Picture it: you’re working on an opportunity you deeply want to win. Your solution best meets the client’s needs and you’re trending ahead of your competition. But you lose the deal over an objection from a C-level executive. What went wrong?

The needs of the C-suite buying influence are often quite different from other stakeholders; sellers need to tailor their messages to them accordingly. These executives focus more on achieving the long-term vision of the company than on day-to-day tasks. When selling to the C-suite, your solution needs to address long-term goals.

Effectively selling to the C-suite requires a deeper understanding of how to decipher their decision-making style, how they disseminate information and how to provide materials tailored to their unique style. An effective sales strategy presentation involves much more than how you build your slide deck. Instead, it’s how you tailor your messaging to resonate with your C-level buying influence, the order you provide them content and the types of content you share.

In 2018, companies reported that 32 percent of forecasted opportunities resulted in competitive losses, with another 21 percent resulting in no decision, according to CSO Insights’ 2018-2019 Sales Performance Report. While there are many factors that contribute to less-than-perfect win rates, selling to the C-suite is one of them. Here are techniques you should master before selling to c-level executives.

Understand Decision-Making Styles

According to Miller Heiman Group research, all C-level executives fall into one of five decision-making styles. You need to classify the executive you’re selling to into one of these five categories—and then tailor your messaging and selling strategy to resonate with this behavior type. The five decision-making styles are:

  1. Charismatic: Charismatics are larger-than-life personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Richard Branson who are always looking for the next big idea. They want to understand how a solution will help them achieve their big idea.
  2. Thinkers: Thinkers include cautious, precise leaders such as Bill Gates who tend to be guarded, intellectual and methodical. Thinkers are process-oriented, quantitative and relentlessly thorough.
  3. Skeptics: Inherently suspicious of anything that doesn’t fit with their worldview, skeptics are outspoken and assertive leaders like Larry Ellison who need to hear things from credible sources.
  4. Followers: Risk-averse, but with strong personalities that can mask their decision-making style, Followers include disciplined leaders like Carly Fiorina who are committed to implementing tried-and-true approaches that align with their past experiences.
  5. Controllers: Controllers are self-reliant micromanagers and perfectionists like Martha Stewart who are driven by a fear of failure. They need to have some ownership of an idea before proceeding.

Decipher the Decision-Making Style of Executive

To effectively prepare a sales presentation for a C-level executive, you must understand what makes this executive tick. The key is to research their decision-making style (as opposed to personality traits, such as the Meyers-Briggs types) when developing a sales strategy. You want to understand how they handle decisions that have consequential, real-world impacts by asking questions such as:

  • How much risk are they willing to take?
  • How much input do they seek from others?
  • How much responsibility do they accept based on their decisions?

Of course, you won’t be able to ask the executive these questions yourself. Instead, use the resources available to you, such as financial reports, press releases and thought leadership they’ve published or posts you can find by them on social networks like LinkedIn. Speak with people who have worked with your executive buying influence or interacted with them professionally. This is another perfect opportunity to leverage your internal coach, who can share how the executive has made important decisions in the past.

Tailor Your Messaging

Miller Heiman Group research shows that about 80 percent of sales presentations are geared toward the Skeptic and Controller decision-making styles. This finding drives home the importance of tailoring your message to the style of the executive. It illustrates how sellers often provide information the way that they’d like to receive it. The problem is that the C-level executive you’re selling to may not have the same style as you—these two styles represent just 30 percent of all executives.. Based on your research, you need to tailor all communication to the way your executive buyer makes decisions, not the way you do.

Develop a Call-to-Action

It’s easy to misread any buyer’s level of commitment to close a deal with you. This is especially true with C-level executives who can tell you exactly what you want to hear while you’re in the room—and then go radio silent as soon as you leave. To overcome this, prepare a specific call to action that requires your executive contact to move the opportunity forward. If the executive wants to move forward, they will make sure the task gets completed. On the other hand, if this action isn’t finished in a timely manner, it becomes justification for your follow-up emails and phone calls. Then, if you find yourself with an executive who has gone dark, it may be time to lose fast and move on to the next opportunity.


The most important part of selling to C-level executives is customizing your sales communications to their decision-making style. The odds of winning a deal go up when you classify the executive you’re selling to into one of the five decision-making styles, tailor your messaging to meet the needs of their vision and develop a call to action for assessing how committed your executive is to closing the deal with you.

Convinced you need to improve your engagement with C-level executives to increase your win rate? Miller Heiman Group offers an intensive Executive Impact training program geared toward understanding how C-level executives make decisions.

Contact us to learn more about how Miller Heiman Group can help your organization develop its selling strategy.

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