Yesterday I had uncomfortable conversations with two prospective clients offering complex enterprise solutions to large healthcare industry organizations. They both were asking us to help them shortcut the business development process and get them directly in front of C-Suite decision makers to make their pitch. “Our product is so unique and adds so much value that it will sell itself if we can just cut through the organizational clutter and get 20 minutes with the “CxO”

One of these prospects was a mid-sized technology vendor with a solution aimed at large integrated delivery systems. The other was a multi-state hospital system offering bundled care delivery solutions seeking direct to employer relationships with large brand name employers. And this is not the first time someone has asked us to shortcut the business development process by getting directly to “the decision maker”.

If your target prospects are small enough and the C-Suite executives don’t have staff to speak of, then this might work. But for mid-to-large size healthcare industry buyers of complex enterprise solutions this almost NEVER works and is usually counter-productive.

Of course, I gently explained to these prospects that while such a C-Suite introduction was possible it might not be their best place to start and we should set up a face to face to discuss it more.

But in my head I was shouting “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!”

Let me count the ways…

1. C-Suite executives in mid to large size organizations almost never actually buy anything on their own.

Yes, they hold the budget authority – particularly for large dollar purchases – and they often have to give final approval. But they almost NEVER identify, research, and vet enterprise solutions and their vendors. This staff work falls to teams of VP’s, Directors, and Managers who recommend a final decision. Unless the C-Suite executive doesn’t trust their staff, they seldom second guess these recommendations.

Secondly, enterprise solutions, almost by definition, are expensive and complex impacting multiple departments, managers, users, and other stakeholders. The C-Suite is exceedingly unlikely to impose an enterprise solution without wide buy-in.

In short, buying at this level is a team sport. So attempting an end run around the staff level in the most impacted functional areas is almost always a recipe for failure. You will be far more successful if you sell the staff and let them sell to the executive. If your solution offers compelling value to the critical multiple stakeholders at the right time, it will get the attention at the right entry point(s) into the buying process, assuming you’ve done excellent marketing.

This is the major reason why successful large enterprise solution sales are not quick or inexpensive to pursue and close.

2. Vendor and buyer understanding of “value” usually differs – often dramatically.

Buyers instinctively assume:

  • The vendor exaggerates their solution value.
  • The vendor doesn’t really understand the buyer’s business.
  • That “we are different” – they have special circumstances which impact potential solution value.

Buyers require two things to ascertain a solution’s value:

  • A believable model or methodology to determine value.
  • An application of their own data to the model.

Then they will (or should) discount the result by 50% to account for execution risk – risk of flawed implementation and/or utilization of the solution.

Basically, your baby is not as beautiful as you’ve been told. At least not in the eyes of the buyer(s). What you think is your superfantabulous, intuitively obvious, and an inherently compelling value proposition simply will not be accepted at face value. The work required to develop the value proposition to the point where a solution will be seriously considered cannot be shortcut. And that work will not be done with the C-Suite executive. It needs to be a product of focused effort with individual critical stakeholders.

3. Articulating your value proposition is not a “one size fits all”.

The temptation to bypass mid-level staff in the sales process is often a result of getting “stuck” there. Roadblocks can appear for a variety of reasons. Realistically this is usually for one or more simple reasons:

  • The person you are talking with is not interested in or doesn’t understand your value story. They are either the wrong person to begin with or you need to find a different way of telling your story.
  • Your value proposition is simply not compelling enough to this particular person for them to take it forward.
  • You are not articulating your value proposition in a way that matters to this person. Remember that different people will respond to different value stories – what’s in it for them?
  • In situations where your solution directly impacts external stakeholders such as your prospect’s customers or suppliers you also have to articulate the value in terms your prospect can defend.

Going around the mid-level staff directly to the C-Suite in an attempt to get “unstuck” is high risk and seldom helpful. At best you might get the senior executive to ask his staff to take another look. Obviously they will not be happy that you tried to bypass them. Your success rate will be much higher if you do the hard work to turn hesitant staff into advocates.

4. Buyers don’t act rationally anyway.

Even if your product truly IS uniquely and highly valuable many other factors drive buyer decision making, and they are most definitely NOT all rational. The following are all elements that are at least as important as a strong value proposition in making the sale:

  • Organizational readiness
  • Internal politics
  • Internal and external relationships
  • Organizational and individual capabilities
  • Personal behaviors and circumstances

In addition, these many drivers also involve multiple stakeholders other than the C-Suite executives. If you make a successful sale without understanding and addressing these other drivers, you are just lucky. You cannot afford to risk an entire deal on just presenting a value proposition to a senior executive you know little about. Make the investments in time, dollars, and expertise to do it right.

5. Just because you can get a C-Suite introduction doesn’t mean you should start there.

Sure, we can leverage our relationships to get you and your enterprise solution in front of the C-Suite. But going in without having pre-sold the multiple impacted stakeholders is just not a high percentage proposition. Remember that high level executives seldom decide anything anyway without his or her staff having done the research. They will look for organizational buy-in. They won’t accept at face value what you say about your return on investment. Basically, they will wonder why you (and not incidentally we) are wasting their time.

The bottom line…

What you really want is to be invited into the C-Suite as a result of a strong staff recommendation. At this point, it is more likely a final get-acquainted step just prior to a buy decision. Your objective should be to get that invitation. The C-Suite should not be your first stop – it should be your last.

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