Over the last two decades, I have successfully built consulting relationships with senior executives at large corporations. I have served half of the top 30 most valuable brands in the world and have built a specialty in helping the best of the best consumer companies grow, like Anheuser-Busch, Gillette and so on. I’ve also served high growth companies that have created new categories, like Keurig, and some of the fastest-growing companies that are venture capital-backed and private equity-owned. Collectively I have helped my clients generate about $8 billion of recurring annual profitable revenue.
Dealing with Intangibles
Executives at large corporations know big contracts include many unknowns. Consulting is a classic example. We ask corporate officers to spend a lot of money, and there are no guarantees about what they will get in the end. The reason is the true value of a great consultant is not the answers they provide, but ensuring you are answering the right question. It is the ultimate intangible sale.
But all big deals have huge intangibles, so trust plays a major role, and generosity is the key to building trust.
Being generous is not about giving away your product and services for free, but rather creatively unbundling what you offer into good, better, best versions that don’t cost you much and can be strategically given to prospective customers and clients that leave them wanting more. When done properly, generosity is an extremely effective way to build trust.
Even more importantly, generosity preserves and protects your soul and helps you sleep at night. This is key for sustained success. Specifically, five generosity tips help build trust and lay the foundation for developing relationships with executives at large corporations.
- Don’t Sell…Give Samples
- Avoid Binary Situations…Offer High ROI Choices
- Take Creative Risks…Like Discounting
- Be Picky with Your Pipeline…Only People You Like
- Be a Superhero…With a Clear Origin Story
1. Don’t Sell…Give Samples
I almost quit consulting right before I became a partner because I perceived the partner role as a sales role which felt ‘icky’. At first, I thought partners could only succeed by putting firm interests ahead of client interests. This felt uncomfortable; I was driven to serve clients. They don’t want a “hunter” calling on them. They don’t want to be “shot,” they want to be served.
A Turning Point
I changed my mind about the true role of the partner in a proposal situation with one of the largest consumer companies in the world. I was in a competitive situation with one of the best brand strategy firms and one of the big three business strategy firms. I hit it off with the general manager of the business and started telling stories of the greatest successes that my past clients had. One of the stories really resonated and I used that case study to describe the precise growth strategy the general manager needed to take. I figured we would lose since I had already given away what I was supposed to be ‘selling’.
We won. The client said, “I knew you were the right partner for us. You didn’t sell us an approach; you generously gave us your best answer with what you knew at the time. If we give you more information, your answer will be even better.” I decided that if my job as a partner was to try to give my best answer with the best information I have at the time, I would actually enjoy that role.
Give Free Samples
I recommend finding a way to create a ‘Costco sample’ version of your product or service. Costco knows free food samples are appreciated and relatively cheap. And when people taste them, more often than not they will come back for more.
What I like about the free sample approach is it conveys confidence to people who don’t know me that well yet. They don’t know whether I can help them grow their business or not. The free sample says: Hey, there’s a lot more where that came from. If you like it, then come back to me for more. I have an abundance of creative good ideas about how to solve your problems, and I don’t have a problem with giving you free samples right now.
They know I’m not going to solve a really big problem and provide all of the proof they need to embrace and implement it. But the free sample shows my expertise and how I am able to apply it to their company and to their industry. It gives them confidence that I will solve their problem.
Reframe the Situation
The free sample might give them industry comparisons. For example, your situation sounds very similar to one that Netflix or Target had. The comparisons might seem random at first, but I show them how the comparison actually sheds light on their problem and helps them look at it in a very different way.
Once they see how you’ve reframed the issue as a new question or from a different perspective, then it deepens the relationship and encourages them to keep talking to me.
What I’ve learned over the years is that if you create an interesting conversation and your new prospect gets something from it, then they ask for more of those free Costco samples. They ask for another meeting.
