I've been a salesperson my entire career. I am very proud of my profession. It's a hard job; even for a quality salesperson with a great portfolio of products and services, the work is most about rejection, so it takes great fortitude to succeed. One of the hardest parts is getting an audience with one of the top executives of a health system.
Everyone is focused on getting face time with the CEO, COO or CFO, and most lament their poor job in accomplishing that goal. The preoccupation with getting to know the C-suite is based on the concept that these people "hold the purse strings."
I know a lot of healthcare CEOs—many of them are close friends—and most are preoccupied with other critical administrative matters. They can’t devote much time to worrying about the many products and services vendors sell to their hospitals and systems. That’s what they pay their director of materials management or the supply chain VP to do: screen the products for a final decision by the CEO or CFO. But because of increased competitive pressures, many companies insist their salespeople “go to the top,” so I will provide some thoughts on how to accomplish this task.
In 1976, when I first became publisher of Modern Healthcare, we made the decision to design the editorial product for the C-suite executives. Consequently, I had to find ways to get into the C-suite myself to make sure we were giving the CEO and other top executives the kind of editorial product they would read. Although it’s hard work and requires perseverance, I attended every meeting I could where provider CEOs were in attendance. At the cocktail parties after the meetings I would introduce myself to various provider CEOs and ask them for an audience later at their home base. I also took them to dinner and sporting events and got to know them even better. But here is the key: Anytime I met a CEO I made sure I wasn’t bypassing a lower-ranked employee whose help I would need later on. I communicated with anyone who could be affected and it paid off for me in the long run because I earned their confidence and respect.
The CEO doesn’t have a lot of time, so if you are so lucky as to get a half hour with one, don’t waste it. I have been on sales calls with senior sales executives who spend most of their time telling stories when they should be finding out the client’s needs and how the salesperson’s company can meet those needs. Why pursue a meeting with a CEO for months and then take up his or her time with idle chitchat?
Also, go in with all the facts. Know your customer’s business almost as well as he does. The information is available if you dig for it, and you have to if you want to earn the top gun’s trust. Meet with the lower-level people in the organization well before your meeting with CEO, and ask plenty of questions.
You must show respect to clients through your personal style. You can never go to a meeting with a CEO unless you are impeccably dressed. We live in the age of business casual, but for a salesperson on the road, business casual is not appropriate. A coat and tie for men, a suit or dress for women. It’s that simple. The CEO may be in shirt and slacks, but you must be dressed your best.
When you do get the meeting, be creative. The selling process is always tedious, and CEOs have seen it all through their long careers, so you should think of ways to be stand out. Learn how to put together a presentation that is both colorful and entertaining. Most great salespeople work hard and long on their presentation skills and it takes hard work and plenty of practice. The meeting with the CEO is your chance to shine.
If you are at a social event with C-suite types, your manners are critical. If you are not sure what to do at a social event read books on how to behave on various occasions. Good manners are always noticed and welcomed. Don’t swear and never tell off-color stories unless you know for sure you can with a client. But even then telling stories like that can backfire.
I know email has become a great way to communicate quickly, but even there, rules apply. When you write a quick note to any client—let alone the CEO—make sure it is worded properly so that the person on the other end isn’t offended. Don’t get too casual unless you really know the recipient very well. Be clear and be polite. Email is a flat communications vehicle; it is easy to misread the intent of the sender.
Finally, selling a healthcare system client requires the same discipline as selling to any other executive. Do your homework and work like the devil to find out who is really making the decisions, so you don’t waste anyone’s time.
And please, don’t head for the C-suite unless you have been given the green light by the people you have already cultivated. They are the ones you are going to have to go back to after your meeting with the CEO.
It's the only way to go.