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We have a habit of incorporating corporate-speak into our wider English language business lexicon. Sometimes this is helpful and enriching; at other times not. What we used to refer to as “selling at board level” then became “selling to the CxO”, and then “selling to the C-suite”. Not a particularly felicitous phrase, nor, as it turns out, a very accurate one. It implies that ultimate strategic decision-makers for major purchases and investments necessarily have “Chief” in their title, and that they operate from the penthouse floor of a plate glass corporate HQ, the welts of their expensive loafers or the points of their stiletto heels forever cushioned by inch-deep shag pile. Generally speaking, they do not; and to assume that every major sales campaign will end with the upturned or down turned imperial thumb is to misrepresent what actually happens in real life.

Many people are involved – formally or informally – in the decision to buy things and services. In the major enterprise contract, or strategic investment decision the ultimate client, some technical experts, a couple of lawyers, the budget holder and the people from procurement might all get to have their say somewhere along the line.

One thing we know for certain – and this may be counter-intuitive – is that there is no point going straight to the top. Apart from anything else, the odds are heavily stacked against your even speaking to anyone unless you are a peer of the prospective client’s C-suite. Research shows that for ordinary mortals, across a sample of over 29,000 calls it takes 80 calls on average to get an opportunity with a C-level executive[1]. That wouldn’t be worth the effort even if C-level were the place to start, but our own research shows that it isn’t. In fact, knowing that you have the highest-yielding investment opportunity for years, or the best service offering in the business, and having a prospective client in your sights, your ideal strategy is C-level avoidance while you work away at building a case which you (or most likely somebody inside the prospective client organisation) will eventually take to the top floor for approval, once the case is watertight.

David Freedman, Associate Director at Huthwaite International
David Freedman, Associate Director at Huthwaite International

After all, what would you do if, armed with your industry-beating proposition, you suddenly found yourself face to face with a CEO in the car park at Glyndebourne? Probably, you’d freeze, spout some talking-brochure gibberish about the product features or historical investment performance, and make absolutely certain that you never got an invitation into the expensively furbished office of that particular top dog.

The research into how organisations make buying decisions led us to divide the people you need to influence and persuade into three distinct roles (roles, incidentally which are not fixed, and might change from decision to decision). The trick is to understand – through skillful questioning – and to handle them according to who has what role in the current buying decision, what their problems, concerns, hopes, fears, previous experiences and ultimate business aims are, and to navigate to the real decision-maker efficiently and persuasively.

If your proposition (to take an example at random) is aimed at a major pension fund client and involves some ingenious and complex financial instrument, you might only have easy access to a somebody who is not directly involved in assessing asset risk and return, but has the ear of people who do. That person is the focus of receptivity (FoR) in this instance.

The focus of dissatisfaction (FoD) in this instance might be one of several people, or perhaps all of them: the compliance team, anxious to ensure new funds are in accordance with new swaps regulations after a few cases of burnt fingers with your competitors recently; the digital project manager struggling to deliver fund performance dashboards that meet the requirements of marketing; and/or the head of finance who needs commercial solutions that produce predictable and evenly accruable revenue streams.

For most of your journey around the Buying Cycle, these will be the people with whom you have to build value, whose needs you have to uncover and meet, and to whom you must make a persuasive case so that you (and they, together) can sell the ultimate case to higher authority. For the CxO, you might – if you are skilled – uncover and record needs that are about minimising the risk of a can-carrying failure that will alert the AGM, the beneficiaries and the media. Or their needs might be all about creating a narrative in which the strategic success of this breakthrough positions them as the most forward-looking and financially astute leader in the industry.

The CEO, CFO or chairman (or might not) then be the focus of power (FoP). But it’s here that the skilled seller will probably spend the least time, albeit the most critical meeting  The work you’ve done so far in building the case with the other foci (whether they are C-suite or not) will determine what happens now.

So the chance meeting with the CEO at the social event of the year might indeed turn out to have been a valuable one. On that day, she’d have been an FoR at best. You’d have done well to ask her for a right to roam among the many other influencers in the business who you need to probe in order to build your case, and then (if you feel you even need to) make an appointment to go back, much later, fully armed, when that CEO is re-born as the Focus of Power.

Don’t be blinded by the job title, or the reputation. In selling, it’s all about understanding the true buying role.

DAVID FREEDMAN is Associate Director at Huthwaite International. He has worked for Huthwaite International for 13 years, helping many of the world’s largest companies to improve their sales performance and strengthen their negotiation skills. He is currently involved in many major bids, in marketing projects and in spearheading the company’s drive into the professional services marketplace.

Huthwaite International is best known as the creator of SPIN® Selling – helping salespeople in all countries and most languages to improve their performance. Companies worldwide trust Huthwaite International, as a leading behavioural change consultancy and owner of the SPIN® trademark in over 50 countries, to deliver measurable results through its research-based models. The company provides innovative skills training and advice for progressive individuals and organisations in sectors such as IT, financial services, healthcare, telecoms, manufacturing, legal and professional services. It has a client list of 1,000s of companies worldwide and trains some 14,000 people each year. Besides the SPIN® Suite, Huthwaite International offers training and reinforcement based on its own original research models in negotiation skills, communication skills, customer service skills. Established in 1974, Huthwaite is headquartered in Wentworth, South Yorkshire and handles international projects through its national offices or associated companies throughout Europe, USA, South Africa and Asia Pacific. The company has won two Queen’s Awards in 1999 and 2008 for International trade.

[1][Research done by SCI Sales  ]