Selling To The C – Part 2 – Why The C Says No…and What To Do

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My last post on sales, Selling to the C, was by far and away the biggest success this blog has had to date. It has driven more traffic and been shared more times than any other post in the many year history of this blog, and that is quite gratifying. So I have decided to turn this into a series (and I am threatening to turn this into a book for 2013…stay tuned). So let’s imagine that you’ve done all of the things that you need to do to get the meeting with the C. You’ve provided value, you’ve created relevance, etc. Then you’ve given the presentation of your career..It was relevant, personalized and on point. But still, the C-level executive says NO. There are four basic reasons – Time, Money, Value, Competitor. Let’s dive into WHY:

  1. It’s NOT the right time:  Listen, when you are selling, often, all you have is a hammer, so every prospect you have look like a nail. And regularly, that prospect IS a nail. You can solve their problem. But the big issue is that the C is not ready to solve that problem. The C-level suite, regardless of how proactive they are, is constantly force-ranking the available solutions against the friction they feel in their business. The friction may come from the board of directors (profits, velocity, etc…though this is pretty rare), department owners (VPs and below that handle the divisions that report to the C…this is, I daresay, the key part of the force rank), or another C (the CEO is pushing against a CxO to accomplish some metric) and sometimes, the force rank is driven by the vision that the C has for the business. So, it’s not the right time, it means that your solution is not the answer to the top problem on the C-level list. This means that you either did not present your opportunity in its best light (which rarely is the case), or that you have fallen off the force rank. Let’s imagine, the C has the bandwidth to handle 6 initiatives this quarter, but your hammer hits nail number 7 or higher. What do you do now? This is the time to keep your prospect in the flow. They aren’t going to close this quarter, so how do you manage this result? By keeping your prospect informed. This slides you into relationship and expertise development. Keep plying your prospect with intoxicating information. Keep the case studies coming, keep the invitations to social and professional events coming, keep the questions about your prospect’s business coming. You are no longer closing in on the sale, but rather bringing the prospect closer and closer to the engagement. Be especially sensitive to questions and concerns during this phase, because while you have lowered the prospects concerns about the solution, you haven’t sealed the deal. Imagine that you are a hunter. You’ve weakened the prey, buy not claimed the trophy. Another hunter may be on the prowl. Keep the trophy safe by insulating them with layers of information and a real personal connection.
  2. Money: If your prospect did not know you existed during their last budget planning cycle, they didn’t plan for you. You aren’t a line item in their budget. Few companies have an unassigned budget item to fund an unknown expense. So, it may be if you have an unexpected expense, their is NO budget for you. Or they have a significantly smaller budget than your solution costs. What do you do? You need to start focusing on the ROI or the unique opportunity that your solution presents. You need to help your prospect understand the math…paint this as higher ROI, unrealized ROI, cost savings, or any numerically-based solution to make the position in the budget undeniable. The prospect isn’t saying no, but rather, “I want this, but can’t afford it”. Think of yourself as a problem solver now. Go to war inside your company to find a way to meet your prospect’s budget. Become their advocate and find a way to bend your company to the prospect’s need. At the same time, make a full-out assault on your customer. Make them understand that your solution becomes self-funding (that is, increased revenue or decreased costs pay for for your fees). Make them understand that the benefit of your solution creates funding for other initiatives. At this point, you are on your own. You are at war with your company to bend their pricing to your prospect’s will, and you are war with your prospect to make them fund your project. This is the most difficult time for the sales professional. But at this point, let’s figure out what your advantages are. First, you have a new prospect to bring to your prospect. Your company LOVES this. You have the prospect saying, “Yes, but…” So, you have a company hungry to get new business, and a company hungry to say yes. This is where your experience as a business person comes into play. Make sure that you can position this to your company and your prospect as a win. Find ways to give on some pricing, and get on some others. (Maybe you waive the upfront fees, and add more on the backend, or offer a lower-cost 2 year deal rather than a higher-priced one year deal. Focus on the total value to both sides…you will find that spot where your company makes money and the prospect is happy..)
