It’s the holy grail of sales: to break through the noise and get noticed by a C-suite audience. And it’s never been harder to do. With so much junk out there, today’s beleaguered execs are tuning out and turning off.
What’s an honest salesperson to do? And how can the marketing department help?
Well, stop publishing junk might be an obvious answer.
But I wanted to dig deeper. And so I turned to four of the busiest C-level executives I know and asked them, “What’s the best way to get your attention?”
The result was a series of fantastic conversations about best practices for selling to executives. We talked about the types of messages they pay attention to, what social media networks they’re on, whether they prefer emails or phone calls, and how to tell if they’re actually the right person to reach.
Here’s what they said.
The #1 way to kill your chances
“For a message to get through to me, it has to be highly relevant and unique,” says Greg Lewis. Greg is CEO of Wave6, a Salesforce.com implementation partner firm. He’s also leading the launch of a new analytics joint venture, Hilo Studios, and when he’s not spending his spare time with his family, he plays bass guitar with a local garage band. In other words, Greg’s a busy guy.
“I get tons of marketing emails every day. And I pay attention to none of it,” he says. “Anything that’s just repeating the same message that everyone else is saying never makes it to me.”
If I learned one thing from my interviews, it was this: busy executives shut out messages that aren’t immediately relevant. Emphasis on immediate.
So if you’re trying to kill your chances, send out some generic, one-size-fits-all content and see what happens.
Don Emery agrees. “I want some sort of meaningfulness fairly quickly.” In addition to running Profit-Link, a business consulting firm, Don is also an Adjunct Professor at Aurora University, active member of the Rotary Club and Exchange Club of Naperville, Illinois, and former board member of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“A lot of people send out white papers and content via e-blast, and I find that most of the time the information is terribly generic and not very useful,” Don explains. “If I were going to engage with something, it would be because it offers some sort of expertise in a topic that I’m interested in—as opposed to something completely generic.”
Hasan Alpan was even more emphatic. “So much of the business information out there is just so generic,” he says. “It’s all just noise, and I don’t do that.” Hasan is Director of Operations for DSN Worldwide, a fast-growing provider of IT, engineering and enterprise solutions to Fortune 500 companies and government organizations.
In short, execs are only interested in content that has something to say.
“I want to read things that help me understand,” says Don. “I want opportunities to look more closely at whatever the issue is.” For example, Don said he’d be interested in content that explains recent changes in government regulation in a client’s industry—even more so if the content highlights the implications of those changes on the types of medium-sized businesses he works with.
Conceptual, 30,000-feet stuff is simply not valuable enough for a busy executive to bother with. Give them the detail they need to understand an issue completely.
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Focus your social media efforts here
None of the execs I spoke with consider themselves social media superstars. And they seem to be fine with that.
“I’m not on social media really,” Hasan says. “Truthfully, I really don’t care about people’s personal lives for business purposes.”
“The only thing I do respond to is LinkedIn,” he adds.
This was echoed across all of my interviews.
“I would say we’re modest social media users,” says Don. “Really though, what we’re doing is LinkedIn.”
From Greg’s perspective, he appreciates LinkedIn’s ability to connect his with peers. “If you were to find a connection to me on LinkedIn, and then reach out to me and mention that connection, you’ll get through to me,” he says.
But be careful about the way you reach out to him.
“Don’t play an angle, and don’t assume you know things about me or what my business needs are. Just open a casual conversation. If you sound intelligent and non-demanding, chance are I’ll give you the courtesy of a response,” he explains.
If you’re trying to reach an executive-level audience, focus your efforts on LinkedIn.
Email sometimes works, if you keep this in mind
One question I personally always struggle with in my own sales efforts is whether it’s best to reach out to busy executives via email or phone.
Surprisingly, the answers I received were mixed.
“Emails are just a nightmare for me,” says Greg. “Take today, for example—I’ve been in meetings all morning, and now it’s only 10:30 am and I have 420 emails in my inbox. And I really do need to read each one. Email is just not the best way to get through to me. I delete many, many marketing emails.”
Instead, Greg prefers a direct phone call. “I’m old fashioned. I answer the phone every time it rings,” he says.
However, Don and Hasan both prefer email.
As Hasan explains, “I often don’t have the time to pick up the phone and have a lengthy conversation with someone. So if I can, I prefer to use email to schedule a time slot for a phone call. I find that works a lot better. Because otherwise, a lot of times we end up playing phone tag.”
From Don’s perspective, email makes it easier to weed through the messages he wants (or needs) to respond to. “I prefer email because I can judge whether I want to open it. Although I almost never open emails during the course of the day, because I just get too jammed. I have a routine where I sort through everything in my inbox in the early morning, to make sure I’m not missing anything that came in overnight.”
Ultimately, though, the success of either a phone call or email comes down to one thing: How relevant is it?
Perhaps the best answer I received was from Don Smith. Don is a manager with a multi-million dollar IT company, CEO and Founder of the Personal Growth Channel, board member for multiple companies, couples and high school group pastor, Toastmasters club coach, and married father of 5 kids.
Like Don Emery, Greg and Hasan, Don Smith’s schedule gets very full, very quickly. And he doesn’t open up that schedule to just anyone.
“Generally speaking, if you want to sell something that isn’t a commodity, you have to network and develop a relationship with the person you’re trying to reach,” he explains. “And even then, they have to want what you are offering.”
Greg made a similar comment as well.
“I get all these emails, but the only ones I respond to is if someone comes to me with a customer. If I see that, I drop everything,” he admits.
Whether you use email or the phone to try to reach a busy executive, make sure you’re giving the person a really, really good reason to respond.
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Of course, sometimes you really do need to call. But be prepared to get their voicemail.
Hasan explains, “Chances are, people who call me are going to have to leave me a voicemail message. But most people don’t leave me detailed messages. I love detailed messages! I have space for up to five minutes on my voicemail. You don’t have to leave a quick, 10-second ‘call me’ message. Tell me exactly what I need to know. Tell me why I need to reach you and what I need to do. That makes it much easier for me to respond back.”
If you have to leave a message, make it detailed enough that it’s easy for the executive to respond.
Top-down or bottom-up? Yes.
My final, burning question had to do with whether we all should really be chasing these big guys in the first place, or whether we’d all be better off winning over the people who report to the executives and let them sway the final decision makers.
The answer is that it depends on whether the executive needs to be deeply involved with the project – or if the executive merely needs to be aware of it.
“Sometimes marketers try to hit too high in the food chain,” says Hasan. “They’re bothering me about something that’s not a top priority for me right now. Typically I just refer those calls down.”
Hasan explains that in his organization, if an employee or manager tells the executive team “I need this,” if the project makes sense and will truly help the company operate better, nine times out of ten they’ll approve it.
Don Emery, however, recognizes that the work his firm does typically requires the input of the CEO—and so that’s where his conversations need to happen, even if the CEO ultimately does refer the conversation down.
Don explains, “It’s not uncommon to have the CEO say to someone in his organization, ‘Call this guy.’ So my focus is to get that CEO interested enough to get other people on his team involved. I know that once I close the CEO, the deal is do-able.”
Whether you’re trying to work your way from the top down or bottom up, understand why that approach is right for you, so you understand how to position your message to drive the action you want.
I know I definitely learned a lot about how to fine tune my own approach. Selling to executives takes savvy and strategy, and the next time I start to pull together an email targeting a C-level executive, I’m going to be a whole lot smarter about it.
But I’d love to hear from you, too: What tips do you have for reaching busy executives? Send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I’ll feature your insight in a future post!