Re-Thinking the C-Suite Sales Strategy

Selling to the C-suite or other senior executives is the holy grail of many B2B vendor’s sales and marketing strategies. Vendors believe a senior executive is in the best position to recognize the business value of their solution. We believe selling to the c-suite is not the right strategy for many vendors, based on recent research on decision-making, our conversations with executives and some practical realities. If you plan on moving your sales & marketing upstream, consider how the following trends impact your sales & marketing decisions and strategies.

When we interview executives about their buying processes, they almost always emphasize the important role their team plays in identifying and selecting the products and services the organization uses. Executives see their role as managing the business at a strategic level – they set the direction and rely on their team to execute on those plans through a mix of internal and external resources. Most executives acknowledge that they lack the hands-on knowledge to formally evaluate how a product or service will improve existing processes or help accomplish their vision. Executive managers rely on their teams to identify and vet new ideas and vendors before they become involved in the decision process. As a result, support from a team member provides a far more credible voice than any vendor can have by trying to by-pass the team and going straight to executive management.

Although exceptions exist, in most organizations the senior executives build a team of reports that they trust and communicate with regularly. Although the two groups may have different focuses (strategic vs. operational) in most organizations they generally share an understanding of organizational needs, priorities and opportunities. Only in dysfunctional organizations are their opinions and perceptions radically different. Some vendors worry that middle management doesn’t really understand their own business or how the vendor’s product or service could help them. A way to put this in perspective (assuming you are product marketing manager, product director, director of marketing, director of operations, etc.) is to ask yourself if you have a radically different understanding of your businesses’ goals, challenges, and priorities than your boss and are blind to new opportunities? The answer is probably “no”.

Even when vendors manage to get face time with senior executives, the decision process isn’t a top-down decree. Recent studies indicate that 4-5 people are involved in a typical B2B decision, up from the 2-3 a decade ago. The numbers go higher as the size and significance of the purchase increases. The buying process has also become more collaborative and consensus driven. We expect this style of decision-making to be more prevalent as the management philosophies of Silicon Valley continue to influence businesses in a variety of sectors. As a result, top-down decisions will continue to shrink in most organizations. There are, of course, cases when the C-suite brings in operational products and services without the involvement of their team. But in most of these the executive is proactively looking for something specific, not responding to unsolicited vendor pitches.

And at the most basic level, senior executives are busy people focused on the big picture. Therefore, relatively few discrete products and services are worth their attention. They set the direction for organization, and rarely dictate the solutions to use to accomplish operational tasks. Most products and services help organizations accomplish tasks and processes they’ve already identified as important – few change the strategic direction of the organization. Beyond that, many solutions fall into the category of minutia for executives at large organizations – a product that makes or saves $1 million may not be significant enough to warrant the attention of executives.

None of these factors would matter if vendors had unlimited time and resources. However, most need to devote a limited number of sales people and marketing dollars to areas where they will provide the most return. So how can you tell if it is worth targeting the executive suite? Start by asking a few broad questions (and answering them honestly):

  • Related to your product/service who is likely to know the details of what systems and process are in place and where they are falling short?
  • Who will have the most accurate understanding of how your product/service is an improvement over what they are doing today?
  • How large are the improvements/benefits your product/service brings relative to the organization’s other initiatives and priorities?
  • Based on your pitch, who is the most likely to take your sales call, visit your booth at the trade show, or notice your ad?

In addition to answering these questions it can be useful to map the customer journey from an organizational standpoint, rather than an individual’s perspective: How do prospect organizations become aware of products/services/vendors? Who goes through the discovery process?

It might be that after a systematic review you find it makes sense for your organization to spend the time and effort trying to reach the C-suite. But it could also be that someone in middle management not only gets you in the door, but also is your most effective champion.