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What a Spanish fruit stall owner taught me about engaging with C-suite contacts.

So many companies want their sales people to gain access to the c-suite, BUT are they ready?

When selling to enterprises this is often unnecessary (as decision making is way below this level for all but the most transformative projects) and hugely risky.

Let me use a quick story to illustrate why.


Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

For a number of years between 2000 and 2008, I travelled to Spain a few times a year. I travelled to a very Spanish village where very little English was spoken locally, so I tried to learn a little bit of Spanish in the hope that this would help me talk with the locals.

Sadly, languages have never been a strong point for me. I was never particularly confident with other languages and didn’t [if I’m honest] practice anything like enough. 

One day I set out to get a variety of fruits. This was an ideal opportunity to ‘have a go’ at my Spanish so I grabbed my phrase book, scribbled some notes and set off to a very popular fruit stall in the village. I felt prepared; I knew the different types of fruit, how to ask for the weight of each and for the bill [cheque] at the end. 


Confident delivery is everything (maybe)

I strode up to the stall owner. Believing I was ready for the conversation, I said ‘hola’ and with the best spanish I could muster, asked my first scripted question. 

‘podría tener 300 gramos de naranjas por favor’ [could i have 300 grammes of oranges please]

He clearly understood my question [great] but it seems that be had some points or questions of his own [less great]. He spoke to me in Spanish, he spoke quickly and he used words that I didn’t understand. I stared blankly, glanced at my notes in the hope I could see some words I might know but in reality I froze and was unable to process what he was saying.  

Maybe he was checking which of the three types of oranges on sale that he could get me, or whether I had a bag, or did I want small or large, or something else. To this day I still do not know for sure! 

Sadly my language skills did not prepare me for the real life situation. I didn’t understand his reply and I was unable to hold up either end of the conversation. I wasn’t able to ask supplementary questions to clarify his words.

Finally I pointed at one of the piles of oranges, held out the five fingers on one hand and took 5 oranges. I didn’t have the confidence to ask for more fruit so paid and left without the fruit I needed.


How does this have anything to do with C-level meetings? 

Companies implement training sessions focused on ‘talking with the CxO’, so salespeople can credibly engage. Some provide a financial awareness session to prepare salespeople for a discussion with a finance director or CFO.

The intention is that the sales person walks away with a basic awareness (I don’t say understanding for a reason) of commercial  matters. Furthermore they are expected to then go and speak with the CFO of their customer on their key deals.

The good sales people will prepare a list of questions, phrases and review their notes. Armed with a [largely superficial] understanding of the financials such as P&L, off and on book, margins, share price and other such information they are expected to have a conversation that demonstrates value to the customer’s executive. Like my fruit based situation, where I had a phrase book and some scribbled questions, sales people are too often poorly unprepared to deliver this value. Reading their course notes and writing some questions does not always prepare them to venture into the unknown.


Why this fails

This is where the wheels can come off, and often they do. Not always of course, and you will have good people who can do this really well but this is the exception rather than the rule. Mostly, they go in scared, lacking confidence and it matters little that sales management are putting the pressure on; in-fact this pressure often does little more than lower confidence further.  

Sales people put into this situation often lack the real expertise and commercial acumen to have an engaging conversation. Like my situation in Spain, where I was unable to understand the answer of the stall holder, a salesperson is often unable to hold the conversation, ask follow up or supplementary questions and interpret the responses from the executive.

It’s really hard, and often a day training does not prepare them for success. As a result salespeople scribble as many notes as they can and move on to the next prepared question. Ultimately this becomes a survey not a conversation and the CFO experience will be as poor as that of my stall holder. 


Use your team

If a CFO is important to your deal, then YOUR finance director or CFO must step up the plate as part of your team and hold this meeting.

This is the only way to have a truly constructive commercial discussion valued by both parties. Leaving this to a sales person will undermine the credibility of the sales person and your company. 

Include the sales person in the meeting so they can learn form the experience. Have your CFO de-brief the sales team afterwards and explain in simple terms the key commercials and where possible the differentiating points of your commercial approach. 


Final thoughts

I learned that a little bit of information and a few hours training is not sufficient for sales people to credibly engage with key C-level contacts. Not if you want to do this in a valued and relevant way.

If it’s important for your deal that you engage the C-suite, and your sales people lack the necessary expertise, use the broader team.

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