Stephen J. Bistritz: An interview by Bob Morris

Stephen J. Bistritz

Steve Bistritz has more than 40 years of high-tech sales, sales management, and training management experience. He is a published author and lecturer in the field of sales, sales management and selling to executives who spent more than 27 years with IBM in sales and training-related positions. He then worked for a sales training company where he led the development of sales training programs that were delivered to tens of thousands of salespeople worldwide. He holds a doctorate in human resource development from Vanderbilt University, awarded in 1995, and is currently president of his own sales training and consulting firm, based in Atlanta. Bistritz is also the co-author with Nicholas A.C. Read of Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top, published by McGraw-Hill (2010).

Morris: Before discussing Selling to the C-Suite, a few general questions. First, what are the most common misconceptions about what selling is…and isn’t?

Bistritz: Some have the impression that salespeople are very aggressive and solely focused on commissions they can potentially receive from a sale.  Unfortunately, they get that perspective from stereotypical used car salespeople or other such images they’ve seen in the movies or on television.  On the contrary, most professional salespeople are very capable and trustworthy individuals.

Morris: Other than family members, who has had the greatest influence on your personal development? How so?

Bistritz: Buck Rogers was a senior IBM executive who once said that “if you lost your job it was significant, if you lost your health it was catastrophic, but if you lost your integrity – you lost everything.”  I always remembered those words and have tried to always maintain my integrity in everything I do!

Morris: Professional development?

Bistritz: Alston Gardner, CEO of OnTarget taught me so many things – including how to take excellence to the next level and how to not only be responsive to clients on occasion, but to focus on being continually responsive to them and to always perform each task with a focus on quality!

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven valuable when making career choices?

Bistritz: My doctorate in human resource development (adult learning) was a commitment that I would be focused on training development and more specifically, sales training development.  I say that because I obtained that degree after more than 25 years in professional selling!  At that point in my life I had basically made my career choice.

Morris: Although you and Read offer a wealth of valuable advice to external sales people who now sell (or attempt to sell) to senior-level executives, I think most of the same advice can be of substantial value to middle managers who need to strengthen relationships with C-level executives in their own organization. Is that a fair assessment?

Bistritz: While that was not the focus of the book, people have told me that it has, in fact, helped them do a better job of strengthening relationships internally – especially with identifying the “relevant” executives in their own firms.  For example, when I reviewed the concepts of the relevant executive with one of my sponsors in a client organization, his reply to me was: ‘Wow, now I see why one of our executives has obtained her current position – it’s all about understanding the indicators of influence that you described in your book’.

Morris: What are some of the most common misconceptions about C-level executives? Which of these seems to create the most problems for those who now sell (or attempt to sell) to the C-Suite?

Bistritz: One of the most common misconceptions about them is that they are intimidating and therefore, salespeople should have a fear of calling on them.  In fact, nothing is further from the truth.  Most of the C-level executives I have known are very gracious people and calling on them is typically an amazing experience.  I have met some very cordial executives over the years who have been wonderful to work with.

Morris: Now please focus on Selling to the C-Suite. When and why did you and Nic Read decide to collaborate on writing it?

Bistritz: I initiated research with CXO-level executives asking them about their relationships with professional salespeople.  The purpose of that initial research was to validate a workshop I was developing at the time called Executive Selling.  I was interested in learning what executives thought about the salespeople who called on them – and my search of the literature at that time revealed no such research.  Originally, the executives surveyed were all located in North America.  I had been working with Nic and he decided to expand the research to Europe and Asia and having collected that data we decided to share it with a wider audience.

Morris: Neil Rackham wrote the Foreword. I highly admire his book, SPIN Selling. In your opinion, to what extent are the core concepts (i.e. asking questions about Situation, the given Problem to be solved, the Implications of solving or not solving it, and Need fulfillment) still relevant?

