How to Talk (or sell) to Executives

Talk to an executive

Talking at a higher level


Most companies I work with want to sell higher value deals to higher level executives.

The problem is, their sales force doesn’t know how to talk to executives.


Also, many people I work with are concerned about their executive presence.  When they get near big executives they get intimated and freeze up.

You ARE worthy

I think we tend to build this up in our minds to be more mysterious and harder than it actually is.  We think we are not worthy, or that we don’t have enough value to add.

Here are some ways to take the discomfort out of this, and even get good at it.

1. Listen
2. Don’t try to do too much in one meeting
3. Remember, Executives are people too
4. Have some prepared banter

1. Listen

I observed this when I was a General Manager and CEO.  I used to go on road trips where the presence of the visiting executive (me) was a good catalyst for the sales rep to get a meeting with a higher level executive than he could on his own.

Sure, the fact that I was an executive got us the meeting, but it had little to do with why I did well talking to them.

The trick is to listen.

Don’t talk. Ask questions.

These are the kinds of things I would always ask. You don’t need to be a big executive to ask these questions.

What is driving your business right now?  What are your biggest issues? What is the most important thing your organization needs to deliver this year?  How does your organization fit within your larger company?  Does that cause any challenges? What is your organization best in class at? What is the next thing you want to improve in your business?

What do you actually know?

A lot of people think they need to be highly credible about the executive’s business, and do lots of prep work to try and say smart things to make them think you understand their business.

Sure, you need to do some homework for context, but if you lead with what you think you know about their business, you may or may not impress them — they may or may not end up thinking you understand their business.

Here is the big idea:

But if you ask them to explain their business to you,  by the end of the conversation they will KNOW you understand their business because THEY just explained it to you!

This is a highly valuable outcome because you have generally learned about what matters to them, you will get highly relevant ideas for next steps, and you will have earned the right to get invited back.

Asking questions and listening is a much more certain way to build credibility with an executive than trying to impress them by how much  you know about their business.  (They will always know more.)

2. Don’t try to do too much in one meeting.

The next mistake I see people make is to think that they have to practically close the deal in the first meeting.  They have to walk away with a win, some tangible outcome that says “I got something”.

Set your goals differently.  Instead, think about your desired outcome as making a personal connection, and getting an invitation to connect with them again.

This is a big win. It is the beginning of a relationship.

It is way more valuable than turning them off in the first meeting and creating a dead end.

Don’t use up all the time talking about your stuff.  Use most of the time learning what is important to them.  Save your bit for the end.

You will have achieved a great outcome of making a genuine connection, and opened a door to more opportunity.

NOTE: If you are selling something, make sure your questions are not so specific to what you are selling.  If you are selling blue paint, still ask “What is driving your business? What is important to you?”, not “What problems are you experiencing because you have a lack of blue paint?”

3. Remember, Executives are People too.

Some people get absolutely paralyzed if they end up in the elevator or the coffee room with the CEO.

It also doesn’t hurt to remember that executives are people with families, and hobbies. They have frustrations with their teenagers, utility companies, and not having enough time to exercise. Make an effort to connect on topics as humans.

You don’t have to make an earth shattering impression in one meeting.  Just make an initial connection.  Ask a question, learn something, say thank you.

A few Don’t-Do’s… Don’t stalk executives, and don’t complain to them at social functions.  See also Visible, but not annoying.

4. Have some prepared banter

If it doesn’t come naturally to you to chat with people, or if you get intimidated when a big executive walks in the room, it helps a lot to just have some snappy things to say prepared ahead of time.

Some ideas you can keep in the bag…

  • Hi, I’m Patty, I work in product development.  How are you today?
  • How do you think we are doing on [something you know they care about] in the business?
  • I heard you are a cyclist, so am I…
  • Have you heard about our new case study from this reference customer? It’s a great story.
  • I liked your recent communication on…  particulary the part about…
  • What is the most surprising thing you have heard from a customer recently?

Make an impression

Even if you think you only have a once in a lifetime, 5 or 15 minute meeting with an executive, you are far better off making a personal connection, than trying to wow them with some kind of brilliant statement or pitch.

Or if you are tasked with presenting to an executive, its helpful to all involved to start your presentation by asking, “May I ask what you already know about this topic so I don’t bore you or waste your time? and What do you want to make sure you get out of this presentation?”.

Get invited back!

You can find Patty at, follow her on twitter or Facebook, or read her books RISE and MOVE.

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