Selling the C-Suite: The “Four Knows”

In a prior post, Why You Can’t Sell the C-Suite, I shared my experience of being a sales target during my recent tenure as a CMO. The quick summary: I received over twenty-five unsolicited contacts per week – over one thousand in a year. Of these, about 98% didn’t work. Today, I want to discuss the approaches that did work.

Selling the C Suite Winning LosingI need to first make clear, in boldface: I am not a sales expert. My intent here is to offer some perspective from “the other side of the desk,” based on my own experience and that of other executives with whom I’ve discussed this topic. I expect that readers will have additional insights to share, and I invite you to do so in a comment below.

Let’s start by reviewing, as we apparently must, the table-stakes: Check your grammar and spelling, especially the spelling of my company’s name and our brand names. Don’t call me “Matt” unless I’ve said it’s okay (and I’ve never said it’s okay, which means I never made it past the second word of many emails). Be professional at all times. These alone won’t win you the sale. But getting them wrong can cost you the sale.

Now to the extra credit, what I might call “The Four Knows”…

Be someone I know, or someone I know of.

When I need help – in other words, when I’m ripe to be sold – I will first ask: With whom have I successfully worked on this kind of problem before? The important point here is that today’s excellent work opens tomorrow’s doors. If the selling process is a mile long, past performance can set you as close as 10 meters to the finish line. If you’re an individual or a firm that continually adds value, I’ll find a way to work with you again.

The next-best case is a specific referral from someone I trust. I’d often take a meeting on this basis alone. Please note the emphasis on the words “specific” and “trust.”

Finally, I’d consider firms that had successfully positioned themselves as leaders in their field. If I believe that you’re among that best at solving challenges like mine, of course I’ll hear what you have to say.

Short of the above, there’s not much reason for an exec to make time in his or her busy schedule for an unknown quantity. (Would you?)

Know my business.

Email blasts and mass mailings are easy to execute, but largely ineffective. That’s because they’re impersonal. By definition, they’re all about you. And if you want the sale, we should really be talking about me.

The best salespeople I know apply this rule: “Select fewer prospects, and go deeper.” The really good ones get to know my business cold before they start selling.

I’m reminded of the time, back in 1994, when I was managing the Airheads candy brand and led its first agency search. In the few weeks prior to the final pitch for the account, one agency – GSD&M, and the account team led by Jenny Buschhorn – was in touch with me a dozen times, asking smart questions every time. During those calls, I became very comfortable with GSD&M’s level of thinking, and the account was theirs to lose before the presentations even began. (They won.)

The more you know about me, the better your pitch will be. So do your homework. Ask sharp questions. Talk less. Listen more. Then and only then, it’s time to start talking about whether you can help me.

Know yourself.

As a CMO, I was often solicited by design firms and ad agencies. The ironic thing: These firms are in the business of differentiating their clients, and yet their own marketing materials are often interchangeable.

By “know yourself,” I mean know your positioning – what you stand for, how you’re different, what’s unique about how you serve. Develop a unique voice and a distinct body of work. If you can’t articulate – right now – what makes your firm meaningfully different, how can you expect a prospect to figure it out?

Know something I don’t know.

If I’m adding a partner to my team, it’s a given that you need to close a gap for me. But this goes beyond just specializing in a field. It means having a real point of view, a distinct approach, a unique insight.

Prior to our first meeting, one design firm studied my category deeply; in that meeting, they presented thoughtful conclusions and whitespace opportunities, which let me know how this firm approached a challenge. Is it a time investment? Sure. Is it more effective than reading me the client list that I already read on your website? Infinitely.

So that’s what worked on me. To reiterate: Execs are short on time, and are exhausted by the volume of unsolicited sales contacts they receive. To break through, it helps to be known; to go deep on the prospect; to truly be different; and to offer real value. Otherwise, you’ll join the 98% in the reject pile.

Readers, what principles, strategies and tactics have you found to be most effective when selling the C-Suite? Please share your thoughts in a comment below.

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 2014 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.