10 ways to tailor your ABM strategy for the c-suite
To engage the c-suite in a meaningful way, you need to have a strategy that sets you apart from the average marketer. James Harris explains why ABM is the answer
The ROI of a well-executed ABM (account-based marketing) strategy is nearly impossible to dispute.
Indeed, a recent survey by ITSMA revealed 84% of businesses say ABM delivers higher ROI than any other type of marketing. Furthermore, when an ABM strategy employs a successful c-suite engagement programme, the impact on deal size and closing time is pretty impressive – and measurable too.
But, the challenge of engaging this elusive audience is lore in the B2B marketing world. The c-suite spends less than 2% of their time with vendors. This equates to less than one hour each week. So, if you’re going to engage them in a meaningful way, you need to have a strategy that positions you as a confidant, not a vendor.
In this post, you’ll learn best practices for engaging with c-suite stakeholders, proving yourself valuable to these time-poor executives and positioning yourself as a trusted advisor, instead of a vendor.
1. Sell in reverse order
Many marketers attempt to sell to the c-suite in the same way they sell to managers: they start by explaining what they do and outlining the benefits of their offerings. Next, they’ll use specific case studies to demonstrate the value of their solution. Then, only after qualifying the lead, will they begin to build the trust necessary to close the deal.
Top-performing sales and marketing teams engage in the exact opposite way.
They start with trust. Showing they understand, empathise with and – critically – can offer something insightful on their challenge. Note that 'insightful' does not equal 'sales pitch'. An interesting stat from a reputable source, a trend they’re seeing in the industry, an anecdotal account of similar companies that are tackling this issue well. Top performers only discuss product benefits after they win trust and prove themselves to be valuable and knowledgeable confidants.
The c-suite is more inclined to do business with people they already trust. The question is: how do you rapidly build trust with the c-suite?
2. Be trustworthy in your storytelling
The power of storytelling is a critical component in any marketer’s handbook – and it’s no less effective on the c-suite. However, just as selling to the c-suite requires a trust-first approach, so too does messaging.
Most marketers start their messaging with a pitch, explaining what they do, then swiftly moving on to benefits. The problem is the c-suite doesn’t care about the details of your product or service. They care about solving the issues most pressing to them and the impact it will have at board level.
So, how do you identify their most painful challenges? And, how do you link that back to your value proposition?
One messaging strategy we’ve used with success is SCQA:
The situation: First, you need to prove you understand their environment and empathise with their challenges. This should be a statement you know the reader will agree with.
“Enterprises have awakened to the reality that their customer intelligence (CI) data represents a largely untapped gold mine. If you’re failing to capitalise on data, you’re basically driving with your eyes shut.”
The complication: After setting up the situation, it’s time to bring something new to the conversation. The complication should reference an event, controversial finding (from a reputable source), or trend that’s creating tension in the story.
“Although CI has the potential to drive monumental innovations in customer experience (CX), mismanaged data can lead to inaccurate insights and serious ramifications. Indeed, poor quality customer intelligence cost the US $3.1 trillion in 2016 alone (Harvard Business Review).”
The question: If you’ve set-up your situation and complication statements correctly, the question should almost be at the tip of your reader's mind.
“With an intoxicating abundance of information about your customers available, how can you ensure you’re correctly interpreting key insights?”
The answer: Here, you should provide an answer to the questions posed in the previous section – this section is where your call-to-action belongs.
“One way to get around this is by using advanced analytics software to analyse key customer intelligence data in real time. This solution allows you to increase visibility of key metrics, enabling early detection of new insights and increasing accuracy.”
The trick with this framework is to find the question that connects your value proposition to a challenge your c-suite audience is facing. Start with the answer, then work your way backwards.
3. Approach from a place of neutrality
All readers with any amount of scepticism understand branded content has an agenda. Therefore, any content produced by a vendor inherently lacks full credibility – even when packaged as legitimate research.
To become a trusted source of unbiased information, you must position yourself away from vendor-status. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create a separate brand for thought leadership activities.
