Gaining executive access

10th September 2019 |   Tim Riesterer

Gaining executive access

The approach advocated by so many executive access strategies finished dead last.

Original research explores messaging approaches for gaining access to senior execs… and which approach works best.

Getting meetings with senior executives has never been more important, but any salesperson you ask will say that it’s now harder than ever. The conventional wisdom is that, if you want to talk to an executive, you have to sound like an executive and gain their attention by offering case studies, ROI and other quantified strategic results.

This approach was the big advance made by executive selling programs such as Selling to VITO and others1. But a lot of that conventional wisdom is 25 years old or more. Do they still hold up in today’s environment? That’s what we set out to find in our latest research.

Two studies were conducted:

  • Study one – Looked at the best messaging approach a sales rep can use to get direct access to an executive and secure time on their diary.
  • Study two – Since many executives insist that they only take sponsored meetings, the second study examined what type of messaging was most effective for equipping an internal sponsor to get an executive meeting on the rep’s behalf.

In collaboration with Professor Nick Lee of Warwick Business School, we recruited over 400 executive-level participants for each study. They were VP or higher titles in companies larger than $50 million, across industries, who acknowledged having budget and purchasing authority.

It seems that when you introduce ROI information matters a lot.

Four test conditions around messaging for gaining access

Using our simulation methodology, each participant was put in a scenario (see sidebar, “Gaining access/direct solicitation study: test scenario and conditions”) and exposed to one of four messages. After reading the message, they were asked a series of questions, including whether they would take a meeting, decline, or delegate.

The four message conditions were:

  1. Known business initiative + ROI – This is the executive access approach that has been promoted for the last 20 years across a variety of sales process and skills training programmes. It’s where the seller demonstrates they’ve done their homework and understands the priorities or challenges that the executive is trying to address, then shares quantified ROI results from other similar customers and offers estimated potential impact on the executive’s business.
  2. Unique product value proposition – This approach uses a proven model for creating and delivering a differentiated product value proposition that shows how the seller’s solution helps solve a problem in a new, different or better way than competitive alternatives. Our company calls this a “Power Position,” and we’ve been teaching this approach for competitive selling situations for 20 years – but, never promoted it as an executive access approach.
  3. Provocative industry insight – This approach introduces a new need the executive hasn’t considered up to this point, based on the seller’s experience with other customers. This may be a problem or missed opportunity the executive doesn’t know they had or didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of the threat. This is an approach that we’ve tested and proven, as have others, but it has not been specifically tested as an approach to gaining executive access.
  4. Competitive benchmark offer – This is an approach that has generated a lot of buzz recently. It’s where the seller offers benchmarking information comparing the prospective executive’s company to other similar companies. Ideally, it will be exclusive data your company developed with existing customers in relevant industries that offers executives a chance to see how they stack up across a range of key performance indicators.
How Credible is Propsed Vendor?
Figure 1: The Executives in the “Known Business Initiative + ROI” test condition viewed the vendor as 9% less credible than participants in the other test conditions
How Confident Company Can Help?
Figure 2: The Executives in the “Known Business Initiative + ROI” test condition were 9.5% less confident in the vendor than participants in the other test conditions
How Interested In Meeting This Company?
Figure 3: The Executives in the “Known Business Initiative + ROI” test condition were more than 8% less interested in a meeting than participants in the other test conditions
How Likely To Take Meeting?
Figure 4: The Executives in the “Known Business Initiative + ROI” test condition were over 10% less likely to take the meeting than participants in the other test conditions
How Likely To Decline Meeting?
Figure 5: The Executives in the “Known Business Initiative + ROI” test condition were 12% more likely to decline the meeting than participants in the other test conditions

Direct access study

In the direct access study, the 400 participating executives were told they were reading an email from an outside vendor sales rep they didn’t know and had never met with before. The executives were randomly divided among the four test messaging conditions.

