It was late one Tuesday afternoon when my office phone rang. I braced myself for another annoying cold call. It would be the fifth or sixth of the day—I’d lost track. As the Managing Partner of our firm, I’m on the receiving end of a steady stream of calls from people who want to “partner” with us. And by “partner,” they mean writing them a check for whatever they are selling.

“You don’t know me,” the caller started out. Surprisingly honest for a sales call, I thought. Most unsolicited callers try to fake familiarity by using my first name and pretending we are long-lost buddies, eager to catch up.

“I think we may need your help,” he continued.

The caller introduced himself as the Chief Executive Officer of a mid-sized consulting firm, squarely within our target client profile. “I’m not familiar with your firm,” he explained, “But by the time a fourth person sent a copy of your research study to my inbox, I figured we needed to talk.”

At that point, I realized I was likely talking to our next new client.

And talk we did. He explained their current dilemma and how our study had spoken so directly to their business challenge and how it could be solved. Now he wanted to understand how we might apply that insight to their firm. How long would it take? What would it cost? What would they have to do to support our efforts?

That’s what marketing to C-suite executives looks like today.

How C-suite Buyers Have Changed

Because we specialize in professional services marketing, many of our clients target C-suite executive leaders. We also have an independent research organization that conducts extensive research on professional services buyers and the firms that target them. This knowledge base gives us a unique vantage point to view the evolution of C-suite marketing and sales.

Here are some of the trends we are seeing today:

  1. Key purchase decisions are being made by teams, not individual decision makers. This means that the task is to target the team and those who influence it, rather than an individual C-suite decision maker. Yes, an executive or the leadership team can override a team decision, but in practice most C-suiters are loath to do it. These are the people they rely upon to get things done and to bring them new ideas. These team members are often the most direct and trusted route to influence decisions.
  2. Executives are awash in information but hungry for insight and understanding. Information overload, content clutter—however you label it, executives are pummeled with information every day. What they crave is, “What does this mean for me and my situation? How do I understand this new threat? Is this problem worth my time to solve?”
  3. Don’t waste their time with stupid questions. It’s often said that there are no stupid questions. Wrong. Try asking a C-suite executive what keeps them up at night. A stupid question is one that you should already know the answer to. If you don’t already know what threatens their industry or what their important priorities are, you aren’t doing your homework. You can bet that your competitor who wins the business did theirs. Executive leaders do not want to educate you on the basics of their industry.
  4. The buyer controls the pacing and the process. Today’s C-suite leaders have many options when it comes to solving key challenges. They also have more issues than they have time to address them. This leads to an environment where priorities can shift rapidly, and problems wait in a metaphorical queue until it is their turn to be addressed. If you have ever experienced the hurry up and wait cycle (and who hasn’t?), you know how it disrupts your goals and plans.
  5. Buyers expect transparency and a perfect fit. The internet has trained consumers, including C-suite executive leadership, to assume they can find a solution that is “just right” for their needs. Your firm and your approach should be transparent and easy to evaluate. If not, what are you trying to hide? “You have never worked with someone from my industry? I don’t want to be the one who trains you.” “Have you solved this problem before? I don’t want to be your guinea pig.” Professional services buyers are receiving greater value and relevance in the services they purchase at the same time as loyalty is decreasing. A good relationship is nice, but superior expertise and deep experience is even better.

The bottom line? You may need to rethink the way you market to C-suite executives. Next, let’s look at some of the most productive strategies to get their attention.

Top Strategies for Marketing to C-suite Executive Leadership

  1. Target the team and not just the decision maker. Today’s executives operate in an ecosystem where important new insights and options can come from many directions. After the call I described at the beginning of this post, we looked at our CRM system and learned that multiple people in their organization had been following our firm. We could tell from their job titles that they came from all corners of the firm. Apparently, our content—and the research behind it—was resonating with a broad range of roles in the organization. You never know who will be an influencer or make a referral. In this case, several members of the team found our research, judged it to be helpful, and passed it along to the decision maker. The most direct route to the C-suite is often through their subordinates.
  2. Offer insights and understanding, not a sales pitch. “Useful” is the watchword. Providing original research that illuminates important issues or explanations that simplify complex topics are both good ways to get noticed and recommended to decision makers. This strategy makes your expertise both tangible and relevant to your potential buyers. You are demonstrating how you can provide value by providing. Self-serving sales copy simply will not make the “pass-along-to-the-boss” cut.
  3. Choose your issues and topics carefully. Your issues are the broad, reoccurring problem areas that you focus on. Topics are the component parts of issues. “Internet security” and “workforce diversity” are examples of issues. They are big subjects that you might be able to address in a book, but too vast to cover in a typical piece of content. Topics are narrow slices of an issue: for instance, you could write or speak about the underlying sources of the problem, possible strategies for solving it or how the larger issue is likely to evolve in the future. Your issues should be acutely relevant to C-suite executive leaders: challenges that they will need to deal with at some point. And they should be relevant to you, too: problems your firm is equipped to address. To ensure you are always top of mind, choose topics that cover key considerations at each stage of the buyer’s journey.
  4. Start early and stay strong. Many issues that C-suite executives are dealing with have multiple potential solutions, one of which is to ignore them. That’s why it is so effective to be visible to the buyer early in their journey. You can shape their perceptions and demonstrate how your approach has lasting value. But it doesn’t stop there. You need to be visible and relevant at each stage of a process that can start and stop and go on over an extended period of time. A well-conceived content strategy can keep you on your buyers’ minds at every touchpoint.
  5. Digital dominates. Yes, traditional face-to-face contact is still helpful and can be effective—even essential—in some situations. But make no mistake, digital dominates the buyer’s journey. In our latest study of B2B professional services buyers, we found that about 70% of pre-purchase research and vendor evaluation was done on digital platforms: online search, blogs, webinars, podcasts and social media are some of the most common ones. Articles, research reports and executive guides are freely shared among buyers’ teams. They comb through potential vendors’ websites and google their key players. If you want “to be where your prospects are looking” then digital must be a big part of your strategy to get in front of today’s time-starved executive suite.

A Final Thought 

Did the firm I described in the opening become a client? You bet—and they were easy to close. We hadn’t targeted that specific firm. We hadn’t cunningly snuck past their gatekeepers. All we had done was research the right issue and create a helpful piece of content that was visible in the right digital channel.

And you can do that, too.

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Additional Resources

  • Keep pace with the marketplace, generate leads and build your reputation all at once: download our free Marketing Planning Guide.
  • To understand how your buyers think and why they choose one professional services firm over another, check out our extensive buyer’s study, Inside the Buyer’s Brain, Fourth Edition
  • Check out Hinge University to gain the practical advice and skills you need to start marketing your firm the high-growth way.