Bistritz: Perhaps more relevant now, even more than ever before.  Executives want you to come to them asking intelligent questions about their company that demonstrates some level of preparation on your part, seeking problems to solve and then fulfilling their needs with solutions that deliver value to them. However, most importantly, they want you to listen before proposing a solution.  I tell salespeople to remember: Executives buy not when they understand, but when they feel they are understood!

Morris: Did Selling to the C-Suite turn out quite differently from what you and Read initially envisioned?

Bistritz: Actually, no.  The final version of the book was very close to what we originally submitted to the publisher.  However, even after some 40-50 revisions to portions of the text prior to submitting the document, there were still improvements made in grammar, tense alignment and the like- that came after we signed our contract with McGraw-Hill.  We were totally comfortable with all of the changes including the book title.  The original title of the book was Selling at the Executive Level and McGraw-Hill asked us to change it to Selling to the C-Suite.

Morris: Any head-snapping revelations along the way?

Bistritz: The real revelation to me (from our research with CXO-level executives) was that many senior client executives truly valued professional salespeople for the specific business and personal value they delivered to them and to their company.  That validated me and my profession and it was something I always thought to be the case, but the research actually confirmed that for me.

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of a Trusted Advisor?

Bistritz: The most dominant characteristics of a trusted advisor could be summarized as (1) capability – the ability of the salesperson to deliver results and (2) continually displaying integrity in each interaction with the client.

Morris: Should all sales persons aspire to become one? Please explain.

Bistritz: Salespeople should work towards a trusted advisor relationship with a select number of client executives.  (1)  It takes time and resources to develop that type of relationship; (2) Not all client executives want that type of relationship with any salesperson.  Salespeople have to select where they want to make that type of investment, understanding where it can deliver mutual value, because they typically won’t have the time to invest in each executive they meet.

Morris: What are the unique characteristics of a C-level executive as a sales prospect?

Bistritz: In the book, we talk about the need to identify the relevant executive for the sales opportunity – the executive who stands to gain the most or lose the most as a result of the outcome of the application or project associated with the sales opportunity.  That’s the best sales prospect to align with – as you pursue the deal.

Morris: When do C-level executives tend to become actively involved in the decision-making process?

Bistritz: Our experience is that C-level executives get involved early in the in decision process for major purchases to understand the current issues, establish the objectives for the project and set the strategy.  We also found that they get involved later in the process to both plan the implementation and measure the results.  During the middle phases of the buying process (exploring options and setting vendor criteria, for example), they tended to reduce their involvement and delegate those decisions down to lower-level executives.
Morris: How do you prepare for initial meetings with executives?

Bistritz:  Preparation for meetings with C-suite executives can be described – in a way that one of my associates said it best – in that your homework will either get you in or do you in!  Executives don’t expect to teach you about their business – they expect the salesperson to be thoroughly prepared for meetings with them – including that critical initial meeting.  They expect that you will have researched their company and have a good understanding of their key business drivers and initiatives, as well as the company’s key business objectives.

Morris: You and Read identify four stages of sales proficiency. Must all sales persons proceed through the first three to reach the fourth? Please explain.

Bistritz: Not necessarily.  But most salespeople will start off at Stage 1 (Commodity Supplier) as they initially engage with a client.  Progressing to Stage 2 (Emerging Resource) requires a track record of selling their value beyond a product or service to include other components of value they bring to the relationship.  Stage 3 salespeople (Problem Solvers) are able to look beyond the current deal and bring even greater value to the relationship by exploring creative ideas and solutions with client executives.  At Stage 4 (Trusted Advisor), the salesperson is able to bring resourceful solutions to the executive, often drawing on a variety of business partners and also based on helping other clients solve similar problems.  Salespeople who consistently operate at Stage 4 can often get to that stage with different clients much more quickly because they are often able to navigate the political structures of an organization and address both the business and personal agendas of a specific client executive.  Oftentimes, migrating through the various stages of sales proficiency to operate at Stage 4 appears seamless, because of the skills and experience of the professional salesperson.

Morris: At which stage do most salespeople abandon the progression? Why?

