How To Speak C-Suite: An Interview With Nic Read

This blog post is based off a B2B Market Research podcast episode.

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In this episode of the B2B Market Research Podcast, Cascade Insights CEO Sean Campbell spoke with Nic Read, a managing partner at SalesLabs. Read is the co-author of Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top and the author of Target Opportunity Selling: Top Sales Performers Reveal What Really Works.

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Their conversation runs from:

  • How to engage with C-level executives for B2B market research studies.
  • What happens to the buyer’s journey when B2B marketers rob their salespeople of conversational opportunities.
  • The distinct and separate roles that B2B marketers and sales teams should play.
  • How B2B market research vendors should respond to RFPs.

You can listen to the episode or read an edited print version below. The transcript has been modified for clarity and readability.

Sean:

In today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about how B2B market researchers should interact with the C-Suite.

On the podcast today, I have with me, Nic Read. Nic is a sales effectiveness expert, based in the UK. He’s also the co-author of, Selling to the C-Suite: What Every Executive Wants You to Know About Successfully Selling to the Top.

Given the amount of time that B2B market researchers spend talking to C-level folks for research projects, I thought it would be very interesting to get Nic’s perspective.

Nic, welcome to the podcast. If you’d like to add anything else about your background, feel free.

Nic:     

Thanks, Sean. It’s good to be here. The only thing I would add is that we were led to a number of interesting insights through the research base that we started as we were consulting with companies mostly in the IT space.

Along the way, Ernst & Young got ahold of us and said, “Do you guys want to come inside the company and build our revenue growth practice?” Which we did for some years, but ultimately, decided we could be more flexible independently.

We moved SalesLabs back out into the private sector and are now relocated from New York to London where our global headquarters are now.

Sean:  

Tell me about the study that led to the creation of the book. Set some context for us there.

Nic:     

Well, when you have a look at what had been written about how to sell to, interview, and build trusted advisor relationships with the C-level, most of it was anecdotal. There were very few research studies that had tackled that issue. In the absence of such research, we felt that it was high time to do something about it.

Coincidentally, there were a number of other organizations that were like minded at the same time.

Hewlett-Packard, for instance. They wanted to create a business academy where this would be a key part of the curriculum. We partnered with them to get access to their clients, so that we could interview C Level executives, face-to-face, for 60-90 minutes at a time, rather than doing a survey.

We wanted to make sure that we were dealing with very senior people, not mid-managers or operations staff. It was important that we were talking at the C-level and hearing directly from them.

There were also studies going on at the University of North Carolina, and also in Georgia, at the Center for Business and Industrial Marketing.

We latched onto these similar studies and ended up, over a period of a number of years, producing the largest study of its kind ever conducted – all focused on how to engage with C-levels.

The study was across something like five hundred organizations and something like two and a half thousand senior level executives. They gave us their direct insights into what works for them as buyers as far as with people trying to interview and sell to them.  From that, we gained a number of insights that weren’t commonly available before that.

Sean:  

That’s a great intro.

As I mentioned earlier, at Cascade Insights have a lot of conversations with C-levels.

Much in the same way as a B2B seller, a market research interviewer has to achieve a level of depth and kindred understanding to really get at what that C-level executive’s problems are.

What are some things to think about when you’re having an interview with a CEO, CFO, CTO, CIO, etc.?

Nic:     

Well, I think you hit the nail on the head right there. It’s about getting into their issues.

The first thing that the executives were telling us very consistently was that we really need to have done our homework before going in there. We can’t be asking dumb-dumb questions.

C-level executives need to see that interviewers have some credibility.

When talking to the C-Suite, we need to be discussing current topics and asking the executives’ perspective on those topics instead of just, “Hey, what’s going on in your industry right now?”

C-level executives expect us to come across as a player that is properly informed on the issues that are front of mind for them.

Do this, and they are more likely to engage in a meaningful discussion with all of their passion.

I think that’s what we want to get. We want these people to open up, show their passion. When we can unlock their emotion, that’s when we’re going to unlock the information that we most need to get.

Sean:  

Let’s talk about how much industry expertise matters, then.

If you’re going to have a meaningful conversation that doesn’t just skip the rock over the surface of the water before ending abruptly, it sounds like that industry context is really what you need.

