Why You Need to Know How to Sell to the C-Suite

By Sharon Gillenwater

I gave a talk at the Sales 3.0 Conference in May about best practices for selling to the C-suite. As recently as a couple of years ago, I would probably not have been invited to speak on this topic at a sales conference – mostly because C-suite selling has historically been a pretty niche endeavor.

But, wow, has that changed! McKinsey is now talking about how CEOs have become  de facto chief digital officers. Analysts and Fortune 500 CEOs are discussing the need to shift to C-suite selling on earnings calls.

What’s driving this is the reality that digitization is no longer a side project that can be confined to the margins of the business. Digital transformation is no longer something to be piloted by an innovation team or in an innovation lab. It’s just become too important to the survival of the enterprise. And that makes it the mandate of the C-suite team to oversee it and carefully scrutinize major technology purchases.

So, if you believe what these analysts and CXOs are saying, the rationale for C-suite selling clearly exists. But what do you need to succeed – and who is doing a good job…and how?

Getting Buy-in and Support from Your Own Executive Team

At Sales 3.0 I used the example of Salesforce and its CEO Marc Benioff to underline this idea. He’s been preaching the need to sell to CXOs for at least a decade. In his 2009 book, Behind the Cloud, he laid out three basic tenets essential to selling to CXOs:

  • People buy from people
  • Relationships matter
  • Sell business outcomes, not products

How well does this work? Well, back on a February 2016 earnings call, Benioff stated, “This is the absolute best quarter we have ever had…an all-time high in the number of large transactions.” With more than 600 seven-figure-plus transactions, Salesforce was hitting it out of the park. Not only were they closing a lot of new enterprise customers, they were increasing business with existing enterprise customers in a big way.

What was Salesforce doing to be so successful? Well, Benioff stated it very plainly: “Every single [large transaction] was done with the CEO.”

But it took more than just Benioff confabbing with C-suite executives to make these deals. It took a sales engine led by Benioff’s hard-driving lieutenant vice chairman, president, and COO Keith Block, who bought into this vision and made sure the sales force was geared up and accountable. This enterprise sales approach shifted gears to change the focus to business transformation and business outcomes – not transactions.

As Block himself said on that same earnings call, “In the past three weeks I’ve had more conversations with CEOs around transformation than in my entire career – over 30-plus years.”

This kind of discussion, of course, always leads to the topic of scale. And a good question is, how do you scale CXO selling efforts?

Recalibrate Your Definition of “Scale”

Earlier this month at SiriusDecisions 2017, Nick Panayi and Dorothea Gosling of DXC Technology told the story of how they shifted from an ABM focus to what they are now calling “pursuit marketing.”

Using “pursuit marketing” for a handful of large strategic deals, DXC Technology’s  marketing organization assembles and deploys a team of marketers to collaborate with sales to swarm an account with highly targeted content and messaging. Essential to the effort is developing a thorough understanding of the account at the center of the pursuit – and using this insight to engage the customer at all levels of the organization, including the C-suite.

The goal? Increase win rate and shorten deal times for large deals.

As Panayi put it, “We decided to focus where the money is [and] focus in on a market of one.”

One of the most common concerns we hear from our customers is how to scale CXO engagement programs – and ABM in general. What the DXC Technology case study teaches us is that sales and marketing can achieve big, game-changing wins by recalibrating their definition of scale and focusing on a much smaller number of accounts. In their ABM frameworks, Sirius Decisions calls this out specifically as “large account ABM,” a subset of ABM that requires deep insight on executive decision makers and the companies being pursued.

Make Measurement Easy

Sometimes we make things too complicated. A clear takeaway from Sirius Decisions Summit was that, when it comes to large account ABM, measurement is a pretty easy proposition. As Dorothea Gosling of DXC Technology put it, “The ROI of pursuit marketing is indisputable – you either win or you lose.” And, if you consider the Marc Benioff example above, 600 large deals closed in one quarter (all of which included CEO engagement in the mix) is pretty easy to measure – and a pretty compelling outcome.

Summing up CXO Selling

Is CXO selling the new frontier in enterprise sales? Given how integral technology is to the business of an organization, it would be foolish to stick with the same old same old and sell point products into enterprise silos. In 2017, analysts and executives alike are seeing the need to engage the decision makers at the top. And leaders like Benioff, Panayi, and Gosling are showing us how to build a foundation for success.

Sharon Gillenwater is founder of Boardroom Insiders, where she provides expertise in CXO engagement strategy as a value-add. Prior to founding the company, she operated her own consulting firm, San Francisco Group, serving clients such as Cisco Systems, VMware, Sun Microsystems, Adobe Systems, NetApp, Lockheed Martin, and more. Born and raised in San Diego, CA, Sharon earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, San Diego.

About Lisa

Editorial Director at SellingPower.com.
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