After reading the message, they then answered a series of questions on a 1-9 scale to determine the strength of their reactions.

While there was no clear winner, there was a clear loser: the “Known business initiative + ROI” condition (the one promoted by so many sales processes and skills training companies since Selling to Vito came out) consistently finished last in all of the essential questions:

  • How credible does this vendor seem to be? (Figure 1)
  • How confident are you the vendor can help? (Figure 2)
  • How interested are you in meeting this company? (Figure 3)
  • How likely are you to take a meeting? (Figure 4)
  • How likely are you to decline the meeting? (Figure 5)

Why was conventional wisdom wrong?

The approach advocated by so many executive access strategies finished dead last. Why would the conventional wisdom be so wrong? Decision science can shed light on this.

If you’re trying to gain an executive’s attention and get on their diary, you have to overcome what decision scientists call preference stability. When people think about a question, and form an opinion or preference, they don’t like to change their mind. In fact, people filter out and discount information that runs counter to their opinion.

In a selling situation, even when the customer has acknowledged a problem, which was the case in the study, they very quickly form an opinion – a preference – on the right way to solve that challenge. Once they do that, the buyer will tell themselves that what they’re doing is good enough, they have the situation under control, and don’t need to change. At that point, the window to introduce your alternative closes quickly.

When executives accept a meeting sponsored by one of their direct reports, it’s more on the basis of the relationship with that person than on the message they deliver.

How do you de-stabilise a preference? Not by simply telling them that you can do what they’re asking. That will reinforce their preference. It’s by offering new information that they don’t know, that either changes how they define the problem, or the range of options they have to solve it.

Going back to the study, the losing “Known business initiative + ROI” condition was the one that offered no new information and did nothing to destabilise preferences. “Unique product value proposition” (when focused on the customer and not product features), tells you something you didn’t know about a potential solution to your problem. “Provocative industry insight” tells you something new about the problem. “Competitive benchmarking” tells you something new about your competition. Each pitch delivers value by telling you something concrete that you weren’t aware of previously.

“Known business initiative + ROI” doesn’t tell you anything new about your problem or the solution. As the known business initiative it is, by definition, already known to the executive. The salesperson’s ROI calculation is mere speculation that the executive has no reason to believe is anchored in reality. And we know that salespeople’s claims are viewed sceptically by prospects, at least until the salesperson has proved themselves over the course of multiple interactions. So, in the final analysis, it appears that you can’t defeat the concrete (existing preferences) with the abstract (speculation about ROI).

Gaining access/direct solicitation study: test scenario and conditions

Background scenario:

You are a senior executive at a company with responsibility for operations, technology, and customer success. Your customer churn rates and customer satisfaction are not where you want them to be, and you are heading up an initiative to improve them. Your analysis revealed that customers view your client support and engineering teams as slow to resolve issues and reactive – instead of proactive. The result is that in surveys, you are not viewed as a strategic partner by most clients.

You asked your team to look at their departments and identify the underlying problems. They identified two possible causes: a lack of integration in several key systems, and a mobile app that is out of date.

You haven’t committed to any specific course of action yet, but you have asked your team to come back with recommendations on possible strategies and partners. As they investigate options, several outside vendors learn about your plans and start soliciting you directly. You get the following email from a sales rep at a vendor requesting a meeting. You do not currently do business with this vendor, and don’t know the sales rep requesting the meeting. You have heard of them, but don’t know much about them.

Test conditions:

Unique product value proposition:

In talking with members of your team, I learned about your initiative to improve customer retention, and I believe that our latest solution could be a great fit. We have a system that will integrate all of your data sources, and give your support teams access to all of a customer’s information in once place. Even more exciting, we are getting ready to release the latest version of the system. It incorporates artificial intelligence to monitor customer activities and develop insights about customers’ needs that will help you serve them better and increase upsell possibilities.