Bistritz: Many salespeople will abandon the process with a particular client at Stage 2 – because they don’t perceive they can add any value to the relationship.  Oftentimes this will happen when a salesperson disengages from a specific sales opportunity they were pursuing in the client organization – perhaps because a competitor has won the deal.  They might also perceive that the competitor has already achieved a trusted advisor level of business relationship with the executive they had been working with.

Morris: What is the “democratization of information” and what is its significance insofar as selling to the C-Suite is concerned?

Bistritz: Information is now more widely available to any number of people and most importantly, more instantaneously available to people on a global basis.  A clear example of that is the uprising that has taken place in Egypt in 2011.  Information there was available throughout the world instantly – using social networking capabilities and other means – even though the government of Egypt tried to suppress some of it at times.  As it applies to the C-suite, there is no reason for a salesperson not to be prepared for a meeting with an executive, because of today’s instantaneous access to timely information.

Morris: Who and what are involved in the “Buyer’s Journey”?

Bistritz: We were trying to differentiate the roles of marketing and sales, by saying that the role of marketing is primarily to assist in demand creation and the role of sales is primarily in value creation.  By separating those roles, you can lead the buyer through a journey of discovery and ultimately, a decision.  I am working with a major company at the current time, whose name and brand most people would recognize, but they now clearly see that their role is to aim their marketing content at the relevant executive in the customer organization to assist the salesperson in creating demand.  Previously, their marketing collateral was aimed only at the technical buyer.

Morris: How to conduct market and customer research?

Bistritz: In the Appendix of the book, we suggest that salespeople research their key clients from the perspective of three levels of learning; namely, the client’s industry, the client’s company (and that includes information about the client’s key customers, as well as their key competitors) and the client executive himself or herself.  Salespeople have a multitude of sources they can use to obtain that information, including many sites on the Internet – even competitive intelligence can be gathered from the Internet.  We also include a form titled “Examples of Questions Your Should Answer Prior to Your Initial Face-to-Face Call on a Client Executive” to guide them through the research process.

Morris: What are the various drivers during the decision-making process?

Bistritz: We describe eight categories of business drivers that can impact an organization.  If a salesperson focuses their research on the ways those drivers can impact the customer’s business, it will lead them to people inside the company who are most affected by those drivers – the relevant executive (the executive with the most to gain or the most to lose).  Knowing the business driver that receives the most focus will also help identify the right executive(s) a salesperson needs to align with. The Appendix in the book contains a one-page Business Issues Worksheet – which just this week, a participant in one of my sales training workshops said: “provides a great means to identify what is impacting our customers, as well as keen insight into their decision-making process, in a concise format”.

Morris: Based on your own experience, what you have observed, and what others have shared with you, what are the best ways to gain access to the executive level?

Bistritz: Executives told us that the best way to gain access to them is through a credible sponsor within their organization – and that can be described as through a lower level executive or other key player or using the gatekeeper as a resource.  Based on my experience, I would absolutely concur – and would also encourage salespeople to treat the gatekeeper as if s/he was the executive herself or himself.

Morris: How best to identify what you characterize as the “relevant” executive?

Bistritz: In the book, we describe the relevant executive as the highest ranking executive who stands to gain the most or lose the most as a result of the project or application associated with the sales opportunity.  That is the same definition I have used in my workshop and I believe it is the strongest definition of my concept of a relevant executive.  Identifying this person is typically not an easy task – but one that requires the salesperson to continually be observing events in the client’s organization, speaking with lower-level executives and doing their research to be able to conduct meaningful conversations with key client executives.

Morris: Why are internal recommendations so important? How best to obtain them?

Bistritz: Executives told us that the best way to gain access to them is work with someone in the executive’s organization who then recommends that the executive grant the salesperson a meeting.  These internal sources could either be (1) a lower-level executive who is perceived as a credible sponsor or by (2) a gatekeeper who you have treated as a resource.  Executives like to know that the salesperson they meet with will not waste their time!

Morris: How to establish and then sustain credibility at the executive level?

