In episode 13 of the C-Suite Marketing Podcast, I talk to my colleague Julie Schwartz, Senior Vice President, Research and Thought Leadership at ITSMA, to get the long view on “How Executives Engage,” based on the 20+ years of research that she’s led for the firm. (Check out our latest report in the series, Seizing the Executive Engagement Opportunity.)
It was a fascinating trip down memory lane as we tried to put the dramatic changes of 2020 into a larger historical context.
We’ve seen significant disruption over the past year, of course, as C-suite marketing pivoted almost entirely to digital, and the executives we’re trying to reach scrambled to catch up with the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic.
As important, though, a number of things haven’t changed, such as the constant challenge of ensuring relevance based on insight into the particular executives and accounts that we’re trying to engage.
Another constant has been the longstanding effort to become a “trusted advisor” to clients and prospects. Considering years of research into the issue as well as the most recent data from 2020, Julie outlined three keys for marketers focused on building and supporting more strategic and trusted relationships:
- Relevant thought leadership. Providing compelling, credible, and useful visions of the future and how to get there has always been the first pillar of executive engagement. Through the course of 2020, though, executives have looked with even more interest toward practical and actionable ideas from solution providers about how best to move through the pandemic. It’s a great opportunity, but ensuring relevance to the specific executives you’re trying to engage remains essential.
- Value-focused sales enablement. Sales can and should play a central role in developing and sustaining trusted C-suite relationships, but giving sales pitches at every meeting is the surest way to undermine the opportunity. Thus, the second pillar of effective executive relationship development is having marketers equip and support sales with insight, thought leadership, and the tools to use both so sales can add value with every act of executive engagement.
- Collaborative innovation. Senior executives pay little attention to small and routine purchase decisions. Their main focus with solution providers is exploring strategic opportunities to invest for competitive advantage. And they want to do this by innovating collaboratively with their service providers and trusted advisors. For marketers, this means investing even more in the kinds of executive-level innovation programs that have already begun to take hold across leading-edge B2B firms over the past several years.
Even with a strong focus on all three of these, Julie added, the idea of becoming a trusted advisor to all customers on all solutions is close to a fairy tale. It’s far more realistic to be a trusted advisor for customers in a very small niche, or to have just a handful of clients look to you as an advisor, or to have one business group own the client relationship.
So, if your customer has any issues or opportunities around the solution for which you’re known, they come to you. However, if they have an opportunity for something outside of that they may not even know you can help them. As Julie so eloquently explained: “What part of the elephant are you touching?”
Another consideration is the time and energy it takes to develop a rapport with an executive – often it takes years, especially with a complex sale. To earn trust, you have to build your reputation for consistent service and delivery, time and time again.
Finally, ITSMA research from 2019 shows that executives are reluctant to spread the love across all service providers. Even though they may have relationships with 20 or 25 vendors, they consider just 3 to be a trusted advisor. That means, of course, that not every vendor or solution provider can become a trusted advisor in all cases.