For example, I’ve seen a lot of this in the conversations on the web about B2B seller behavior and what’s expected.

B2B sellers need to know their account before they engage with them, and they need to really do their homework.

I think it’s pretty pertinent to the research process, as well.  Because you can’t conduct a meaningful in-depth interview without that expertise, if your goal is to get the best insight possible.  And the same is true if you’re trying to conduct a virtual focus group or similar effort.

If you want to get meaningful insight, you better know the industry of who you’re calling on.  Otherwise, your questions are just going to fall flat.

Nic:     

That’s right. When you’re interviewing a certain person from a certain company, it pays to have done your research on them, as an individual, and where they’ve appeared in previous press releases, initiatives, etc.

It’s also important to know their background and what the company is doing in the marketplace.

You should also look at perhaps, their top two or three competitors to find out what they’re doing, as well.

It may very well be that you’re dealing with a market leader that’s setting the pace, but maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re dealing with a company whose strategy is to go second into the market. What others have already done may be what they’re about to do next.

This is interesting insight to put into context. Not only the questions that you should be asking but how to process their responses.

Sean:  

Good points.

Let’s talk about another interesting part of the book. I really liked where you said that it’s somewhat ridiculous to ask the C-level about the middle of the buyer’s journey.

Why don’t you lay that out: why asking a CEO, CTO, CIO, or CFO about the middle portion of the buyers journey doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Nic:     

Well, as we all know, there are different stages in the buyer’s journey.

There’s the stage at the very front-end, where they wake up to the fact that they need to change.

Then, they go through the process of asking, “Okay, so if we need to change, which changes should be our priority? Which ones can we ignore and which ones must we act on?”

Then they go through the process of questioning whether they have the internal resources to take the necessary action or whether they have to look to outside experts.

That’s when they typically form a project and go out and talk to different suppliers or experts to bring their ideas and solutions into the business. This is also generally where, say, sales organizations or others get involved in bringing their ideas to the business.

This is also typically when tenders get released and when projects are handed down to the consultants or the project managers that take those out to market.

Now, at that point of hand-over or hand-down to others, that’s where the executive is least engaged in the process.

Yet, it’s where most organizations’ sales cycles begin.

It begins there because they don’t do a typically good enough job of staying informed enough.

Ideally, organizations should anticipate executives’ needs six months earlier and be the ones that are actually helping inform those executives’ decisions about what their priorities should be.

One of the insights the executives gave us was that if you really want to provide value, tell them something they don’t already know. That’s important whether you’re a seller, an interviewer, or somebody who is providing some market research services.

C-level executives want to be brought insight that people on their own executive board weren’t already bringing to the party.

If you can do that, then executives are more likely to bring you into their circle of influence.

The thing is, most people in the industry are very happy to be reactive and wait for the customer to push their buttons.

But that’s completely the reverse of what executives are really looking for.

Sean:  

That leads me to another part of the book. I was a little surprised, in a good way, to see the amount of emphasis you placed on the digital portion of the buyer’s journey.

As anybody who’s listened to this podcast before knows, I’ve talked about this a lot. We keep trying to educate our clients that, these days, fairly senior individuals are actually leveraging the Internet for their own research somewhere along the buyer’s journey. Therefore, if you don’t show up in the right places, that’s essentially part of the buyer’s journey that you’re losing out on.

In the book you do a really nice job of breaking down how the digital buyer’s journey lines up with B2B sales and B2B Marketing. Frankly, you explain it better than anyone else I’ve seen.

So what’s a set of best practices companies should follow in this area?  And what does it imply for the ways in which we can engage with C-level executives as B2B market researchers, B2B sellers, and B2B marketers?

Nic:     

First of all, thanks for the kudos.

The ways in which companies tend to market digitally really stood out to us.

We’re in, let’s say, the “post-post-internet era” and this stuff isn’t new anymore, so there’s really no excuse for people getting it wrong.

A lot of companies are using, let’s call it, “post World War II industrial marketing methods,” where they fill their websites with every piece of information they can think of about their business. Basically, they treat their website as if it’s an electronic brochure.

Then they get confused about why the buyers seem to not need to talk to the salespeople as much anymore.

It’s because all the information is put out there on the Internet. They don’t need to talk to the salespeople anymore.

