The ALARMING Decline of Executive-Level Selling Skills

March 15, 2016 0 Comments Best Practices by Jack Dean

Executive-Level SellingI consider myself a BUY-side CXO “clinician”. What exactly is a “clinician” you ask? In the healthcare industry a “clinician” is generally defined as a credentialed expert having direct contact with and responsibility for patients, rather than one involved with theoretical or laboratory studies.

I consider myself a “clinician” in the B2B sales industry since I have 40 years of direct contact experience with sales/account executives (the “patients”), albeit from the BUY-side of the customer conversation. For the first 25 years I negotiated transactions with thousands of sales/account executives as a BUY-side CXO at 4 Fortune500 companies (including as a Chief Financial Officer). And for the last 15 years I led and facilitated hundreds of onsite training workshops where I had direct contact with my B2B “patients”, deploying Socratic questioning techniques and role play simulation of actual executive selling conversations to diagnose their condition. My B2B “patient” population was large and diverse, including 12,000 sales/account executives employed by 150 sponsoring companies.

It is from this large B2B “patient” population that I offer these “clinical” observations. My comments are intended to serve as a constructive CALL TO ACTION to the VP Sales and Sales Enablement professionals responsible for the training and professional development of their sales/marketing teams.

3 Clinical Observations of Declining Executive-Level Selling Skills

#1: Declining FINANCIAL Acumen – In the last 15 years I interacted (in the role of a BUY-side CXO) in over 5,000 role play exercises with B2B sellers attending training workshops. In the early 2000s I was frequently impressed with the level of financial acumen exhibited by my role play partner. However, unfortunately, in recent years I have observed an alarming decline in the ability (and confidence) of sales people to sustain credible FINANCIAL conversations. Increasingly B2B sales people struggle to articulate the hard FINANCIAL impact of their solutions on the customer’s financial statements, KPIs metrics and ROI. I believe this declining competency emanates from a shallow understanding of basic business finance concepts; not accounting skills per se but the basic financial concepts you would implicitly understand if you owned your own small business. How do you make money? What is the balance sheet and why is it so important? How can you use financial analysis skills and insights to elevate credibility with CXOs? How do you articulate the KPI impact of your solution? How do you articulate the ROI impact?

How do I come to this unfortunate conclusion? As all good “clinicians” I ask probing questions at the outset of workshops in order to assess financial acumen competency of the participants, and then I adjust my delivery accordingly. Here are my summary observations, which are ALARMING:

• 50% of workshop participants don’t know the difference between an income statement, a balance sheet and a cash flow statement.

• 60% don’t know how to calculate a simple ROI percentage when provided an example containing the 2 components of the calculation: project cost and project benefits.

• 40% don’t understand the concept of an investment “hurdle rate”, let alone appreciate its important to investment decision-making.

• 70% fail the pre-workshop online assessment of basic business financial acumen selling concepts, including the identification of financial statement categories, basic financial terminology (such as gross margin), KPI impact and basic ROI concepts.

#2: Declining CUSTOMER BUSINESS Acumen – BUY-side CXOs aren’t particularly interested in generic industry insights. What they really value are tailored insights about their company or organization. In recent years workshop participants struggle to uncover unique insights about their customer’s business. I know this because participants are asked to select a customer and bring to the workshop a list of Key Business Initiatives (KBIs), Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and Critical Success Factors (CSFs), along with a basic assessment of their customer’s recent financial performance. Since I conduct limited due diligence on their selected customers in advance of the workshop, I can tell that the quality and depth of this customer insight has steadily declined over the past 10 years.

During workshop introductions I used to ask participants to stand up and summarize (in 1-2 minutes) the overall business strategy and KPIs of their selected customer. That usually did not go well. So in recent years I have stopped asking this question and have instead jumped into table team exercises to pull this insight out of participants. The availability and transparency of publicly-available information on companies (including private and nonprofit organizations and public sector organizations) has never been greater, so access to customer information is not the issue, even though some participants blame their poor performance on the lack of customer information.

Customer business acumen insights are the foundation on which credibility is built with BUY-side executives. Without the ability to convey customer acumen at the outset of an interaction, conversations with BUY-side executives will get shorter and requests for subsequent conversations will increasingly be denied.

#3: Declining Executive-Level CONVERSATION SKILLS – Issues observed in #1 and #2 above are bound to negatively impact BUY-side CXOs conversations, whether they are face-to-face, over the phone or in written form (emails, proposals). As I mentioned earlier I have conducted over 5,000 role play simulations with B2B sellers in face-to-face training workshops. During those role play interactions I have witnessed a steady decline in the QUALITY of questions (e.g. too many canned, generic ones like “tell me about your priorities”), as well as a lack of business curiosity manifested by not asking drill-down questions following a comment I would “plant” about my organization’s priorities.

Even though I am conducting a role play simulation in a learning environment, I have increasingly found myself getting bored and losing interest during these practice conversations. At the end of every role play exercise the participant asks whether they can set up another interaction with me. Unfortunately, in recent years I have declined 80% of their requests for a subsequent meeting.

A Call-to-Action

To VP Sales/Sales Enablement Leaders: If you are still reading this post it shows you care about the executive-level selling capabilities of your sales and marketing teams. Perhaps you are concerned about a growing “skills gaps” in the capabilities of your sales/account executives to interact with customer executives. My advice is to diagnose before you prescribe. Informally, ask your company’s CXOs for their observations having personally interacted with your team (especially the CEO/COO/CFO). Formally, conduct a targeted assessment and stratify the results in two cohorts: group 1 - sales people who score high on all 3 skills mentioned above AND who excel at C-level selling, and Group 2 - everyone else. Try to get a sense for the proportion of each cohort and assess the breadth of the issue.

To Sales/Account Executives: Proactively solicit coaching from peers in your company who consistently demonstrate high-levels of competence in these 3 skills. Some of these people may reside outside of the sales organization in marketing, finance, IT and operations. Talk to your sales enablement leaders and ask them to re-allocate training budgets will LESS inward-focused sales process/methodology skills building and MORE outward-focused customer executive engagement/financial acumen skills building.

What Do You Think?

1. Do your observations match mine?

2. What do you think is the underlying CAUSE for the alarming decline in executive-level selling skills?

About Jack Dean and FASTpartners LLC: Jack brings BUY-side experience as a Fortune500 Chief Financial Officer to the B2B Sales Training Industry, which has been long dominated by training curriculum designed and delivered by SELL-side marketers and educators. For the last 15 years Jack has trained 12,000+ B2B sales executives and account managers at 100+ companies in the technology, financial services, information services and manufacturing industries. Jack is an expert in helping sales professionals elevate their business/financial acumen and deepen their customer business insights, particularly around the drivers of financial performance improvement. In turn, this helps B2B sales professionals earn BUSINESS ADVISOR credibility with BUY-side executives, which leads to more sales. In 2009 Jack designed the popular FASTcred™ Framework for becoming a BUSINESS ADVISOR to BUY-side executives. In connection he co-founded a training firm called FASTpartners LLC where a highly-regarded team of 21st century BUY-side CXOs leverage the FASTcred™ Framework to train B2B sales professionals on how to become BUSINESS ADVISORS. For more information on FASTpartners LLC training solutions, go to www.fastpartners.com or contact Jack at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .