'Get to the top': The VAR sales challenge

'Get to the top': The VAR sales challenge

Sell high! So goes a popular sales mantra, repeated so often and forcefully by management consultants that we have come to accept it as a universal fact. The business section of popular bookstores is replete with volumes on "selling to the top" and "pitching to the executive buyer". Selling to senior management became a hot topic some years ago.

As well it should be. Most VARs possess a natural competitive advantage: the critical ability to sell technology-based solutions to senior executive buyers. Building trust and credibility with high-level decision-makers is an essential part of sales success, especially for vendors of technology solutions.

But before you start calling every CEO and CIO in your Rolodex, remember this: selling to high-level executives is as much a matter of timing as it is of ability. And, unfortunately, VARs are at a distinct disadvantage in this regard compared with other types of technology solution providers.

A recent study on how professional salespeople establish trust and credibility with senior executives conducted by OnTarget, in conjunction with the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and Hewlett-Packard, discovered that executive involvement in strategic purchasing decisions varies significantly during the buying cycle. And, depending on when prospective customers invite vendors to compete as potential solution suppliers, making sales calls on senior executives might have disastrous consequences.

In a typical buying cycle for a strategic high-technology-based solution, almost all senior executives are heavily involved in the early stages: understanding the business issues, establishing objectives for the initiative and setting strategy for acquiring the solution.

But the OnTarget study shows that in the middle of the buying cycle almost all senior executive involvement evaporates.

At this point, executives have delegated responsibility to others, usually an evaluation committee, to explore options, set vendor criteria and examine alternatives.

Only after the solution has been selected do most executives reinsert themselves to help implement the solution plan and measure the results of the decision.

Given these findings, can you guess when most buyers issue an RFP to VARs and other potential suppliers? If you guessed the middle of the buying cycle, in the valuation phase, you'd be right. And this is the very time when most high-ranking executives have removed themselves.

According to the research findings, most executives are very reluctant to usurp the authority they have delegated to the evaluation committee.

As a result, they usually see a sales call at this point in the buying cycle as an annoying intrusion.

So, what is a VAR to do? Since meeting the business agenda of senior executives is essential to long-term success, how does a VAR make the connection?

First, on a tactical level, the OnTarget research shows that senior executives will meet with salespeople if they are referred by a trusted member of the internal evaluation committee - an employee whose track record, expertise or experience wields significant influence with that executive.

If a salesperson determines who holds such influence, they have an opportunity to connect with executives with the blessing of key evaluators, establish rapport and develop a trusted advisor relationship, even in the middle of the buying cycle.

Second, at a strategic level, relationships with influential industry analysts, management strategy consultants and key systems integrators can help. For purchases of high-technology-based solutions, those kinds of vendors are typically involved earlier in the buying cycle to help executives establish objectives for the initiative and set a strategy for identifying a solution.

Strategic alliances with such vendors can help VARs to connect with executive buyers earlier, and perhaps pre-empt other potential suppliers from being considered.

In the final analysis, however, the best advice is to leverage past successes to develop and maintain strong relationships with senior executive buyers so that when another opportunity arises, you'll be considered long before the development of the RFP.

You might even get to help write it!

Carol Johnson is managing partner of Ontarget Australia and New Zealand. Reach her at

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