One of the things that used to happen with salespeople was that they were the bringers of information. They used to have the information monopoly, if you like. Organizations needed to talk to sales representatives to understand what their company’s products did, what their insights were, where the market was going. They needed to have those conversations.

Today, what companies put out as their digital footprint steals the thunder from most of those conversations. What used to be a necessary conversation is already out there on the Internet.

As a result, executives are able to self-prescribe solutions because they can shortcut the entire conversation process.

Marketing doesn’t do the sales force any favors when they believe their role is to educate the market rather than to prime sales. It robs sales forces of the opportunities to have value-ad discussions.

Sean:  

There is a great quote you had in the book… You said that for every 100 prospects found by marketing only 2 to 3 of those individuals progress to a contractual relationship with the organization who’s doing that marketing effort.

I’m sure people hear that and think, “Well, not all leads are created equal and sales didn’t follow up with some leads, so of course those leads didn’t turn into contracts.”

But you don’t make the standard argument that the relationship between marketing and sales is broken. You make a very different argument: that marketing is broken.

Nic:     

We see all the time that of a hundred prospects that start at the beginning of your marketing funnel, there’s only about 2.3 that are progressing to be a contract. If we had a six sigma background, that’s a 97.7 percent failure rate in the marketing funnel. In fact, since the book came out, the statistics have gotten worse, in that it’s actually now more like a 99 percent failure rate.

Most people should be horrified about that.

We hear CEO’s say, “I know half my marketing budget has been wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

If marketing is a barrier for salespeople having the value creating discussions with executives, we need to seriously rethink the role of marketing.

Is the role of marketing to be a brochure? Or is it to prime the pump to stimulate executives’ interest so that they want to have a discussion that they can only have with the sales representatives of the organization?

I think what we are seeing is marketing that is far too eager to put everything out there.

Also, they’re focusing on saying everything about the product that they have.

The challenge that we see with executives is that they’re initially thinking in terms of the problem itself, not necessarily about the product that solves it.

There are too few organizations out there that are marketing around the problem that they solve.

You’re far more likely to see marketing around the solution.

The language that executives use internally to discuss the problem isn’t matching with marketing on solutions. It’s a mismatch. When executives are searching for leadership on a problem, there’s just very little out there that they actually find and connect to because the language involved in marketing around solutions isn’t the same as the language that executives use to describe their problem in their industry, in their speak.

Now, smart marketing organizations say, “Let’s put all of our marketing in terms of the persona that we want to attract, the problems that we know that they’re facing that we solve better than anybody else.”

Then, if they put that out there on the Internet, executive buyers are more likely to find them.

Those executives look to the Internet for education on what their problem is, the depth of it, what others have done about the same problem, and potential solutions that may work for them.

That’s where they then find you. They bring you in to explore the problem, their options and risks, and what other companies have done to solve the same challenges.

That’s where they’re most open to have their thoughts influenced by whoever is selling to them.

Once they get past that stage and their ideas get set, it gets cemented in.

That’s where it then gets handed down to others to go-to-market for price comparisons.

Whoever first shapes their opinions of the problem and potential solutions tends to become the benchmark against which the RFP’s and the tenders go out. As a result, they consequently win more of those bids.

Let’s face it, most organizations still go to bid, just to make sure that they’re getting three or four competitive quotes and the price is fair.

If you’re the one who has influenced the criteria being assessed, you can effectively block any competitive bids. Now, that’s not only strategic to do, but it’s also fun because you know you’re snookering the competition, right?

All of this however, requires sales and marketing to work much more in concert as to what messages they are putting out there.

It also requires B2B marketers to know that it isn’t marketing’s job isn’t to give everything away. Rather, it’s simply to put the bait out there to reel in the executive buyers.

Marketing should maintain some mystique and they have to frame their outreach in problem speak, not solution speak.

Sean:  

I think some people might respond that problem speak is just a version of solution selling. Sell the pain and potential buyers will turn into customers.

But I believe the point you’re making is more nuanced than that.

When you look at the level of competition digital marketers face, it’s no wonder that B2B market researchers are often hired to determine the smartest places for them to invest in.

To find out the smartest places for them to invest in, B2B market researchers obviously have to look into the buyer’s journey.

We see a lot that there is less competition orbiting around a problem statement on the Internet than there is for the language that orbits the product category or the product definition.