From Sampler to Stalwart
Eventually, as is true in many relationships of substance, eventually the person will say to themselves: You know what, this is kind of ridiculous. I keep getting these free Costco samples at 11:45 every day. It doesn’t feel good. And they start to think: You know what? Enough of this free stuff. Let’s set up a partnership and let’s honest to goodness figure this out the right way. So, the customer often becomes the initiator. They are the one asking for a proposal. It is like they are thinking: Just tell me what it’s going to cost and how we’re going do it.
The free samples eventually create the situation where they are pulling you in versus you pushing your way in.
When I described the free sample approach during a Brian Burns podcast, he was excited and confirmed how this approach worked extremely well for him too. He described how he would sell million-dollar pieces of hardware by showing up so often that people in the company would eventually ask: Hey, did we already buy this?
2. Avoid Binary Situations…Offer High ROI Choices
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is to not to prematurely stunt a relationship with a binary, yes or no decision. If the customer says yes, great. But far too often the answer is either no, or more likely maybe or I’m not sure. For most people, it is emotionally taxing to say no, maybe or I’m not sure, so they avoid it. And you never hear back and you strain or lose the relationship, which is the worst outcome.
This is where you should strive to create a good, better, best version of what you offer. All of which should be high ROI. What I always tell clients is there are several ways we can work together. All of the options are high return. Option 1 is my ‘Costco sample’, which is a free conversation or one-page white paper. I’m always happy to offer an educated opinion. It has some value, though it is fact-free. But since it is also free of charge, the ROI is very high.
The other options escalate in value and price. But the important thing is the client gets to say yes in each scenario, which is emotionally far more satisfying than saying no. And the relationship builds trust over time. Clients or customers will always return your email or phone call because they know they won’t be sold to and they always come away with something valuable for free.
3. Take Creative Risks…Like Discounting
Creativity plays a very important role in selling. If your free sample lacks creativity, it is less likely to stimulate enthusiasm and an in-person meeting with the reader. And when you are there in that first meeting, you have maybe 15 minutes or less to establish a level of chemistry with the key person. This takes risk, and it’s a lot more of an emotional risk than an intellectual one.
The creativity occurs on multiple levels. First, you need to connect with their problem. This is a dance because oftentimes the problem that they present is actually not the problem that you need to solve for them. Sometimes they are not aware there is a deeper root cause to the problem, and other times they are but are not going to be that revealing at the start of the relationship.
One way to connect with the problem and all of its potential complexity is through analogies and war stories. The opportunity is to creatively draw parallels to their situation. It stretches them to think more broadly and reveal more about their situation, and it challenges your creativity to make horizontal connections between situations that you know well to their situation that you are trying to learn more about.
In these creative conversations, I avoid implying I am more expert than they are. I think this shuts down the creative exchange. Instead, the theme I prefer is a creative exchange of ideas and using parallel examples as a vehicle for teasing out the real problem and the real opportunity.
Now here is the thing. I think a lot of salespeople shy away from these creative, risky conversations. They prefer swinging for singles rather than home runs. Yes, if you miss the bleachers it feels bad because you’re not supposed to miss. And if you hit a single, at least you are on base.
Get Comfortable with Failure
So, there needs to be a mind shift. You have to be comfortable with failure. At some point in a sales career either you finally get comfortable with swinging for the stands, or you don’t. If you don’t make the shift, then you really should not be selling to executives of large corporations. They don’t want to spend money on singles. They can hit singles on their own. What they are looking for are home runs. And, without creative risk-taking as a salesperson, you won’t hit many home runs.
One of the creative risks to take is discounting! Now this is often a surprise. The myth is that good salespeople do not need to give discounts. The reality, however, is that discounts are a reality. Big corporations have tons of leverage because everybody wants to work with them. They not only can they afford to pick the best, they expect discounts, even from their best providers.
If you know this going in, then you can prepare for it. On the one hand, you can know what you can discount and by how much. On the other, you can ask for a “strategic quid pro quo.” For example, in exchange for the discount, ask for an introduction to another business unit or a fellow executive at another company. It could be a reference or an endorsement on a book cover. There are many possibilities. The benefit of a strategic quid pro quo is that the discount as memorialized as something you gave them, and something they gave you in return. These are building blocks not only for a deeper relationship going forward, but you build your pipeline for the future.
