Why You Can’t Sell to the C-Suite

(Reading Time: 3 minutes)

I’ve recently completed my tenure as Vice-President of Marketing for one of the largest confectioners in the US. Like most executives, I was the target of a huge number of sales calls, most of them cold.

And if my experience was representative, then the modern sales industry is in trouble. Even as they tried to sell the C-Suite, I observed disturbingly low levels of forethought, professionalism and effectiveness.

If you’re a sales professional trying to reach the CMO – or any other executive – here are the things that are working against you:

There are too many of you.

One month, out of frustration and morbid curiosity, I tracked the number of unsolicited sales contacts I received. The average was 25 per week. That’s one about every 90 minutes, or over a thousand per year. I’ve heard similar numbers from other executives.

Responding to every such contact would make us enormously ineffective at our jobs. So our default response is none at all.

Your pitch does not differentiate or motivate.

Most openers sounded nearly identical: “I’m Joe Dokes with ABC Digital Media… we specialize in (insert three buzzwords)… we really think our approach is different, though I’m struggling to articulate that in this voicemail…” Would you return that message?

“Can I just get 30 minutes of your time?” No, I’m already working 12-hour days; I don’t have half-hours to toss around like throw pillows.

“Can you put me in touch with the person responsible for these decisions?” Not unless you’ve given me a very good reason to do so; I have to protect my staff’s time too.

Your attention to detail sucks.

Lose the grammatical errors. Spell the name of my company correctly. Don’t identify my competitor’s brands as mine. These are mistakes I saw daily. If this is your attention to detail in your opener, what am I to expect if we work together?

You’re unprofessional.

After I ignored one guy’s first two requests for the contact info of my brand managers, he sent a third email comprised entirely of the following: “Any insight on this????” (The fourth question mark was a classy touch.)

He wasn’t the only stranger to take a tone with me, but doing that simply guarantees that I’ll never reply. And don’t call me “Matt”; nobody does that except Mom and Dad.

I don’t know you, or know of you.

If I haven’t successfully worked with you in the past, and I don’t know anyone who will vouch for you, your chances of getting on my schedule are near zero. And please recognize the difference between a trusted reference and a random shared connection on LinkedIn.

You haven’t done your homework.

Mass-mailings smell like it. If you can’t demonstrate that you know something meaningful about the challenges I’m facing, don’t even bother making contact. 

Your title is wrong.

Sorry, but it’s true. I’m much more likely to take a call from a partner or president than from an account exec, simply because they’re much more likely to understand how I spend my day.

Bottom line: The number of sales folk with a differentiated, compelling approach – in other words, those that were actually able to get through to me, even to have a phone call – was somewhere south of 5%. Your job as a salesperson is to be in that elite group.

In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss what the good ones did. Until then, whether you’re a salesperson or the decision-maker, what are the successful approaches you’ve seen or used?

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2012 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.

6 Replies to “Why You Can’t Sell to the C-Suite”

  1. Phenomenal post, Matt!!!! (Just kidding.) ALL great points. Ultimately, business development in this industry is all about quality over quantity, in my humble opinion. Don’t put 100 clients prospects on your target list, then approach them in a half-assed, generic manner. Focus on 20 or less. Do some homework on them. Get to know their challenges. Really think about if and how you can help them. IF you are sure you can, craft a compelling, client-centric POV. Then go after them in a carefully crafted, compelling manner that clearly addresses the inevitable question: “What’s in it for me?”

  2. Todd, thanks for your comment! A “quality over quantity” approach, and thinking from the perspective of the prospect, are two of the things that definitely separate the successful from the rest of the pack.Readers, Todd has also written what is perhaps the definitive book on a closely-related topic, client leadership. “Tell Your Clients Where To Go!” is a quick, powerful read and can be found on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/sD0B4A

  3. Great post. I appreciate the honesty. I will share this with my company’s sales people. One thing I always found helpful as a marketer was to step back and think like the customer for a moment. It’s not that difficult because we are all consumers ourselves. But, it helps to assess what type of response you can expect to receive before you put anything out there. The same is true of sales. Thinking like your target is an important component of success.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Sean! Very few of the sales contacts that crossed my desk demonstrated that kind of thinking – most had the feel of a business development guy “checking a box” and/or speaking only about his company. Shifting the focus to the recipient forces some very good questions to be asked: Do I have a message worth sending? What is the likely outcome of making this contact? If it’s not positive, how can I improve?

  5. Mr. Fenton, very nice post! From my years of experience on the client side, I’ve tried to “live” by your words, but it’s always great to be reminded. Erring on professionalism, leveraging connections to make introductions (and recommendations on your behalf), and understanding a prospect’s business & challenges are price of entry nowadays. Besides, I too remember getting letters addressed to Mr. Zimmerman (not my name) at Proctor & Gamble…

Comments are closed.