Hence, when that executive is looking for answers to their problem, they’ll find you standing out in a much less crowded field than if you had just marketed the category or the product definition.

In addition, I would add to what you said about the RFP process, what I think most people who own any kind of professional services firm intuitively know that the following math is true:

If I engage in a conversation with a client about their problems, and then after a period of time they tell me that this will go to RFP, I will win a large percentage of those opportunities.

On the other hand, if I hear about the RFP, and then have to ask what the problem was that generated the RFP, my chances of winning are lower.

This is precisely because of the dynamic you mentioned: someone else was in the building having a conversation about the problem before “RFP” ever came out of the executive’s mouth.

Nic:     

Well, that’s right.

But for the benefit of those listening to this podcast, let’s take away all the sharp objects from around them right now, because this sounds like a really challenging issue.

Your listeners may be wondering, “If I didn’t shape the RFP in the first place, then what’s my hope?”

Don’t fear dear listeners, because even if you didn’t know what the pain was, this is the point where you can recognize that you’re having to respond to someone else’s criteria.

If you find yourself in this position, you do have to play some catch up.

This is why research is so important. You’ll have to learn what’s going on in the business that lead to the RFP.

Then you need to identify the people in the business who could help you do a recon to help understand the problem.

Even if you’re reacting and digging through the past to find out the trigger that caused the RFP to happen in the first place, knowing these nuggets of information will help you be at least equal with whoever it was that initially shaped the RFP.

Next, you should get interviews with the people in the client’s organization who were involved with shaping the criteria.

Here’s why that’s important: let’s say that there are three key people whose needs are meant to be served by the RFP and whoever put the final RFP document together may not have covered all of their needs because they had to prioritize.

You’re always going to be finding people whose needs have been expressed but are not necessarily a 100 percent reflected in the RFP. That’s where you find internal politics and conflict.

If you find the people with unexploited needs, that is your opportunity to have a shot at the RFP.

These other issues that were not necessarily addressed by the RFP, but which were important to the people who framed the RFP in the first place, these are the issues you need to show that you can do in addition to the main target of the RFP.

If you do that, you satisfy the formal criteria that you’ve got to get a tick in the box for, but even better, you’ll win friends among those who felt that the RFP wasn’t necessarily going to satisfy all of their needs. You get to be the vendor who has taken the time to understand and put forward a solution that does. You’re throwing them a life vest, and, in turn, they’ll have an incentive to go to bat for you. That’s really strategic.

So, even if you’re not in the driver’s seat and you’re reacting to somebody else’s RFP, all is not lost. If you do that due diligence, backtrack to the source, interview people to find out what other issues they have, then you can turn the whole thing around. Do that, and you’ll no longer be in a reactive position. You’ll be connected with the people who will want you to win instead of the vendor who shaped the RFP that didn’t meet their needs.

Sean:  

It’s really interesting that you said that because that is almost exactly what tends to happen in our own experience.

When we have won something that is more of an RFP style win, we were able to ask questions that at least slightly reset the focus of the study after we got the RFP.

Because somewhere along the way there was a stakeholder who studied that e-mail (with all those new and good questions) and said, “Which market research vendor asked those questions? Because those are good questions,” or, “Those are good comments on the methodology,” or, “Our studies should address these concerns they raise.”

Then you’re back on a level playing field with that stakeholder team who defined the problem and the associated research study originally.

Nic:     

Well, that’s right. That’s right, exactly. Your goal should be to ask the sorts of questions that show that you’re not just a reactive rep who’s taking what’s been said to them on the spoon. You want to add meaningful questions to the mix.

Ideally, you want those executives to go back to their colleagues and say, “I had a meeting today. Geez, some really good questions were asked that I couldn’t even answer. They really pressed my buttons on this.”

When you do this, you surprise the customer.You want to wake them up and realize it’s worth writing a check to you for consulting because you’ll bring insights that haven’t already been thought up.

That’s really where the game is now. It’s not about value delivery, it’s about value creation. It’s about doing your detective work and digging into their issues and finding out what really hurts them.

Even if it looks like they’ve already got it all covered, you know they don’t. Too often companies put in place solutions that are the pedestrian middle ground.The most palatable, homogenized solution that satisfies everybody in the organization may not be the most powerful one. Also, that palatable, homogenized solution is always going to leave someone out.