4. Be Picky with Your Pipeline…Only People You Like
What I learned from one of my mentors was to keep a healthy pipeline. In consulting, we used the 2/4/8 standard, or two live projects, four active proposals, and eight strategic conversations. Every business has its own measures of a healthy pipeline. When we were electing new partners or managing junior partners, I always focused on the health of the pipeline versus what they current results. Everyone in a good year believes they are a genius and those with a bad year think they are a failure. Both perceptions ignore the role of serendipity and contextual elements that are out of your control. But a healthy pipeline is always reliable.
Middle of Pipeline
The trick is that most salespeople focus on the “four active proposals” or middle part of the pipeline. We all know this can be gamed and can be at best unreliable and at worst highly damaging to any forecasting effort. The book ends of the pipeline are far more important. The two live projects are critical because the best way to generate new sales is to ensure your current customers get huge results from what you provide them. Any good salesperson is going to be good because of repeat customers.
Top of Pipeline
Similarly, the eight strategic conversations or top of the funnel is also overlooked and seemingly daunting. Many junior partners would say, “How can I find eight C-suite executives to build a relationship with?” I would always remind them that the goal isn’t to build a proposal or sell. That’s the worst thing to focus on. The goal is to have fun, stimulating conversations about either their business, your business or someone else’s business. When you have a fun conversation with someone, it’s natural to want to have another conversation like that. And eventually, when the stars align and your friend has a need, budget and the time is right (all things out of your control anyway), then you’ll be perfectly positioned.
This leads to another important and likely controversial piece of advice. Only fill your eight strategic conversations with people you like. It has to be someone you’d be glad to grab a drink with after work even if they never bought anything from you ever again. If not, it won’t be fun or worse, it will be inauthentic. Focus on people you like. Help them out, which will be easy. And more often than not—and often because of your help—they rise to positions of power and will find themselves in situations where they can help you too.
5. Be a Superhero…With a Clear Origin Story
Ultimately, to be effective long term you need to be ‘the best in the world’ at something in your industry. You don’t have to be great at everything, but you need to pick a lane and become famous for it. Said differently, you need to be a superhero with clear superpowers.
You don’t literally have to be the only person in the world who can do what you do, but you must invest in your craft so that there is no clear and easy alternative to you.
Clear Personal Brand
Perhaps the most effective way I have found to help the power base find you is to have a clear brand and a distinct reason for being in the marketplace. In fact, your individual brand is more important than the brand of the company you work for. When I reached out to someone I didn’t know in a cold situation, I could do it credibly and in a way that would warrant special attention—even a premium—in the marketplace because of my strong personal brand.
Thought leadership was the path I chose to build a clear brand, specifically by writing digital articles and blogs for Harvard Business Review (HBR). I’ve written dozens of these articles, which then became two placements in the HBR magazine. Then HBR published a book I wrote a book called Superconsumers. There are many ways to build a personal brand, and people increasingly do it through social media. All of these approaches are about helping the power base find you.
Human to Human
But in the end, achieving success in selling to executives is highly interpersonal. They need to know who you are. I call it an origin story to emphasize the need to convey depth of character. The story needs to say who you are, what you care about, and what motivates you.
In consulting, I like to say there are mercenaries and there are missionaries. Some work like they have budgets and targets and blah blah blah. Others are very smart and can be very helpful. But at the end of the day, it’s all about them.
And then there are those for whom it’s either all about the client or an idea they are highly jazzed about. They convey a sense of: “If we could do this together it would be so cool.” This is a very different mindset. It’s not all about the consultant; their motivation goes far beyond the economic benefit of the deal. They live for things well beyond their own self-interest and ego.
So, my advice is to look deeply inside and identify those beliefs and values that speak to “a higher good.” Then take those things and make your origin story. The risk here is that it is either shallow or rings hollow. It has to be deeply true for you, which makes you vulnerable, but also very human. This level of vulnerability is what makes the origin story compelling for others. It needs to be 100% true and explain why you do what you do, where you are headed, and what you are trying to add to the world.