Creating LinkedIn Groups, hosting unbranded events, or hosting events under your thought leadership brand are all good ways to begin building your c-suite community and developing authority.
Partnering with trusted institutions, such as universities or consultancies, to create bespoke research is another example.
4. CEOs like LinkedIn just as much as marketers do
LinkedIn has rightly earned its place as the precision instrument of choice for B2B marketing. But as with every other social media platform, no one likes being sold to. The key here is shifting your approach from seller to someone who genuinely wants to be helpful and valuable to your audience.
Here are three quick tactics you can use to reach the c-suite on LinkedIn:
- Join relevant groups for content distribution opportunities: The key here is not to dive-bomb your content (aka: 'the post and run' technique). The most active, valuable groups tend to have a hierarchical view toward content sharing. Figure out who the key players are within the group and interact with their content before sharing your own.
- Satisfy the 'Rule of 7': LinkedIn is a great platform for developing goodwill. Start by connecting with or following all c-level stakeholders from your tier one ABM lists. Share their content, leave insightful comments on their articles and engage them regularly on the topics they share most.
- Use inMails in a non-spammy way: Use the aforementioned SCQA methodology to send hyper-targeted messages. The novelty of receiving a valuable, interesting InMail alone should be enough to get your reader to the bottom of the first paragraph.
These are a few quick steps you can take with little prep. For longer-term social gain, you need to develop a holistic approach to LinkedIn marketing.
5. Catch them in the evenings
LinkedIn messages, Twitter engagements and well-timed emails can all be great catalysts, but you can’t build strong relationships with the c-suite through digital channels alone.
Ultimately, you must understand how senior leaders assign value. The faster you can get to a meaningful, face-to-face conversation, the quicker you’ll be able to understand the exact challenges they’re facing.
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Remember, engagement doesn’t have to happen in the executive suite. Non-work environments at the close of the business day tend to be the most successful. A breakfast meeting or mid-day coffee can work, but be aware, executives are often still in a tactical, workday mindset during these times.
Arranging an exclusive evening networking event or an intimate invite-only dinner ensures you’ll catch executives in a more strategic and forward-looking mindset.
6. Use a single contact point
Orchestrating the perfect marketing-to-sales handoff has emerged as a key challenge within ABM. Given the high level of sales and marketing alignment required for a successful ABM approach, this isn’t particularly surprising.
A recent study by Aberdeen group found 74% of best-in-class organisations have “complete or strong” marketing & sales alignment. Even so, some of the most experienced and aligned teams misjudge the level of orchestration necessary to successfully hand-over a senior executive.
Think of your own organisation: Do you have one person managing a relationship from start to finish? Or is there one person who makes contact, another who qualifies the individual, a third who makes the pitch, a fourth who closes the deal and so on?
Internally, moving a contact through these touchpoints feels like providing the most specialised service at critical points in the relationship – plus, it’s efficient. But to the c-suite, this feels transactional and it lacks authenticity. Over time, the relationship you’ve worked so hard to build will erode, eventually landing you in their ignore box. And, given the c-suite spends less than 2% of their time with the vendors, nailing the hand-over is critical to success.
7. Tier your accounts, but don’t forget the value of a tier three CEO
Sorting target accounts into tiers is an essential stage for scaling your ABM strategy. Most marketers prioritise companies based on characteristics such as opportunity size, brand recognition and potential to convert. While this is undeniably an essential step, it’s important not to forget the value of c-suite stakeholders further down your priority list.
Your top tier accounts are always going to be worth greater investment – hyper-personalised campaigns, exclusive events, high-value direct mail. But the c-level leaders from your tier two and tier three lists can unlock extensive value for you. Catch one of them and you could find that you bypass every other stakeholder in that account’s ecosystem, drastically reducing the length of your sales cycle.
8. Buyer personas will only get you halfway
Buyer personas are excellent tools for researching and empathising with your audience at a high level. Indeed, mass email campaigns and inbound marketing strategies have relied on them for nearly a decade. But when it comes to c-suite engagement for your top tier accounts, relying on a buyer persona is a bit like trying to use a compass to land a plane.