Bistritz: When a salesperson demonstrates both capability and integrity over the long term, they can establish a level of credibility with the executive.  By sustaining these characteristics over the long term, the salesperson can begin to operate in the Client Value Zone and can ultimately become perceived as a trusted advisor to the executive.  As I mentioned earlier, achieving this trusted advisor level of business relationship does take time and the salesperson usually has to progress through a number of stages of achieve that status.

Morris: In some of your previous responses, you suggest several do’s. What are the most important don’ts.

Bistritz: From my perspective, there are several (in addition to the obvious ones around not being on time for meetings, and the like).  Some of the “Don’t’s” are: (1) Don’t ask an executive a question whose answer could have been obtained from another source – either from a lower-level executive or from publically available information, (2) Don’t patronize executives by asking them questions to which you already know the answers, (3) Don’t expect executives to educate you on their business – so don’t try to “wing it” when meeting with C-suite executives.

Morris: Now please share your thoughts about value creation. What is it? What isn’t it?

Bistritz: Salespeople who progress through the Four Stages of Sales Proficiency pass through Stage 3 (Problem Solver) to Stage 4 (Trusted Advisor).  At Stage 4, a salesperson is viewed as a strategic resource and can often make a contribution to the customer’s company by developing a solution to a problem, that perhaps even people within the executive’s own organization have not been able to develop.  That is a clear example of value creation.  The salesperson has not only delivered value – but created it – and, from that perspective has become a true business resource to the customer. So – it’s not simply delivering value (which you would expect the salesperson’s solution to do) – it’s actually creating value for the customer by delivering something the customer had not anticipated or expected.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) about the need for a Value Proposition. What do you think?

Bistritz: Our research with CXO-level executives was not divided about that need.  A large majority of executives we surveyed specifically told us that they wanted to understand the value that a vendor’s solution would deliver and wanted to see value propositions before they move forward.  That was also borne out by their response to the question about when and why they got involved in the decision process for major purchases.  It was clear that executives got involved in that step where they wanted to ‘measure the results’ of the buying decision they made.  Effective and compelling value propositions also inspire action by customers!

Morris: What is a Value Statement and what is its purpose?

Bistritz: A value statement is, in effect, an audit of the value your solution would deliver to the customer.  A comprehensive value statement can represent a significant effort by both the salesperson and the customer’s team because it can require a “deep dive” into specific metrics.  However, delivering your value statement contributes to the development of customer loyalty.  If the executive truly recognizes your value, s/he may become a true evangelist for you and refer you to executives in other customer organizations.

Morris: You identify “the six critical steps” by which to create, maintain, and leverage relationships with client executives. Must all of the steps be taken? Which seems to be the most difficult step to take? Why?

Bistritz: What I was attempting to provide there was a logical progression of the steps that a salesperson should take to leverage their relationships with senior client executives.  In some cases, a salesperson may not spend much time at several of the steps, but I wanted salespeople to try to create this roadmap in their head so they had a path to follow.  If you can create a logical process that leads to success, the salesperson can then replicate that process for future engagements – so they are continually successful.  In some cases, the most difficult step to take might be the first one – identifying the relevant executive.  That step can be extremely difficult, due to the intricacies of the client environment.

Morris: What question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Bistritz: Here it is: “There seems to be quite a number of books on the market already about how to sell.  What makes this book different?”

Most – if not all – of the books on the market today were written by salespeople from an anecdotal perspective.  The content is mainly about how the salesperson was able to sell effectively in a particular environment.  To our knowledge, none of the books currently available on this topic were developed mainly from the executive’s perspective.  This book is based on a number of research projects, conducted by the authors over an extended period of time, where CXO-level executives were asked about their relationships with salespeople.  The original research projects was conducted in North America, while the others were conducted in Europe and Asia Pacific.  I believe this book depicts the relationship between salespeople and senior client executives from the executive’s perspective and because of that makes a significant contribution to the sales profession.

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Steve Bistritz cordially invites you to check out these websites:

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