But then on the other side, I go to people still, like, people still just do that. They just show up, they have a script, they have a process. "Don't break my process. Don't slow me down. Don't ask any questions. Don't get in the way." Like, people still sell that way.

Julie Thomas: Well, I think people sell in a way, I think, especially if you're selling software, good, bad, or indifferent. The goal is to get you to demo as quickly as possible. So discovery...

Mark Drager: That's so funny. I hate demos. Maybe I don't come across this because I break every single salesperson's process every single time.

Julie Thomas: But I mean, I've had five emails between LinkedIn and my email today. I bet I have five requests for somebody to show me something.

Mark Drager: Right, oh, I get those, I just ignore them.

Julie Thomas: And they show you my software, like you're going to figure out why you need this. And you're going to open the checkbook and buy it for your whole team. So, unfortunately, I still do think in certain industries. Yeah. And if you even look at a lot of companies, they spend a whole lot more time training people on their products and their solutions than they do on how to engage buyers.

Mark Drager: I suppose that the challenge is if you don't have a lot of C-suite experience, or experience working in or around the C-suite, or even dealing at that level, it can be very intimidating to have to come in. But I had a few pivotal moments in my career. But one of them was a senior strategist, who left some of the largest companies as a CMO, and started their own strategy firm. And he called me into his office. And this person has maybe 30 years of experience with me, and to come in, and it's him and his business partner. And I'm thinking, "What am I doing here? Like, I'm actually pretty intimidated here." But I realized with the questions they were asking, they didn't know what I knew. They didn't understand what I understood. They just didn't have it; they had spent so long at a senior level speaking to senior levels, that there was a gap in their knowledge and gap in their organizational knowledge, and no one in the organization had the information I had. And in that moment, I realized, "Oh, yes, they are far more senior, they operate at a different level, they are breathing rare air being around them, but they just don't know what I know. And I can help them." And that kind of shifted everything for me.

Julie Thomas: You think a lot of people are intimidated when they get to the C-suite because those are high-stakes meetings. Those are kind of "you either" there's going to be an outcome. And the outcome is going to be Yes, I want to learn more, or Yes, I want to continue this, or "Oh my god, don't ever let that bonehead back in my office," right? And so, those are high-stakes meetings, and we need to be prepared. Now, there all different ways you can prepare for those meetings, and in a lot of organizations, you're not going to send in the junior rep by themselves for those types of meetings. Not saying that every meeting has to have a posse, but there is a power of having top-to-top and bridging some of those gaps with that expertise. But I mean, when I was first in sales and selling Technology Advisory Services, in my mid-20s, you know, there was nobody I called on that was within 20 years of me, most of them were technical. I was not. I didn't know the substance of what I was selling. I knew what I was selling, but I didn't know all this other stuff was. And it didn't matter because I could ask really good questions. I could build great relationships. I could be interested in what people were saying to me and take enough notes.

And if I didn't understand the acronym they shared with me, I would ask the question without feeling like "Oh my gosh, did I know what that is?" Because 90% of the time it's an acronym that's specific to their company, anyway. Have all those conversations, and I was a top performer. And I didn't have to have all that subject matter expertise; I knew how to get those right people. So, I think, you know, that's what's really powerful about selling, it's a human communication process. And you can be a great communicator. Which, oh, by the way, includes listening. It's not just your ability to share your message; it's your ability to understand their message, without judgment, without waiting to respond, for pure understanding perspective. When you can do that, you will be successful because you'll be better at making connections with the individuals you're talking to.

Mark Drager: Before we hit record, we were talking a bit about what's happening with AI. And the fact that human touch, as things become more automated and more systematized and more high volume, that little unscalable activity, that little human touch, will go a lot further. I'd be curious, in terms of all of your experience, what are the two or three little tips? Let's hear some of the secrets, what are the two or three little tips that you always go back to, to be able to make that connection with that C-suite person?

Julie Thomas: Well, I think it's authenticity. It truly is being authentic, being credible, being respectful, establishing rapport, and being trustworthy. And being trustworthy means that you believe I'm capable, I'm believable, I'm consistent, and I have the ability to do what I said I can do. And if you believe those four things about me, you're likely going to trust me. So I think that is more important. I think we're all going to get really sick of bots. I think we're all really going to get sick of the generic and unauthentic, unhuman copy that's been generated, that just doesn't have the color that a real story would have. And you know, the interesting thing about generative AI, to get it to work well, you have to ask it really good prompts. To get sales to work well, you have to be able to prompt your buyer really well. It's the same mechanism; what you put out there is what you're going to get back. But I think it's going to be really interesting to see how generative AI just changes things. I mean, AI has been around for a long time, and it hasn't made a difference like that. How many AI forecasting models have we all seen over the last 5-10 years? And guess what, forecasting still hasn't improved. So, AI has been here, it's the generative aspect of it that makes it easy for you to use it in our day-to-day work, which I think is going to be really interesting.