For these accounts, you need to understand the exact interests and characteristics of every stakeholder in your buying eco-system.
- Are you following them on Twitter? LinkedIn? Instagram?
- What are they sharing? What are they saying and engaging with?
- If they’re not on social media, how can you find out where they spend their time? What do they read? What do they enjoy? What communities are they part of?
Account intelligence used to be passed on by word of mouth, but now it’s easily and discreetly accessible via social media. Great tools exist to help manage and track this information, but if you’re looking for a quick start, it’s pretty hard to beat LinkedIn’s Sales Navigator.
No matter which tool you choose, ensure you’re tracking all target c-level stakeholders to inform your marketing efforts and identify opportunities for engagement.
9. Don’t be afraid to test ABM tactics on your tier one, but limit the risk
In a data-driven economy, piloting new ABM tactics – particularly in a costly area like c-suite engagement – is generally the first step. But, what’s the best strategy for mitigating risk while also getting a clear picture of success?
One strategy is to pilot new tactics on narrow verticals within lower tier accounts before implementing with tier one accounts. However, given the high costs often associated with ABM, testing on insignificant accounts can take a bite out of your budget.
While it may feel intimidating, testing on tier one accounts can provide better ROI and reveal more accurate insights on ABM performance. If you choose to test on tier one accounts, there are a few ways to mitigate risk:
- Define what success will look like from a sales and marketing perspective.
- Monitor more than just your defined success metrics and be open to unexpected correlations between actions and revenue.
- If you have a long sales cycle, be prepared for the results of your trials to take longer to become visible.
- You don’t need buy-in from the entire sales team, but you will need an ally who’s aligned with your strategy and bought-in to c-suite ABM.
- Send your top-performing salespeople in from the start.
10. Consider measuring c-suite ROI anecdotally
Digital conversions, known contacts, account-level engagements and revenue are all valuable ABM success metrics. But c-suite engagement doesn’t neatly fit into these categories. While some initial c-suite engagement is digitally measurable, such as click-throughs and website visits, most high-value engagements happen offline.
Logging face-to-face interactions against your engagement targets is a good first step, but it can be fortified by anecdotes. For example, during a recent dinner we organised for a global data analytics client, the COO of one of their key financial services accounts reported the following to our client:
“I believe [company] is the best analytics provider for our organisation, but every time I have an issue, you’re sending me a fresh salesperson, who doesn’t know me, doesn’t know my account and doesn’t know our strategy. My finance director is on my back because your solution is the most expensive and I can’t even get my actual account manager out to advise me on this.”
This was reported back to the account manager who had no idea the COO was under this sort of pressure. First thing that Monday, he was in the COO's office saving this account.
As a marketer, you understand the power of storytelling. But, simultaneously, anecdotal evidence isn’t particularly comfortable in the era of data-driven decision-making. Here are two tactics that can make this more replicable and strip out some of the ambiguity:
- Ensure anecdotes are recorded in your CRM system to allow for further analysis and to spot key patterns.
- If possible, tag everyone involved in a particular piece of anecdotal evidence. This will help you draw links between relationships and engagements happening over longer periods of time.
The ability to rapidly build relationships is vital to ABM success at any level. But, when you master the skill of accessing and influencing c-suite stakeholders, you move your ABM programme into the fast lane. Average deal size begins to grow as closing time shrinks.
Most marketers continue to use the 'ladder' approach when entering new organisations – starting at manager-level and working their way upward. But, by reversing this approach and entering key accounts from the top-down, top performers are able to infiltrate and win accounts significantly faster, and more efficiently.
The purveying themes for successful c-suite engagement are value and trust. Critically, these components must both be present in order to ensure a favourable relationship. For example:
- If you have trust but no value, you’ll be a very good friend, but not an advisor.
- If you’re viewed as valuable, but untrustworthy, you’ll be passed up in favour of your competitors.
- If you have neither trust nor value, you’ll be avoided, landing yourself in the ignore basket.
Understanding how this group assigns value, how they build trust and how they prefer to be approached is vital for ensuring you land securely in the trusted advisor quadrant.
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