Monday, July 16, 2007

Selling at C-Level

I can't possibly be the only marketing person in the universe who wants to tear her hair out when I hear the words "we want to sell at the C-level."

There are certainly products and services that must be sold at C-level. They tend to be high-ticket items. They tend to have enterprise implications. They tend to be strategic in nature.

A lot of companies look at this list and say, "Hey, one out of three ain't bad."

Why is it that the one out of three tends to be high price?

Here's how the thinking goes:

If it costs a lot, we can make it an enterprise license to justify the price, even if there are only three people in the entire enterprise who really want or need the product.

If it costs a lot, it must be strategic. And besides, who wants to own up to the fact that their product or service isn't strategic? It's kind of like admitting that your very own baby isn't all that cute.

And speaking of not-so-cute babies, I've worked with plenty of products that were sold into the C-Level because we were pretty darned sure that the people who would actually have to use the product weren't going to like it very much. Left to their own choice, they would have given the prize to a different baby. They'd have gone with a product that was easier to use (and probably cheaper).

But we-sell-C-level-by-the-sea-shore.

So forget about features. You're talking to the C-level, you're talking bennies, baby. C-levels, we are told, don't care what the product is. How it works. What it actually does-does. They only want to know what it does for them. This means - drum roll, please - that you need to pick and choose from the handy-dandy, evergreen C-List that miraculously applies to all products and services:

  • Save time.
  • Save money.
  • Cut costs.
  • Increase productivity.
  • Make money.
  • Increase the top line.
  • Increase the bottom line.
  • Free your people up to focus on what's important.
  • Improve competitive edge.

(And here's our nifty little ROI-calculator, Mr. or Ms. C-Level. Handcrafted with objectivity and care. No, we haven't rigged the results, but let's just say that we've always been pleasantly surprised by them.)

Now in no way am I going to argue against this list. After all, why would someone invest in B2B/T2T products unless they at least hoped that they were going to get something or other out of it - where that something or other might just be one of the above. (Of course, the dirty little secret is that some products actually don't deliver. Is there anyone out there who really believes that arming their entire sales force with PowerPoint makes them more productive???)

But a lot of companies just throw the C-List out there (no doubt, on a PowerPoint slide) without being able to demonstrate either theoretically or with proven examples how their product actually does any of the above. (I don't think any marketing or sales person should be allowed to cite any of these benefits unless they can draw a straight line - at minimum, a dotted one - from the benefit to the product element(s) that support it. Note that I said straight line, not curly-cue.)

Now, I have had experiences where it made sense to sell at the C-Level. And I have worked with products where we can honestly and truly connect the benefits and features dots (which you need to be able to do at whatever level you're selling into, by the way. It's just that in a lot of cases, if you're selling to actual users, you're generally better off leading with the features. You will need those benefits, however, so that the actual users can sell internally - often to those pesky C-Levels.) 

Here's what can happen if you sell a product or service at the C-Level that doesn't really belong there:

  • You will win some deals. (But it will be hard.)
  • Your product or service will be force fed to the actual users.
  • Your product will be left on the shelf.
  • Word may filter back to the C-Level that the product's not being used. You won't have a C-Level reference.
  • Word may not filter back to the C-Level that the product's not being used. You may have a C-Level reference, but the minute someone wants to talk to the users, you're cooked.

Now, good things can happen, too. The actual users may end up embracing your product and singing hosannas to those brilliant execs who gifted them with it. This could, theoretically, happen.

But why risk this?

Before you start on about how essential it is to sell at the C-Level, make sure you ask yourself why you're doing it. And whether it makes sense for you to sell there. It just might be better business to sell below C-Level.


Glenn Gow said...

Maureen, excellent post.

Selling at the C-level may be the right thing to do, and should only be done (as you say) when it is the right thing to do, otherwise you are wasting your efforts. So how do you determine if it is the right thing to do or not, and if it is, how do you market and sell to them?

1) Understand the role a C-level executive has in the decision-making process. Are they an influencer? The economic buyer? A catalyst? A vetoer?
2) Depending on their role, determine when and how you want to communicate with them, if at all.
3) If their role is defined as a catalyst or influencer, you want to have marketing drive the communications. As the economic buyer, marketing can help, but sales needs to own how that communications happens. As a vetoer, you may want to fly below their radar, unless you …
4) Develop an extremely compelling value proposition for them. Regardless of their role, their influence may be the most significant in the entire sales cycle.
5) Recognize that you may not get a chance to present your case to them, so, enroll all the other decision-influencers in developing the value proposition for you.
6) Most importantly, speak to them (via marketing, or sales, or your internal decision-influencers) in terms of BUSINESS benefits. They don’t care how your product works. They don’t care about how great it is. They don’t care about it’s uniqueness. They care about how it enables them to achieve their BUSINESS goals.*

* Note that even CIOs want to be sold to in BUSINESS terms. We have validated this from many, many discussions with CIOs.

Maureen Rogers said...

Glenn - Thanks for adding your insight to this. It's very helpful. It's also interesting to hear that the CIO wants business info - not nuts and bolts.

In general,it's always good to have the business story down. It's just that too often it becomes the predictable check list with no real proof points or connections to what the product or service actually does.