The elusive C-suite sale. Marketers spend large amounts of time and energy digging deep into their demand generation toolkits to access executives and try to get them to buy, only to find themselves facing silence, disinterest or, at best, a pass-off to their team. But for large-scale B2B sales in particular, it’s critical to create a content plan and engagement strategy to break through to this lucrative and powerful buyer.
The executive challenge revisited
First, let’s go back to the premise on why executives are different. (See the discussion in my earlier article, How to Reach the C-Suite with Content).
From our work at Farland Group interviewing hundreds of C-level executives every year, we have extracted the key characteristics that differentiate the C-suite from other professionals. Their focus on outcomes and value, lack of time, and trust in peers and relationships all drive a set of behaviors that require a particular set of strategies and content plan to get their attention.
How executives buy
Let’s take a look at how this context informs your demand generation strategy — in particular, what behaviors you can expect when selling to top executives:
- Delegate and recommend: Executives tend to delegate a large part of the research and investigation of vendors and their capabilities to their teams. They may make recommendations, but often extract themselves from the nitty-gritty discussions and details.
- Loyalty to proven sources of value: At the same time, their focus on value and outcomes makes executives loyal to strategic and proven relationships, which may supersede any newcomers their teams bring to the table for consideration.
- Time spent must be clearly worthwhile and relevant: Executives don’t want to waste time doing new things that don’t add more value than the old ones did. At the same time, they are leery of getting mired in lengthy buying discussions. They only want to be brought into the decision at the most strategic and critical junctures, and only if they see clearly why their involvement is necessary. Executives have little patience for vendors who try to drag them into conversations better suited to their team in the hopes of making a sale more quickly.
- Vendor management not a priority: Executives seek to minimize the time they actually spend managing vendor relationships, which affects their buying behaviors up front. They need to trust they won’t have to spend unnecessary time with oversight. And if they are involved, they must perceive a high level of value-add from their effort.
Given the complexity of the buying structure in many B2B organizations, these C-executive behaviors can be at odds with how the rest of the team makes decisions and interacts with vendors. As such, it requires a nuanced approach to target executives within your broader demand generation program. Here are three key recommendations for designing your content plan:
1. Focus on innovative, collaborative content and education
Content that is data-driven, strategic, co-created with peers, and actionable goes far in reaching this audience.
Consider sharing content and educating through in-person formats to increase the impact of the connection. Katharyn White, Chief Marketing Officer, Global Business Services at IBM, advises, “I find in-person connections like advisory boards, executive forums, and innovation workshops are particularly valuable in collaborating and sharing new ideas with executives on a personal, more customized basis.”
These in-person forums also provide the most effective setting to involve your own executive team in the selling process, as they offer an exceptional opportunity for true peer-sharing and collaboration around ideas — something your executive clients highly value from your own executives.
Content that Resonates with the C-Suite
- Drive credibility with hard facts… and credibility is key: Content based on data makes an impression on executives; peer-based insights and stories add to the credibility of the data collected.
- Provide actionable and timely information on issues that matter: There has to be a “so what” that comes out of the data and it needs to be up to the minute on topics relevant to the executive’s business, role, and current challenges.
- Summarize, summarize, summarize: Executives have short attention spans and need to get to the value quickly. Deliver your ideas with targeted summaries and succinct points, where the bottom-line ideas and actions are easy to extract and consume.
- Channel matters: Content has to be easy to access, wherever the audience is — during a flight when they are on the iPad, after dinner when they peruse printed paper, or while waiting for a meeting when they have two minutes to watch a video.
- Push beyond common wisdom and top-of-mind trends: Executive content needs to present a provocative vision for future possibilities. Executives seek intriguing, surprising, or useful ideas that highlight future opportunities in areas that tie to their greatest business challenges.
- Evolve from technical to strategic: Executives care about how they can solve business problems and enhance revenue and profit. They are not interested in reading about technologies and products — those are only a means to the end and are readily delegated to others to review and purchase.
2. Showcase business value and new ideas — not features and functions
Keeping executives out of the weeds of tactical discussions is not only desirable but necessary to keep them engaged in the sales process. Executives like to be surprised and intrigued, and they often find value in ideas beyond the typical and tactical. As White says, “Executives value those who bring them ideas before they have asked for them. The notion of surprise and delight is key. When you do this well, the executives you are trying to reach will see a broader picture and gain useful thinking beyond the day-to-day.“
3. Know that customer-focused systems matter
Given their short attention spans and a high-threshold need for value, demand-generation programs for executives cannot be ad hoc. They need to be systematic, consistent, and measurable. This is no place for guesswork on which efforts will be successful and what the outcomes will be. This is about integrating technology, people, and processes together for optimal focus on the executive customer.
An increasingly personalized and educated approach to programmed outreach is critical to ensure you are engaging executives in ways they find valuable. White underscored this need, explaining, “Every touch needs to be more personalized, more informed than the previous one. In order to do this well, it needs to be underpinned by the basics of demand generation that we know as marketers, but it needs to appear more customized and personally relevant to this audience.”
Success requires constantly taking the temperature of your strategic executive relationships to make sure they are still solid. While executives are loyal to value, they are quick to move on if the value flags. Ongoing programs to assess this are critical fuel for an executive demand-management program.
The bottom line: Meet executives where they find the most value and relevance, and tailor your demand-generation approach to those needs. Your prospects will thank you for the conversation.
Cover image via Bigstock