  3. Value: Value is different than cost. Value, for the prospect, is the combination of ROI and intangibles. For me, as a C-level executive, the goal was always for the vendor to do as they say, obviously, but also to make my company smarter along the way. If all I got from my vendor was results, then I would feel as if I spent my money poorly. I needed added value, I needed to learn as much about what my vendor offers and the market space that they inhabit as possible. If I fired them after six months, would I have more than a campaign? If the answer was yes, then I had value. The second part of value is, in fact, financial. If I offer a 3x ROI, and the prospect has said that to be comfortable, they need a 5x ROI, am I providing value? The short answer is no. If you can’t stretch your ROI calculation to 5x, then you need to make your prospect feel so comfortable with the financial worth of your added-value that the disparity between 3x and 5x is moot. Can you do that? This is 100% on you. See above (Money) to handle the issue if your cost isn’t in line. But focus on making the softer side of your offering more valuable. (Maybe this is the time to offer some free passes to a great conference, or perhaps an introduction to the data scientist at your company who can do a free project for the prospect?) There is a lot that you can do, here, without focusing on cost. Maybe you can provide a good introduction to another client that makes value, or perhaps you offer a case-study and free consulting to the prospect.) This is an exercise in your creativity. How do you barter what you have to close the gap between the cost and return metrics that the prospect wants? Look carefully at your arsenal. You cannot win by adding quantity…you MUST offer quality. Ask the prospect what creates value for them. Ask the prospect what makes their life better. Then deliver it. It is the only way to win.
  4. Competitor: This is the most difficult answer to get from the C. That they understand the need for your solution, but have chosen from another’s offerings. I’ve been through this…many times. It sucks. I will tell you two stories, briefly. Before I was a C, I was a VP, tasked with driving revenue for a search agency. We were a nascent company in the space. We had skills, a great story and super competitive pricing. The prospect, a storied brand with international recognition, chose a more expensive, slower moving competitor. GRRRR. I was a little crazed. And to race ahead to the end of the story, we never got the business. But the prospect told me, flat out, that they picked the competitor because they were more mature, not better. They essentially decided to make the safe choice, rather than the choice that excited them. I tried drawing a corollary between our clients and their needs, I tried adding free audits and opportunities from our other business lines, I tried making the price lower (I added value, and lowered the cost…) There was no winning the business. What to do? I focused on what we could do. I never sold against the competition (that, regardless of how good it feels, is rarely productive…prospects buy because you are better, not because the competition is worse), I focused  on our best attributes. It didn’t work. Why do I share a success that never happened? Because the next time we faced that situation, we trumpeted even louder what we did well, but moreover, we captured our weaknesses and make them strengths. Rather than be a nascent provider, we were a disruptive force, rather than the lowest cost provider, we were uniquely focused on high-ROI and mutually-aligned business goals, rather than  an industry that we hadn’t worked in before, we were laser-focused on products and services that were similar to theirs. This isn’t spin, it’s jujitsu. We use our strengths to compensate for our weaknesses. We won the next nationally known brand we encountered. This was an exercise in learning. In the second anecdote, when I picked another provider, the jilted vendor assaulted me with why they were better, and why the competition was worse. This wasn’t helpful, but a singular point of excellence that this vendor mastered was burying me with information. They focused on making me smarter, they focused on making me a better user. I did not rescind my choice of vendor, but at my next opportunity, this vendor was at the top of my call list, and, in fact, I hired them the next time. Competition does not end the dialogue. Focus on what you do best, focus on why you are the leader, focus on why your prospect will thrive, and focus on why your are the right choice. It may not be this quarter, or this year, but when you create the right nexus of cost and value, competition will not matter.

The primary message here is to get feedback and be ready to respond. Create better value through knowledge (and potentially cost) and drive depth of relationship through knowledge transfer and social engagement. Saying NO is hard for C’s to do. They WANT to says yes. I have found the the C-level is always focused on opportunity and what happens next. Take advantage of that. If they aren’t ready, bide your time wisely. If they say no because of cost, create more value. If they say no because they chose someone else, then stay in place. Create value and they will says yes.

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