blog article
Sales Enablement
Tony J. Hughes
Tony J. Hughes
min read

On your eighth try you finally connect with your CEO prospect. Your heart leaps as they engage with your perfected script. First agreeing “we do have that problem actually,” then “wow, your product sounds impressive.” But one beat later, it all comes crashing down: “…let me put you in touch with the person responsible for that.”

In strategic selling–where you aim to connect with the most senior stakeholder right off the bat–being delegated down is a setback. So, where did you go wrong?

That’s really what leaders care about: how can they deliver specific business outcomes and how can they manage the risk of pursuing those outcomes?

The most senior stakeholder doesn’t always mean the CEO of the organization. But they should be CEO of the problem you are seeking to solve–meaning personally accountable for delivering a result, plus authorized to sign off on both the decision AND the budget spend.

Prospects at this seniority are focused on delivering results, developing people, and leaving a legacy. To help them draw a connection between their priorities, and your solution, you speak their language: the simple but powerful language of leaders.

The problem for those aspiring to leadership, and for those in sales, is that we're delegated down to those we sound like.

Ten Rules for Speaking the Language of Leaders

  1. Be a person of value, a domain expert and trusted advisor who can help make their goals reality. Make this pivot by providing relevant information, insight, and perspective with humble wisdom.

  2. Lead with ‘why?’, concisely getting right to the point. Pragmatic research will anchor your conversation in why the conversation is important to them . Only once you’ve anchored the conversation, should you talk about the what, how, who and when.

  3. Make it all about them. Show them you can solve problems or realize opportunities, any how that will pay off both personally and professionally.

  4. Let numbers do the talking. Be crystal clear on the business case, tempting them with the exact bottom-line results it could deliver.

  5. Address the risk. How can your prospect manage the risks of outcomes as they are pursuing them?

  6. Speak to their legacy. What are the lasting outcomes they are seeking to achieve? How will it make a difference in the lives of their company, customers, and team?

  7. Don’t fake it. Know the industry, have evidence to support your assertions, and be transparent. If you don’t know, say so.

  8. Be a pro. Show them why they should trust you with the basics like delivering on ever promise, starting and ending on time, and following-up in writing.

  9. Let them be in control. Ask them what they want to see happen next.

  10. Focus on questions, not selling. People are best motivated by reasons that they themselves discover. So, rather than evangelizing your solution, ask reflection-provoking questions that will lead them to it. Even better, get on their radar first.

Speaking the language of leaders is a straightforward way to not only insure you from downward delegation, but also elevates your sales conversation. Use it and see.  

What does this look like in practice? 

Below is an excerpt from my best-selling book The Joshua Principle. In it, Joshua’s father, a CEO, is giving his son, a salesman, advice on how to engage at the senior executive level. We pick-up the conversation with Joshua asking Mark about potential insights gleaned from reading the annual report of Zenyth, his must win deal. See if you can identify the language of leaders.

“Anyway, there’s a lot to talk about with Zenyth. This meeting with their CEO is going to be critical. Do their financials reveal anything concerning what’s really driving their decisions?”

Mark opened a folder he had brought in with him. “It’s actually quite interesting. If I was on their board I would ask the CEO what they’re doing about all the cash on their balance sheet.”

“Isn’t cash a good thing?”

“Not necessarily. Too much cash on your balance sheet can make you a hostile acquisition target because the cash can fund financing costs. Cash is also an underperforming asset; it means you don’t know what to invest in for growth.”

“I guess Zenyth is conservative.”

“It’s not about being conservative. Too much cash on the balance sheet is a wasted resource. I’m pretty sure that the new CEO will be under pressure to look at acquisitions or some other plan for expansion. But they have a bigger problem; I’ve analyzed the last five years of numbers and had a look at recent analyst guidance – well, criticism really. Their sales costs, as a percentage of revenue, have been going up for the last three years in a row. Their margins are also being squeezed and I found an interview with the new CEO that pretty much reveals his hand.”

“Thanks for doing this. You must have spent most of the afternoon on it. Is that the interview last month written by Patricia Smith?”

Mark was impressed that his son had also tracked down and read the article. “David Thomas stated that client retention is his number one priority and that he wants delighted customers. I bet the reason they’ve been losing customers is that competitors are targeting them. When you have market dominance you’re a sitting duck for niche players to pick off your vulnerable customers.”

“Thanks Dad. I hadn’t made the connection with any of this. So would you say they were in growth, crisis or business-as-usual mode?”

“Why do you think it matters?”

Joshua explained the concepts he had discovered concerning the modes of business and the consequential motivation for decision-making. He fumbled with his own notes and showed them to Mark. “This is what I’m trying to figure out – the mode they’re in and how it translates to the things that are driving the CEO.”

“If I think about their situation in those terms I guess I would say they have a mild crisis – customer churn is consistently eroding profitability. If I were David Thomas [Zenyth CEO] I would invest in things that help retain and grow profitable customers. All businesses invest in strategies to drive top-line revenue but many neglect the fact that it is far more cost effective to retain a customer than acquire a new one.”

Joshua was busy taking notes as Mark continued in a measured tone. “The smart thing for David Thomas to do is invest money in limiting customer churn. That’s where he will get the best return on investment. He can continue the pressure on his sales operation to keep delivering new clients but he will only fix his profitability problem by stopping the defection of valuable customers.”

“Are you sure? How can you know all this from looking at their balance sheet?”

“All I know is that they have too much cash on their balance sheet and they’re suffering from eroding profitability which is positioned as a cost of sales problem. But one thing I’ve learned in business is that the problem is almost never the problem. Symptoms are not causes, and I think that if you get to have a genuine conversation with their CEO, he will admit that the real problem is customer churn rather than customer acquisition.”

Joshua looked up from the notes he had been scribbling. “But how do I have that kind of conversation with a CEO? I’m just a salesman.”

“You can have a conversation with your own CEO can’t you? Look, David Thomas is just another person but he’s under real pressure to deliver results. He needs to fix a problem he describes as a customer satisfaction challenge. His P&L describes it as a cost of sales problem. Their annual report describes it as eroding margins caused by competitors. They are a market leader defending their incumbent position. All you have to do is understand what keeps him awake at night – but don’t ask it that way. I hate it when salesmen ask that question. I usually say; ‘my wife – she snores rather loudly’... They always laugh too but then I ask if they have any other inane questions.”

Joshua stopped laughing as Mark continued. “The only thing a CEO dislikes more than amateurs who waste their time, is sales people who waste their time. Josh, you seem to have done your homework and I hope my input is useful, but you must have a business conversation with him. He’ll open up once he sees that you have genuine insight.”

Joshua rubbed his face with fingers combing back hair revealing a pensive look. “I can’t begin to tell you how far out of my depth I feel. If I botch this meeting with their CEO I’ll be finished with my boss.”

“Son, even the most successful men have insecurities. We all secretly worry that we are going to get found out. I feel like I’ve been out of my depth most of my life; I really mean it. Maybe David Thomas feels out of his depth too and you’re someone who can help to get one of his problems under control. If you succeed it will make your career.”

About the author

Tony J. Hughes
Tony J. Hughes

Tony is a co-founder of Sales IQ, committed to elevating professional selling and sales leadership for a Better Business World.

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