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How to Engage the C-Suite w/ Sharon Gillenwater [Episode 451]

Sharon Gillenwater, Founder of Boardroom Insiders, and CXO engagement strategy expert, joins me on this episode for a conversation about the elusive yet valuable C-suite buyer, and how sales reps can optimize for success.

Key Takeaways

  • Boardroom Insiders provides in-depth executive profiles to large tech vendors, to engage the C-suite on a personal level. Sharon was a consultant, and was asked her how to sell to the C-level. After research, she started the company in 2008.
  • Boardroom Insiders has around 12K executive profiles in their database, which is constantly updated, and available by subscription. They have tracked some of the executives, from company to company, for almost 10 years.
  • LinkedIn and contact databases tell you who to contact. Boardroom Insiders tells you what they want to talk about. If you call an executive with no credibility of your own, you won’t get a second chance.
  • Sharon discusses decision makers outside the C-suite. Sometimes they come to no decision, which is a bigger obstacle than the competition. Teams demand integration between unlike products. C-suites can influence the sale.
  • Sharon says you work with stakeholders, decision makers and the C-Suite. It is not simply a matter of engaging the CEO. Work all the levels.
  • Sharon includes business unit heads in the C-suite category, as they make many of the tech decisions. The perception of what C-suite is has expanded as new titles have proliferated. Sharon discusses new digital expectations.
  • Sharon walks through the enterprise sales process, including automation tools, brand presence, content marketing, and the one-to-one value proposition CEOs expect. Most sales teams save the CEO focus for the largest accounts.
  • The ABM/ABE model needs to be in place at an enterprise for the Boardroom Insiders database to be useful. The data gives the opportunity to personally engage at the highest level, within a very targeted group of accounts.
  • ABE allows you to define plays and develop playbooks. But a generic invitation does not work with the C-suite audience. It takes a personally relevant call from their executive peer.
  • The human touch in selling is making a ‘comeback.’ There are no automated silver bullets.
  • Sharon explores why field marketing controls the data, and feeds it to sales. Sales may not have the budget. It’s often the way SaaS is organized.
  • Sharon would like sales to have better access to the data.

Episode Transcript

Andy Paul  0:00  

Hey friends. Joining me on the show today is Sharon Gillenwater. Sharon is founder of Boardroom Insiders. And she’s a CXO engagement strategy expert. In our conversation today we’re talking about why Sharon believes b2b selling at the enterprise levels harder than it’s ever been before. And she talks about why sales organizations must change just on how they do things, but the very philosophy around sales. So Sharon, welcome to the show. Take a minute. Tell us a little bit about you.


Sharon Gillenwater  1:38  

I am the founder of Boardroom Insiders. And we specialize in providing in-depth executive profiles to enterprise sales teams who are interested in engaging the C suite at their customer companies and we were founded in around 2008. And we work primarily with large Tech vendors like Cisco and HP and Microsoft, CA CSC etc.


Andy Paul  2:08  

So what was the impetus to start the company?


Sharon Gillenwater  2:11  

I come from a consulting background. So I was working directly with a lot of the marketing organizations at these technology companies between 2004 and 2008. And I was consistently seeing a desire to sell higher within the customer organizations. And the question I kept getting asked is, how do we get to the CIO and what do they want to talk about? Who are these people? What do they care about? How can we reach and engage them? 


Andy Paul  2:50  

And I was a co-founder of the company.


Sharon Gillenwater  2:53  

You know, he realized early on before anybody started talking about business and IT alignment, that that’s where he needed to go. And that’s where CIOs needed to go. And so we started pulling together these dossiers of these profiles of these executives and provided those to his team so that when he made the calls, he was prepared and ready to talk to them, you know, their personal interests and affinities as well as speak to their business initiatives. So we, you know, eventually had about 200 of these and I put them in a database and started realizing that a lot of my other customers would love to have this type of information. And we’ve built the database up over the years from there, and now our customers can subscribe to the database and get this in depth, depth in information on these executives and we keep the profiles updated, and we add to the database all the time as executive change occurs. 


Andy Paul  5:08  

So how many executive profiles do you have in your database?


Sharon Gillenwater  5:12  

We have around 12,000. Now we continually track these people. So they go from one company to another, we preserve all of the personal information that we have on them, and then we update all the business challenges for their new company. So we’ve been tracking some of these people for almost 10 years. And so we have some very rich profiles. As far as the number of contacts and very shallow as far as the depth of information, we do exactly the opposite. So we have far fewer records than a contact database would but the depth of information.


Andy Paul  6:05  

Obviously, some of the superficial stuff will be on LinkedIn, some of the connections, but not the business challenges not. Not the business challenges. I guess those are the big one that you lay out.