The key is, find out what the pain list really looks like. See whose needs haven’t been addressed. Have a look at who among them has the most influence to push for you.

Connect those two things, the right issues with the right people and you can reengineer the RFP and end up winning.

Sean:  

Good points. In closing, I want to give you an opportunity to talk about the work you’re doing with MBA programs.

I think this will resonate with a lot of different folks because I imagine a fair percentage of the listeners to this podcast either work with people that have MBA’s or they have MBA’s themselves, et cetera.

They probably also have noticed a certain fascination that the typical MBA program has with everything from consumer packaged goods to consumer versions of marketing… In essence, they tend to have a very heavy B2C focus and light on the B2B.

This issue strikes a chord with me. When I’ve taught in an MBA program in the past, I felt like I was the only person talking about B2B in a real way. Which, initially, I found shocking. Then I realized it was pretty standard for your average prof to focus on B2C over B2B, and then, for that reason, I started talking about B2B even more.

That said, you and your team are doing way more than I did in my work as part of an individual program. Tell us about the interesting things you’re doing to make sure B2B gets an equal seat at the table.

Nic:     

A number of years ago, when I was based in North Carolina, I started looking into what different business schools were doing when teaching sales and marketing, and how much of it was based on B2B.

It was really interesting visiting with a number of faculty who were teaching at these business schools. The books that they were using, a number of them were pre-Internet, a number of them were post-Internet, so that was good. However, the research that these books were based on was almost universally the mass consumer goods version of how to market things. This was being applied as a one-size-fits-all to the marketing and sales worlds.

Of course, anybody who’s worked in B2B and B2C knows that they’re completely different. The metrics are all different. The cultures are all different. The way that the buyers respond to things are all different.

This did not seem to be recognized in the MBA programs I saw.

Whether I’ve talked to people in North America, Australia, South Africa, or here in Europe, I see the same thing. The business school guys turn around and say, “What, are you telling me B2B is different, really? Oh, I didn’t know.” Genuinely, they don’t know.

We thought that something had to change.

Back in 1995, we really started serious research on selling to executives, opportunity management, account management, and what B2B sales management in the modern world really looks like. It’s very different from how to manage a B2C sales team.

We came into orbit with some of the faculty at the University of Oxford and the Kingston Business School in London, and also, the Cranfield University School of Management.

These are the three big business schools in the UK, similar to, I guess, Harvard, Brown, and whatever in the U.S.

These business schools were very positive about the idea of building a B2B set, so that’s what we’ve been doing.

We’re launching in September of next year at the University of Oxford, the world’s first B2B specific MBA program.

It will have a marketing and sales management emphasis because these things seem to be just not really covered anywhere else.

The research that we’re using to form the program is based on about fifteen years and about 500 organizations’ experiences of cause and effect. If you do marketing this way, or if you do sales this way, and you pull different levers, what’s the result?

The faculty have been helping develop this.

Another cool thing is that the MBA students who have been coming through for the last number of years, a lot of the dissertations that they’ve been doing have been going back into their own organizations, across industry, all of them B2B, and examining their own company to have a look at how these levers lead to specific results.

By now, we have enough information in the database that we’re just seeing a repetition with the same cause and effect that we know that if you pull the lever and press this button this way, you’re going to get a certain result. It has become a predictive analytics engine.

What we’re providing organizations with is a B2B focus for their MBA with the tools that can then help them manage their marketing and sales using a system that is already field tested in the real world.

We’re very excited about this and we’re in pre-launch phase for that now.

We’ll start marketing it properly in January, but we’ve already had people signing up for it. [This interview took place on Nov. 12, 2015.]

Our goal is, let’s get that rolling out through Oxford University and Kingston in London, and then we’ll package it and make it available to business schools across North America and the rest of the world.

If we can have one standard with a properly researched set of foundation text that’s already proven by analytics to actually make an impact in the companies, then we should, for the first time, be in a position to provide a market tested, common, global standard by which marketers, managers, and salespeople can run their business.

That’s the legacy that I’d really like to leave. It’s tremendously exciting for us to see this program go forward.

Sean:  

I think that’s very valuable work that you guys are doing. Nic, thanks for being on the podcast. This has been a really great interview.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Check out our podcast for more B2B Market Research episodes and articles.

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