How to Influence the C-Suite
“I don’t have time for any distractions,” a CEO replied many years ago to my sales call. His comment was impactful because it made me think about my sales approach. I thought of myself as a helpful, well-intentioned sales professional. This CEO viewed me as a distraction. That ignited my life-long interest in influence and how decision-makers view sales professionals. This article summarizes what I learned about influence and how new sales professionals can shorten their learning curve.
The right approach toward influence, especially in the digital world, provides sales professionals with a significant opportunity to make an impact. Like athletes continually practice the basics, sales professionals can benefit from constantly growing their influence. And like athletic ability, influence is not static. It is either growing or decaying. You start with the basics, and as your career grows, so will your influence.
When I started my education on influence, three books greatly impacted my thinking. The first book was the classic Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The second book was Stephan Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Finally, John Maxwell’s book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership was very impactful. Before diving deep into the influence topic, let’s review the basics of these foundational books.
Dale Carnegie says, “Why talk about what we want? That is childish and absurd. You are interested in what you want. You are eternally interested in it. But no one else is. The rest of us are just like you: we are interested in what we want.”
My take: CEOs and decision-makers are focused on specific outcomes for their company. Executives are inherently narrowly focused because they have both a responsibility and financial incentive. Understanding what they want and why they want it will change how sales professionals communicate with executives.
Stephan Covey’s premise is to seek first to understand, then to be understood. He says we spend a lot of effort focusing on things that concern us, but we have no influence over them. He states that we should focus our efforts on what we can influence and ignore everything else.
My take: Don’t waste time on things you can’t influence; as sales professionals, we spend a lot of time on things we can’t influence. You can’t influence someone you don’t understand. Therefore, product knowledge is less important than customer knowledge. When we lose a sale, we say, “They don’t get it.” But what we should say is, “I misunderstood them.”
John Maxwell’s premise is “The true measure of leadership is influence – nothing more, nothing less. You influence others when you connect with them emotionally.”
My take: Knowledge and authority do not equal influence. Ask any doctor how hard it is to influence their patient’s unhealthy behaviors. Patients with chronic medical conditions know they need to eat healthily, take their medications, and exercise. But information rarely changes behavior. When the patient realizes that they may not be able to watch their grandkids grow up unless they change their ways, then the emotional connection can influence the desired behavior change. Emotional disconnection destroys the chance to influence.
Influencing the C-Suite
Influence is like math. The more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to know. As my sales career progressed, I realized there was a difference between influencing people and influencing CEOs, CFOs, and CROs. The C-suite has a different view of influence. The C-suite has a unique way of filtering new information. Their field of vision is highly focused. They can direct strategy and have control of a budget, but executives do not window shop, looking for new widgets to buy. Instead, they gather information like radar scans the horizon, searching for threats, targets, and opportunities. A sales professional must first get on the executive’s radar if they want to assert influence.
The two challenges for new sales reps are first getting on the executive’s radar. Second, they must communicate so that executives consider their information useful. The sales profession has borrowed a lot of concepts from psychology. However, you don’t need to be a psychologist to realize that people identify more strongly with people who are similar rather than different. For sales reps to be taken seriously by executives, they can’t be viewed as just sales reps.
If every C-suite executive has radar scanning for threats and opportunities, every radar has a blind spot. Find the blind spot, and you can create influence. For high-level sales professionals, influence means you are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Said simply, problem-solving is a great way to build influence with executives.
Writing Builds Influence
Writing is one of the most potent forms of influence with C-suite executives. Leaders are readers, so writing content on your area of expertise is an effective way to hit your target market’s radar as a new sales professional. Writing influences higher-level thinking while also inspiring deeper feelings.
For example, in 2016, my partner and I wrote Critical Selling: How Top Performers Accelerate the Sales Process and Close More Deals. Writing this book took our expertise to a broader audience. As published authors, we created a new level of influence.
New sales reps don’t need to start with a book; they must begin with publishing content online. LinkedIn posts, articles on Medium, and guest writing for blogs are all ways that new sales reps can start building influence. The key to building influence with writing is to write with a purpose. Executives are self-motivated. They don’t need to be inspired. They need solutions.
Influence happens when executives attach meaning to the information they read. Consumers may be influenced through emotional connection rather than rational explanation. But executives consider the implications, weigh the risks and benefits, and draw conclusions about the new information based on their priorities and experience.
The only requirement is that you know what you are talking about. Too much content is produced for SEO’s sake that executives will quickly discount as noise. When a new sales rep can clarify a problem that executives are living with and precisely details how the solution could be executed, the result is influence. Influence is determined by clarity and precision.
The idea of influence is intoxicating for sales professionals. We can read a few books, study a few psychological principles, and falsely believe we can influence business leaders. Don’t get drunk on the theories of influence. Instead, focus on clarity and precision.
Sales professionals benefit when they take the time to write content around solutions and place themselves on the C-suites’ radar. If sales professionals want to be taken seriously by executives, they need to take themselves seriously. Influence is not something you do once to an executive during a meeting. Influence is something sales professionals acquire by continuing to develop their skills.
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