Sales training traditionally encourages B2B sales people to “call high” - in fact, it’s hard to keep track of all the articles and publications focused on selling to the C-level (a simple Google search reveals over 100 million hits).
“Thought leadership” is no less fashionable amongst the B2B marketing community (over 200 million hits). But if you want to engage at the right level, and stay there as opposed to being bumped down the decision-making stack, you need to bear one simple principle in mind at all times: you’ll end up talking to the person you sound like.
Step aside Professor Higgins
I’m not referring here to posh vs. working class or regional accents, although they can clearly sometimes play a part in the communication process. I’m thinking instead about what you choose to communicate, and the words and phrases you use to communicate with.
The problem is particularly profound in technology-based businesses, where there’s an unhealthy habit of communicating in terms of feeds and speeds, bits and bytes, features and functions and price and delivery - compounded by a collection of impenetrable acronyms and gobbledygook.
Focusing on Higher Things
Firstly, your chances of engaging with a C-Level Executive (or any level of senior manager) with this sort of language are vanishingly small. Maybe even worse, if you manage to luck your way into a conversation with them and you base your discussion around these sorts of topics, getting delegated to a functionary in the basement (virtual or otherwise) is maybe the best thing you can hope for. Your chances of getting a return visit to the corner office will have been blown forever.
Senior executives are focused on higher things (maybe that’s why many of them have corner offices on the top floor), and if you seek to engage in a conversation with them, you’ve got to focus on the issues that matter to them. As we’ve already identified, how much faster/cheaper/better your product or service is probably won’t appear anywhere on their “interesting topics” list.
C-level executives are focused on visions and strategies. They are - at least when they initially engage - more likely to be interested in the journey they are taking their organisation on, rather than the fine details of the destination. They are interested in issues and insights, and in learning from the experiences of others who are in or have been through a similar situation to their own.
They want to be educated. They will give you more of their time if they feel that they will learn something valuable in return. But heaven help you if you bore the pants off them by talking about how great your company or your “solutions” are, or wasting their time with other irrelevances.
Don't confuse market leadership with thought leadership
This doesn’t just apply to sales conversations - if you want to establish any sort of meaningful marketing connection at a senior level, you need to apply the same sort of thinking to what you choose to communicate. And please don’t confuse market leadership with thought leadership.
Even if you are the biggest player in your space, using that as the basis for communication can only accelerate the speed with which you’re going to be replaced by a smaller but faster and more relevant competitor. Thought leadership isn’t about you - it’s about the perspectives, the insights and the learning you’ve accumulated that are going to be interesting to your audiences.
So please - watch your language. Choose what you plan to communicate carefully. Make sure that your audience values what they hear from you. Don’t be boring. Earn the right to continue the discussion. Don't tell them something they already know - stimulate them with an unexpected and provocative perspective.
Because if you don’t, you’ll end up talking to the person you sound like. Or never get the conversation started in the first place.