Mark Drager: It's been, I've really enjoyed talking to you. For two things. One, this is maybe a bit more of a therapy session than most of my episodes. Like, let me bounce a few things up here and get your thoughts and maybe a bit of reassurance. But I love being able to talk about operating at a much higher level because a lot of the tactics out there, and a lot of the strategies, are not about seeking out that consultative, value-based conversation where you know what, it's okay if halfway through the conversation, things blow up and go wrong. I had a meeting last week with someone where I'd created an entire roadmap based on three assumptions that I told them was based on three assumptions because otherwise, we wouldn't be able to move forward with anything. And then halfway through, they're like, "Well, but what if we want to go a different way and not follow that second assumption?" And I said, "Well, then everything I'm about to tell you isn't valid anymore." So it's like, "Cool, let's park that, then. Let's park all this work, let's park all this thinking, let's park all of that. And now let's have a conversation over here about this totally different direction that we never anticipated because you've flipped some of our assumptions." And so, playing in that space, because I find everything else a little bit boring and a little bit dull and not challenging enough. And I like having these types of conversations because I do sometimes forget that, you know, maybe I'm 20 years into my career. And when I was starting out, I wasn't able to operate quite at that level.

Julie Thomas: No, I think part of that comes from confidence, right? Confidence comes also from having a little bit of courage, and some competence in what you're doing that you don't have to be in this lane, this narrow lane; the lane can go to here, as long as I understand how I'm going to navigate back and forth. And, you know, early on in my career, at least, so I thought I needed to be here, and if somebody got out here, I was so uncomfortable. I froze. Like I didn't...

Mark Drager: I wonder, does this just say, "Hey, you're young or you're early in your career, and you're listening to this, and you're beating yourself up?" I'm wondering if some of it just has to come with experience and reps and if you can forgive yourself for those nerves and just get over it. Like, I'm wondering if there's a way you can leapfrog some of this stuff simply by accepting it, understanding where it's coming from and why it's happening, and then just saying objectively, "Let's get the reps in."

Julie Thomas: And we're never going to win them all. So sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, and every opportunity at bat that you have is an opportunity to learn something. So find the lesson, and don't have to learn the same lesson again and again and again. But eventually, when we learn it, we're like, "That's where the wisdom comes." And that's where the experience comes in. And that's where you get to the point where, like, "You know what, he's just an executive. And guess what, I bet he was out in the backyard mowing the lawn this weekend, just like I was, and doing all the same other stuff." And I don't need to be intimidated; they're just people. But that's experience and understanding that, and if you didn't grow up, if you are a young salesperson, and you didn't grow up with those people around you, you know, like my parents, who grew up in a working-class home and I wasn't in and around business people because that's not who my parents were, then you've got to probably gain a little bit of that confidence through experience. But, nobody's going to shoot you, nobody's going to hurt you. Rarely does anybody even kick you out of their office. They will be polite. They might not take your call again, but you'll be fine.

Resources & Go Deeper

C-suite Selling: 7 Tips to Win Over Decision-makers

This article offers seven tips for connecting with and winning over C-suite executives. It covers the importance of being a problem solver, identifying the right decision-makers, tailoring your pitch, and building relationships. It also compares C-suite selling to account-based marketing (ABM), suggesting a highly targeted approach to engage with top-level decision-makers. Additionally, it emphasizes mastering the B2B sales process and leveraging the experience of sales reps for meaningful engagements.

C-suite Selling: 7 Tips to Win Over Decision-makers | CUFinder

Selling to the C-Suite Executives: Guide for B2B Salespeople

This guide presents ten best practices for selling to C-suite executives, emphasizing the need to identify the right decision-maker and start engagement from the bottom up. It suggests techniques such as respecting gatekeepers, keeping pitches brief, and focusing on outcomes rather than features. The article also advises on being prepared for negative responses and underscores the power of perseverance and strategic follow-ups.

Selling to the C-Suite Executives: Guide for B2B Salespeople (belkins.io)

Mastering the Art of Selling to the C-Suite: Strategies for Success

It dives into the nuances of connecting with top-level executives, emphasizing the need for a unique approach and a deep understanding of their motivations. The article offers strategies for successfully accessing and engaging C-suite buyers, highlighting the importance of being a valuable partner rather than just a vendor.

Mastering the Art of Selling to the C-Suite: Strategies for Success (sbigrowth.com)