In addition, we have a new mobile toolkit, so we’ll be able to build a cutting-edge mobile app, enabling your customers to access you anywhere. I’d like to offer you a demo of the system, and we are prepared to do a proof of concept if you like what you see.

This could be a big step forward, and I think a meeting would be well worth your time.

Known business initiative + ROI

In talking with members of your team, I learned about your initiative to improve customer retention. I’ve met with multiple people in your organisation to really understand your goals and challenges. I understand that your customer churn and satisfaction rates are not where you would like, that you have identified root causes of a lack of system integration and a mobile app that has fallen behind. I believe that we can be a great fit in helping you achieve your goals.

We can help you integrate all of your data sources, and give your support teams access to all of a customer’s information in once place, so you can be more responsive. We are also getting ready to release new functionality that will monitor customer activities, to help you serve them better and increase upsell possibilities.

In addition, we have a new mobile toolkit, so we’ll be able to build a new mobile app, enabling your customers to access you anywhere. In short, we believe we can meet all of your requirements, and provide exactly what you’re looking for.

We’ve already worked with another company in your industry, and got them live in less than six months. Since going live, they have averaged a 3%-5% reduction in annual customer churn, and increased NPS scores consistently. We are confident that we can do the same for you. I would like to propose a meeting to review a business case that projects your expected results, including the impact on other financial metrics and a preliminary ROI calculation.

This could be a big step forward, and I think a meeting would be well worth your time.

Provocative industry insight

In talking with members of your team, I learned about your initiative to improve customer retention. As you look to provide a better experience for customers, have you considered the growing expectation of personalisation for customers? Working with other similar companies, we’ve seen that integrating systems and providing a new mobile app may solve some internal operational problems, but it misses a critical issue. You have a lot of different types of customers from very small to very large, and they have very different needs. So there’s really no such thing as one system or app that all users will love. In fact, we’ve seen other companies lose customers after a similar system update, because by trying to create a “one size fits all” system, most customers found it difficult to use.

We believe that a better way to approach this is to use artificial intelligence to learn each customer’s specific preferences based on their activity and interactions with you. You can then use that knowledge to automatically customise the customer’s experience to give them what they want, in a way that’s easy to use. We’ve worked with multiple companies like yours to do exactly that. We helped them get up and running quickly, and they’ve seen great results. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss what we’ve learned, and explore how it would look in your business.

This could be a big step forward, and I think a meeting would be well worth your time.

Competitive benchmark offer

In talking with members of your team, I learned about your initiative to improve customer retention. We work with a lot of companies like yours who have churn reduction and customer satisfaction initiatives, and can benchmark your situation to others inside and outside your industry. In comparing what we’ve learned about you to other companies, I believe you are focusing on the right questions. I can share that your churn rates are higher than comparable companies by 3%-5%, and that your NPS score is lower than your peer group.

I also believe that you are pursuing the right strategy. Your situation reminded me of a quote from the CEO of Adobe, who recently said “reducing churn is the new growth.” We have implemented solutions like you are considering at other companies who have gone through similar initiatives. We have comparable examples that can show you what our solution looked like, how long it took to bring online, and the results they got. I’d be happy to share that benchmark info with you at a meeting.

Which one should you choose?

To be fair, all of the test conditions represented a sort of “best-of-breed” set of examples. Each represented an approach that has been supported by experience and even our own research. They’ve all been recommended and apparently used with some success for 20 years or more.

However, when put to a simulation test with confirmed executive buyer types, it became clear that one method could be declared the loser. But, what about the other three? Which one should a marketing or sales team use to create access with hard-to-reach executives? Surely there must be one we can recommend.

Hold that thought… because we decided to conduct a second study, thinking it might provide some clarity. In this case, we changed up the scenario by telling the executives they were being approached by one of their staff members to meet with an outside vendor. In other words, the coveted sponsored meeting request.

If you win over a champion who agrees to recommend you to their boss, your odds of getting that meeting are pretty good, and you don’t have to worry too much about which particular messaging argument you make.