Sharon Gillenwater  6:27  

Yeah, I mean, LinkedIn is great. And we use LinkedIn as a source. And we recommend our customers, of course, use LinkedIn. What we always say is LinkedIn and some of the other contact databases, they tell you who to talk to, and we tell you what they want to talk about. So, you know, in the sales world, people often don’t consider what they think, so, how do I get to this person? How do I get to them? What’s their email? How do I reach them, but when you’re talking about The C Suite are even, you know, one or two levels down the executive level, the SVP VP, you better have that conversation planned out before you get in touch. So you know you’re eventually going to find a way to reach them. But what are you going to say? And that’s really critical because if you don’t grab them in just a couple of minutes with something that’s relevant and establish your own credibility as a trusted adviser and someone who understands their business, you’re probably not going to get a second chance.


Andy Paul  7:31  

So let’s dig into this topic because here you have you ever listened to a database that is for people that I suspect that primarily want to make sure that they can sell into the C suite. And yet there are a few read the challenger customer and you know, other books that come out about modern buying and such in the complex enterprise b2b sale, that it’s really not about selling to the C suite, but it’s about these growing number of individual and diverse stakeholders that, you know, come together to reach some sort of consensus over a solution that they then present to the C suite for approval.


Sharon Gillenwater  8:13  

Yes, it’s not an either or it’s an and selling, especially into the enterprise has become so complicated, because there are so many more decision makers that you have to influence. And often they don’t really reach a consensus. We’ve seen research come out of IDC that shows the ever growing number of decision makers involved in these larger deals often results in no decision. And that’s sometimes the biggest threat bigger than the competition and we certainly have experienced that. As we sell into this to the enterprise and our customers. We hear that from our customers all the time. And I think because sales has become more complex, more decision makers are involved. Maybe people who are quite risk averse with all of the different technologies coming out and you know, the desire to pick the winner instead of the loser. It’s very complicated. And what we also see is, when it comes to technology, or even what we’re selling, there’s a desire to integrate it with other things. So with what we sell being so simple, hey, it’s a database of executive profiles. It’s really simple. That’s all we do. But when we talk to customers, there’s often a desire to integrate all of our content into some kind of dashboard in Salesforce and that complicates things. And it becomes more about how good our product is and more about how it can fit with all of these other things. So I think vendors of all stripes are seeing that dynamic. They are now central to the business. The entire business is digitizing. It’s not a side project that a little tiger team owns, right. So because of that, CEOs are going to have more technology leadership experience, and they are going to be more central to the process. And Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff knows this and has talked in their earnings calls about how they’re closing nine figure deals because they are selling directly to the CEO. They are now viewing the CEO as the de facto chief transformation officer or Chief Digital Officer. And they are winning these deals by selling directly into the C suite. And what that takes, by the way, on sales forces part is they need the commitment of their own C suite. To go in and have those conversations because you can’t send a rank and file salesperson in to meet with a CEO. I mean, you could but it’s much more powerful if that salesperson has the support of their own C suite going in with them as partners to make that big deal happen.


Andy Paul  14:05  

Well, By the same token, you know, it’s also research that has come out from a magical back and look at my notes of who it came from. That also sort of talks about a sort of opposite trend, which is that we’re before CIOs were serving that central space for a lot of digital transformation. Now, increasingly, those decisions are being made at the business unit level.


Sharon Gillenwater  14:29  

So, you know, I think what we’ve seen is the perception of what a C suite is has really expanded and their proliferation of all kinds of new titles. Like Chief Digital Officer, Chief transformation officer, Chief Innovation Officer, Chief customer experience officer, all of those are C suites at this point and they have to collaborate together. And really, in a lot of cases agree on what those central tools are going to be that they’re going to use. And I think it’s really all about the customer experience, and the overall digitization of the enterprise, whether you’re talking about what the customer experiences, which is outward facing, or whether you’re talking about looking inward into the enterprise, what are the employees, what’s the employee experience, like? Because, you know, everything’s becoming consumerized. Everybody has expectations around what a great digital experience is, because we’re all consumers and we’re on Amazon, and we’re on Facebook, and you know, those are that’s the level of expectation now, huh?


Andy Paul  15:57  

Um, no, it’s all very interesting. So map out, then, if you’re going to combine the end scenario, so in your mind map out, or what’s the what’s the process? What’s the path for complex enterprise sales these days? So let’s say they are typically based on CVE numbers, which they’ve updated, I think are 6.8, decision makers or even more, maybe 7.2. So take us through it to the extent you can see what that looks like.


