How to Talk to CEO’s
The Universe has a funny way of working. It seems to have the attitude of, “I’ll allow it to happen when it’s ready to happen.” We see this in all phases in our life. We really want something—really bad. But we don’t get it. Then later, we realize we really didn’t want it. What if we were to get everything we think we want? Not so good. The Universe usually knows best.
It’s that way in business too. Everyone’s talking about how they have to call higher or get wider in organizations (call on the President.) But yet, when I ask what they’re going to talk about when they get there, I get mush.
Recently I did an exercise with a client called “Value Mapping.” We looked at the kinds of problems they could solve for their clients, what kind of value those solutions would bring to their clients, and at what level that value was felt.
We quickly arrived at the conclusion that much of the value was felt at the CEO level. Yet, when I asked the account development people what kinds of conversations they had when they got in front of CEO’s, the answer was “We never talk to CEO’s.”
Again, could it be that they aren’t getting in front of CEOS because they never thought about it? Probably not. I used to think our reluctance to call on CEO’s was caused only by our own self-image. However, I’m beginning to see that there is another issue. Our reluctance stems more from our ignorance of how they think and what they want to talk about than it does our self-image of deserving to be at that level.
Therein lies a nagging and continuous problem in the communication of your value to your client companies. That is – the person who gets the most benefit from your product seldom knows or is involved in the sales process upfront. That would be the CEO.
The first critical point in understanding the discussion you should have with a CEO is to understand how your value or your solutions impact the following areas. These areas I list are the five most relevant topics a CEO deals with daily. So as you go through this list of five topics, scribble some notes at the end of each paragraph if you bring any value in helping them deal with these issues.
Most CEO’s I know have a financial mind. They care about the net income of the company, either on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis. They also care about the trends and the indicators that lead to the final numbers. Does your solution have any impact on profitability? If so, your conversation with this CEO is quite relevant. If not, maybe you haven’t looked deep enough. The prospect is not going to connect these dots for you. You’ll have to do it yourself.
With a tight labor market (unemployment less than 5%), especially in key positions, the CEO knows that she has to hang on to her best people. If you provide a solution that helps make employee retention more successful, you will have her ear.
Every CEO cares about new business capture, client expansion, new markets and general sales numbers. They may not care about the process their managers go through to get those numbers, but they do care about the end results. Do your solutions touch that at all? Before you say no, check it out. Do a mind map, where you start at the left of the page with the problem your company solves—then move to the right with the total impact of that solution. I’ll bet you’ll find some connection between what you do and their revenue.
If you are calling on publicly held companies, market cap is a big issue. If you’re calling on privately held companies, “creating stakeholder wealth” might replace “market cap” as the relevant topic. Peter Drucker says, “Businesses are in existence not to create profit but to serve customers.” While I agree, “creating profit” is a first cousin to customer acquisition and wealth for the stakeholders (not just the owners, but the employees, clients, vendors and the entire array of support people).
Vision and Strategy
Most CEO’s, if they are not visionary, should be. Most CEO’s, if they don’t have a strategy, should have one. Sometimes the very simple notion of you asking the questions about vision and strategy will cause the CEO to think about it at a different level. Just because the CEO talks about his vision and strategy doesn’t mean the other people in the organization understand what it is.
John Kotter in Leading Change says, “Less than .05% of the time in a leader’s day is spent dealing with company vision.” So one must never assume that the CEO has done a good job of communicating that vision down the chain.
So as you go through these five relevant CEO topics, do you see any that you could help her with? If there is no link, then say that. But if there is a link, then you can look that CEO square in the eye and say “Ms. CEO, we help organizations who are looking to increase market capitalization and who are looking to expand their customer base. We’ve got solutions to those problems. You have to tell me whether these topics are relevant to you.”