We recruited an entirely different set of executives for this study, but they met the same criteria as the first group. This time, however, they were told to imagine they were reading a meeting request from someone on their team – instead of it coming from an outside rep.

Sponsored access study

We told the executives that their direct report has met with this vendor and believes they would be relevant to an initiative the executive is working on. The executives were again randomly and evenly divided among the same four messaging approaches described earlier, using essentially the same wording as the first study.

We wanted to find out if the executives would respond in the same way they did when the message came directly from an outside vendor rep. Would the “Known business initiative + ROI” approach still come up the loser? Would there be a clearer winner from among the other three approaches? Unfortunately, no.

In fact, there was no clear winner at all among the four approaches when presented as coming from an internal sponsor. There was variability and limited contrast between them across all of the same questions – which suggests to us that, when executives accept a meeting sponsored by one of their direct reports, it’s more on the basis of the relationship with that person than on the message they deliver.

The trust and confidence executives place in their direct report appears to transcend any particular messaging approach. In fact, the responses were so evenly distributed, it would have been hard to achieve had we set out intentionally to create a tie.

For example, look at the following two sets of results. When asked “How interested are you in a meeting?” (Figure 6) we got nearly the exact opposite results compared to when we asked, “How likely are you to take a meeting?” (Figure 7).

How Interested In Meeting?
Figure 6: How interested are you in a meeting?
How Likely To Take Meeting?
Figure 7: How likely are you to take a meeting?

So, the good news is that if you win over a champion who agrees to recommend you to their boss, your odds of getting that meeting are pretty good, and you don’t have to worry too much about which particular messaging argument you make.

Where do you go from here?

Given that our second test didn’t provide any clarity as to the ultimate winning messaging approach, which one should be used? While we have to extrapolate somewhat, we can draw on prior research from Corporate Visions to arrive at an answer.

An earlier study, also conducted with an almost identical executive panel, examined the messaging approach that got executives to move forward with a proposal in a meeting. That’s slightly different from these two most recent studies that look at getting a meeting but offers some insight. In that earlier study, introducing an unconsidered need to the executive was the most effective approach, and the “Provocative industry insight” condition in this most recent research is based on that approach. So, if pressed to choose between the remaining three options, we feel that we can safely pick “Provocative industry insight” as the best option.

Using ROI the right way

That same study did indicate a role for ROI. In fact, the winner was a combination of an industry insight paired with some fairly rigorous ROI information. So how does that square with this most recent research where ROI was the loser? It seems that when you introduce ROI information matters a lot.

This most recent study shows that quantified results like ROI are not effective in gaining an executive’s interest, for the reasons discussed above. But the earlier study represented a later moment in the sales cycle, when they were in the meeting, and their interest had been piqued.

Importantly, in the simulated executive meeting, the ROI information came last, after introducing the unconsidered need. The picture that emerges is that ROI information is not effective to get an appointment, and it’s not effective to initially spur interest. To do that, you have to introduce new information, and destabilise the executive’s preferences. But once you’ve done that, ROI plays an important role.

While this all runs counter to conventional wisdom and best practices, it’s completely consistent with decision science. We know that decisions are made in the emotional, intuitive part of the brain, which responds to new information and risk avoidance – like learning about an unconsidered or underappreciated need. Once the decision is made, and it is made subconsciously in less than the blink of an eye, the rational analytical part of the brain takes over to justify the decision. That’s the part that responds to logical, rational information such as ROI. So the quantitative results and ROI aren’t used to drive a decision, but it is useful as a tool to explain the decision to others, and in the process to justify it to themselves, priming them for action.

1 See Anthony Parinello, Selling to VITO the Very Important Top Officer: Get to the Top. Get to the Point. Get to the Sale, Adams; 3rd edition, 10 June 2010.

Chief Strategy and Research Officer, Corporate Visions | + posts

Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Research Officer, Corporate Visions.