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Improving Executive Prospecting Effectiveness by Understanding Executive Prospect Behavior

how to sell to c level executive


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We all know that traditional prospecting today is very difficult. How many professionals do you know have the time and interest to willingly pick up the phone and engage in an unsolicited conversation?

What executive cheerily works their way through their inbox responding thoughtfully to every e-mail? Sure, people pick up the phone and reply to e-mails, but there’s a triage method to when and how they respond.

As a society, both personally and professionally, we’ve become accustomed to junk mail and unwanted prospecting approaches from someone claiming to make your life better because of what they have to offer. First came junk direct mail, followed by telemarketers, and then, e-mail Spam. You can’t blame people for feeling skeptical and suspicious of these invasions of their time and attention.

If you’re on the sending end of these communications, how can you break through this wall and turn a contact into a prospect? Read on.

Resonate through relevance

Sales reps need to understand what information resonates with executives to whom they sell and what does not. Executives are inundated with information and will decide almost immediately if something is relevant and worth reading. The value to them must be clear, immediate, and address specific, high-priority issues. You need to understand what motivates them to want to talk to you about how you can help them.

The two figures below shed additional light on what information executives believe is vital to them. This critical information varies by role. For example, respondents from finance, IT, and sales and marketing each value competitor analysis, but only sales and marketing rank customer trends highly.

There’s a theory in behavioral economics that basically says that emotional factors such as fear, greed, and herd instinct are the three main emotional motivators driving investment decisions. The data below tends to substantiate that theory.

It’s a matter of trust

Another factor critical in establishing a business relationship is trust. If executives trust the source of content or the person sending the content, they are more likely to respond favorably. Conversely, they shut down when selling behavior undermines trust. In his landmark book, “The Trusted Advisor,” David Maister defines “trustworthiness” as a function of:

  • Credibility (your words) — I can trust what he says about …
  • Reliability (your actions) — I can trust her to …
  • Intimacy (your empathy) — I feel comfortable discussing this …
  • Self-orientation (your motives) — I can trust that he cares about …
According to Maister, winning the trust of your prospect requires that you do well on all four dimensions. You need to leverage credible sources of information, deliver on your promises, act respectfully, relate to their specific needs or situation, and ensure you’re always thinking about “what’s in it for them.”

Building trust takes time and attention

Recognize that building trust takes time. Salespeople usually start with zero credibility and cause their prospect to be on the defensive. The quickest way to gain credibility and trust is to get introduced to a prospect by someone the prospect trusts, and for whom you have helped in a similar manner as you intend to help the prospect. Referrals also help but are much weaker than introductions. In the absence of introductions or referrals, building credibility requires you to demonstrate a genuine commitment to helping your prospect and providing value that is both relevant to their needs and demonstrates your expertise. Expect to give before you will get — and in some cases, you will have to give a lot. You need to be persistent, patient, and very generous with your time and your expertise to win that trust.

Get your timing right

Additionally, you need to take a walk in your prospects’ shoes to appreciate when they are most likely to have the time to talk to you and open to considering you’re new ideas. Many executives will have periods of the day, month, quarter, and year when they will simply be “heads down” focused on tending to their core responsibilities. No matter how compelling your value proposition is, if they’re too busy or distracted to hear you, you can’t make an impact. Worse yet, you could agitate them to the point of being “blacklisted” so that your future efforts will be blocked from the start.

Consider the life of a CFO or senior finance executive. They tend to be very busy toward the end of the quarter, end of the fiscal year, and end of tax year. Unless you are already working with them on a project related to accomplishing the task at hand, they might simply be too busy to respond to your overtures. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a “Call me next month” reply, but most will likely ignore you (and possibly count a strike against you for calling at such an inopportune time). You should schedule your prospecting time to align with the times your prospects will be more responsive.

The bottom line is that you need to understand everything possible about your prospect; think from their perspective; and align your messaging, behavior, and activity accordingly.

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how to create targeted prospecting strategy

Brief: Creating a Targeted Prospecting Strategy


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