Sharon Gillenwater  16:27  

Well, I mean, I’m certainly not an expert on all aspects of it, but I know what you know what we’re hearing from our customers and what we do ourselves, I mean, inbound marketing. Using marketing automation tools is an absolute must to reach and nurture decision makers at every level of the organization. create awareness, establish your your, your brand presence. Position yourself as a thought leader through content marketing. It’s a great way to be relevant from a vertical perspective, if you can create all types of content for different audiences that’s relevant to them, and really fill your pipeline, and engage all of those decision makers up and down the executor of the chain. Now the executive requires a little bit of a different approach in terms of the types of content that they’re interested in. And the farther you go up the executive chain, it becomes more a one to one value proposition that you have to make, because they expect you to understand their specific business. What we see a lot of companies doing is not taking this approach across all of their accounts, but reserving the executive engagement piece of it for only their most important accounts. So we see a lot of customers have small, smaller teams within the sales organization that focus is only on their top accounts. And that’s where the real focus on C suite selling and executive engagement comes in. They devote more resources to those accounts. They create high touch engagement opportunities such as sea level roundtables, or sponsoring sea level events such as the advanta CIO series, they target C suite executives with small regional events. And then, you know, sending their own executives to those events to have those higher level conversations. And that’s where the C suite engagement really comes in. So, when we talk to companies that, you know, we’re interested in bringing on as customers we try to understand, do you have something like this in place because unless you have that infrastructure in place for C suite selling, we’re not really going to be helping Because it’s not a methodology that you apply to all accounts, it’s not scalable. 


Andy Paul  19:07  

And, and it’s just as you described, I mean, it’s targeted, very targeted in terms of both the content and the execution on a specific number of accounts. And yeah, it’s not scalable throughout the entire customer base.


Sharon Gillenwater  19:29  

Right. So, you know, account based marketing has really taken off just because of the ability to use technology to automate a lot of it and segment in a way that is scalable, which is great. But in those situations where you’re trying to cultivate, you know, long term relationships, executive to executive, you’re not going to be doing that with you know, automated software. Or even over email. It’s all about the relationships.


Andy Paul  21:41  

Yeah, my point about the tool, especially the tools are coming out to support and make it more broad than account based marketing. I mean, account based everything to use the term that engage users, is that part of what you can use those tools for is to develop playbooks And plays within those playbooks that do exactly what you’re talking about, you know that push set up a play that says look where we need to have our CEO invite the CEO to come to you know, an event that we’re hosting. But the way that gets facilitated and part of the play down to find what the account exec needs to do real interfacing with the CEOs, assistant, and so on and so forth to make the whole thing happen. And you do that enough times, then you can define that very well. And then becomes I said, one of the plays that you don’t want as part of your playbook.


Sharon Gillenwater  22:34  

Yeah, but it’s, here’s where a lot of companies fall down on that is they follow the playbook. And then a generic invitation gets issued to however many, you know, CIO CEOs, Chief Digital Officers, whatever. And I know this because I worked in the event industry for a long time as well as consulting. They don’t want to bother their executive to make those calls or to you know, sign the letter. And they don’t want to go if it’s going to be a bunch of director level people. So it’s a tricky thing. And it really makes a difference when you make that invitation personally relevant.


Andy Paul  26:23  

I would argue that companies that do as you say, with the generic invitation, then yeah, they’re not achieving near the level of success in general that they want to be achieving. It is all about the person to person that point I was making about the plays as the plays. You’ll see in leading edge companies that are doing this with enterprise sales, the plays, set up the person to person interaction, because it just doesn’t pick up the phone and call somebody cold. 


Sharon Gillenwater  28:06  

It’s hard, it can be awkward. You have to do your homework on the person which is hard and time consuming. Everybody wants to be spoon fed, you know when I say everybody, it’s like, you know, the sales organization, the executives because it’s all about your time. A lot of the companies that use our tool, you know, the people who buy it often are the field marketing organization. And, you know, so we don’t necessarily have salespeople going in and downloading a profile before a meeting. We have field marketers who are using the tool to really research specific accounts and pull out little nuggets that allow them to connect the dots between the executives and what they’re selling. And then spoon feed that to the sales team, or to you know, an executive who’s going into a meeting spoon feeding nuggets of information. And I think, you know, we hear that term, a lot of spoon feeding, customers spoon feeding, just because everybody’s so overwhelmed with information and is trying to find those little nuggets of gold that are super relevant on both sides of the sales equation.


Andy Paul  29:38  

So why wouldn’t the field marketing organization just let sales have access to that data?


Sharon Gillenwater  29:43  

That’s a great question when we ask ourselves that all the time.


Andy Paul  31:12  

Yeah, and let the sales people marketing’s budget pay for it. 


Sharon Gillenwater  31:26  

That’s a very good question.


Andy Paul  37:34  

Well, Sharon, thanks for being on the show.  And friends. Thank you for spending this time with us. As always remember, make it a part of your day every day, deliberately learn something new to help you accelerate your success and easily do that. Make sure to join my conversations with top business experts like my guest today, Sharon Gillenwater, who shared expertise about how to accelerate the growth of your business. So thanks again for joining me. And until next time, this is Andy Paul. Good selling everyone.