Selling to Executives: Strategies That Drive Results

A woman using best-practices in selling to executives.

Selling to a company’s executives involves more intricate techniques than selling to mid-level employees, as executives want higher-level benefits than the general consumer.

This article will cover the two categories of buyers as well as a fundamental sales strategy for C-level selling: the Cause/Effect tool.

Two Types of Buyers

Before we look at tools and techniques that will drive results when selling to executives, let’s understand what differentiates a C-level executive from a mid-level employee. 

A mid-level employee has more immediate needs and concerns than C-level executives—their pain points are more tied to the concrete, day-to-day reality of their working life. As a salesperson, they want you to address their needs—they want to know what the effect of your product will be on them and their team.

Conversely, a C-level executive will have higher-level, more abstract motivations. One crucial difference here is that while you will already inherently understand how your product will benefit a mid-level employee, you will need to find out why an executive in the C-suite has a certain motivation.

The Technical vs. Business Case Buyer framework can be helpful to better understand these two groups.

The Technical Case Buyer

Suppose you are trying to sell a company a professional sales training program. When speaking to a Technical/User Buyer, or a non-C-level manager, you will want to address pain points that relate to his or her own experience on the job, or to the experience of those he manages.

For example, if you are selling sales training, this Technical Case Buyer would most likely hold the title of Head of Sales Training, or he or she might be a first-line sales manager. When asked what they want in a sales training effort, they usually respond with:

These are valid goals, but they will differ dramatically from what an executive, or a Business Case Buyer, might consider important.  

Business Case Buyer

The Business Case Buyer would be in senior management: the Chief Financial Officer, Vice President of Sales, or even the CEO. The Business Case Buyer has different top priorities. For example, executives might want to:

Approaching both buyers with the same strategy will clearly not work—their specific priorities are aligned in some senses, but they are framed in radically different ways. So how do you adjust your approach to meet the needs of the executive?

Preparing for C-level Executives Early in the Game

First of all, it is important to be proactive in the sales process to avoid getting to the executive buyer too late. 

That is, the salesperson should recognize the fact that, if successful in making the initial pitch, they will need to develop a strategy for handling the executive or Business Case Buyer in addition to the Technical Case Buyer. 

Don’t wait until you get to the formal proposal in the buying process to start thinking about how you will talk to the senior executives: determine how you will justify your sales pitch early on, and learn how you can adapt your pitch to match both levels of buyer on their own terms. 

The Cause/Effect Tool is an excellent technique for just this purpose.

The Cause/Effect Tool

The Cause/Effect Tool can be of great help when dealing with C-level executives. That’s because the tool represents two kinds of buyers—the Technical Case Buyer and the Business Case Buyer—and it helps the sales person to distinguish between the two.

Within the context of the tool, “Effect” refers to the pain points or basic motivations of the Technical Case Buyer. These are the requirements or needs of the mid-level buyer—in our example above, something like “We need to improve our listening skills.” It’s these effects you should be thinking of when talking to Technical Buyer prospects—so ask Effect questions:

But what about when you are speaking with a C-level executive?

This is where the “Cause” part of the tool comes in: Cause represents the motivation behind the sale. This part of the tool is geared to Business Case Buyers, or our C-level executives. To make an effective sale, you need to find out what is causing the company to spend executive time and money on this issue, or what is driving the action. 

Cause questions include: 

Thus with C-level executives, it is vital for sales people to build rapport with Business Case Buyers and focus of the value of the product or service being sold to the C-suite. Frame your pitch in this way, and you will be sure to find success.


Most companies fail to identify the difference between selling to general customers and selling at the C-level.  

Don’t make the same mistake: when selling to senior executives, be proactive about planning your approach. Ask effect questions to Technical Case Buyers and ask cause questions to find out the motivation of Business Case Buyers. And finally, once you’ve identified the key motivation for an executive, address that motivation in the sales process. 

About the author

Skip Miller is President of M3 Learning, a ProActive Sales Management and Sales Training Company based in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Skip Miller

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