In every business-to-business relationship there is one critical influencer relationship that, managed correctly, can give the selling company a sustained competitive advantage in serving the buying company – the relationship between the companies’ senior executives.
The dance of big companies selling to other big companies can be the ultimate challenge – orchestrating account management resources, technical resources, solution specialists, partners, and more, representing the selling organization; to connect with an economic buyer, a solution buyer, influencers, users, implementers, and more inside of the buying organization. You don’t close million-dollar deals in one or two meetings, let alone at a table for two for lunch.
Big deals take time, rewarding persistence and strategic thinking. Ultimately, big companies can settle into long-term productive relationships with a regular flow of goods and services, but at major decision points value needs to be sold all over again. Incumbent solution providers still need to cost-justify new investment and prove that their solution is superior to the competition’s.
Companies in the big leagues of B2B selling cover this base. Quality solution sellers know that a hard-won sale cleared by a division head or a functional lead can still be questioned by senior management. That’s why top B2B sellers want to work for companies that have a thoughtful, effective approach to helping them engage this essential audience.
When I was board chair for a nonprofit, deep in fundraising efforts targeting our most capable potential donors, a well-heeled member of our development committee quipped, “elephants want to drink with elephants.” His meaning? At a literal level, elephants want the safety of a watering hole where their collective mass is enough to make a predator think twice. The metaphor recognizes that the ones who have “made it” want to rub elbows with others in the same position. Put in a different context, I imagine LeBron James values being called the greatest by another all-star than by the first guy off the bench, let alone a sportswriter.
Here are five things a company can do to build relationships with their customers’ senior executives –
1. Broad Thinking on Relationships and Solutions
Perspective comes first. Top B2B companies drive a mindset through their internal and external messaging that they have a broad mission, to help their customers achieve their mission instead of merely aiding a department achieve its goals. They can articulate the value of their solution through the four broad categories that corporate leaders care about – increasing revenue and/or market share; increasing profitability/decreasing costs; increasing customer satisfaction; and attracting and retaining talent.
Top leadership also makes clear to leaders throughout the organization that they are ready to help, that they consider executive-to-executive connection to be part of their job. They view relationship quality as essential to building long-term value for their brand and with each customer.
2. Executive Sponsorship
One of the first ways this mindset can be put into action is by assigning senior executives to key accounts. The selling company makes clear to key customers that their satisfaction is a priority at the highest levels of their company, and may initiate a number of touches between their execs and those from the customer company –
Scheduled calls, even just once or twice a year
Invitations to connect at industry events
A “check-in” if the selling company exec is traveling through the area where the buying company exec lives and works; or vice-versa
The selling company exec is also in regular contact with the sales team calling on his/her assigned account, actively seeking ways to help reduce friction in the relationship, ensure escalations happen in a thoughtful way, and build the relationship through concentric circles of account coverage.
One key advantage of Executive Sponsor programs is that the only cost is executive time, and what better use of their time is there than ensuring the strength of key customer relationships?
3. Executive Briefings
One of the great experiences of my professional life was running Microsoft’s Executive Briefing Center. My team worked with sales teams from around the globe to schedule visits to our facility on the Microsoft corporate campus, and I had the privilege of visiting other companies’ EBC’s as well.
An executive briefing can fulfill several purposes, depending on where in a sales cycle the customer and the vendor find themselves, from closing a deal to planning an implementation, to simply sharing product roadmaps or even talking about challenges shared by all companies. Some of our most popular sessions during executive briefings included how Microsoft managed its global real estate holdings and how it attracted and retained great employees.
Ultimately, the purpose of an Executive Briefing is to drive a feeling of closeness and connection between a customers’ senior leadership and the vendor brand and its leaders.
4. Segmented Communications
Periodic memos from the vendor CEO to senior leaders at customer companies, small-run booklets, modest personal gifts, occasional web conferences targeted at senior business decision-makers – with each of these a vendor can make their customers’ leadership feel special and seen. Anything that gives an executive in a customer company the idea that the vendor cares about what they care about and provides an opportunity for dialogue (whether they take advantage of it or not), is a win for the vendor company’s reputation.
5. Private Events
Some companies have enough market presence to act as a hub for their customers, bringing executives together from multiple customer companies for C-suite focused events that emphasize thought leadership. These are relationship events, not sales events, and can include expert presentations, panel discussions, customer roundtables, and of course social events. Customer execs should walk away feeling educated, and part of a community of like-minded leaders that they feel reflects well on their companies’ collective decision to work with the sponsoring vendor.
Companies looking to increase their success in commercial B2B selling should think about the best way to get started. Each of these suggestions is a form of communication with an elite audience, and 3C Comms is ready to help bring your ideas to life.
About the Contributor
As founder and principal of 3C, Bryan and his team work with Fortune 100 executives, startup founders, career-climbers, and non-profit leaders to help them find their voice, craft their message, and drive their key audiences to action.