Getting Up Close and Personal with Corporate Bigwigs


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I recently spoke with Sharon Gillenwater, Founder of Boardroom Insiders, a company that creates executive profiles, relationship maps and custom research to help you develop an engagement
strategy that’ill get you in the door. (Click here to see a sample profile.)

The key to getting their attention she says, is establishing relevance by referencing their specific “careabouts.”  While it sounds simple, it is usually easier said than done. Listen in to our conversation.

JILL: Why are companies putting more emphasis on targeting the C-level? Aren’t many buying decisions made lower down the chain?

Sometimes, but executives are more often a part of these decisions, or they serve as very powerful influencers. Investments in professional services, IT and Web 2.0 initiatives have become increasingly relevant to the C-level because they are driving business transformation, revenue growth and customer loyalty, which are top priorities for executive leadership. So these types of investments are getting more attention from senior executives, especially in the current economic climate.

Also, for the past two years, all but the most critical programs and investments have been slashed. Who ultimately makes the decision about what gets cut? Senior executives. So you better be able to explain how you are supporting their business priorities.

JILL: So how is this changing what it takes to sell to big companies?

Companies are putting more resources and effort into the big customers they already have. They want to move away from transactional relationships to relationships based on trust and loyalty.

We’ve noticed a significant increase in key account programs or “customer intimacy programs,” which are designed to retain and grow the business with top customers. And regardless of the company or the industry, the target is typically the senior executive.

JILL: What are some things to keep in mind when targeting senior-level decision makers?

Senior executives expect a different kind of dialogue. They expect you to demonstrate an understanding of the specific issues they are dealing with. So personalization takes on a whole new meaning.

Take CIOs, for example. It used to be that they all had engineering backgrounds. But today CIOs come from very different backgrounds. More are coming from the business side (e.g., from marketing, even sales) rather than the IT organization.

So if you are targeting a CIO, you better know where he or she is coming from–does he think like a marketer, in terms of using technology to shape the customer experience? Or is he a hardcore technologist who wants to talk about functionality, implementation and integration with legacy systems? Or perhaps a little of both? This is important to know–before you even start the conversation.

JILL: How are companies using this kind of information to gain a competitive advantage?

They are tapping into executives’ passions and pain points to get a foot in the door, which is often the hardest part of the whole process. For example, we analyzed Fortune 500 CIOs and discovered that 10% of them are now women–a small but significant number. And pretty much across the board, these women care deeply about recruiting and mentoring other women in technology.

Most of them are doing a variety of things within their own companies to facilitate this. But no one was offering them a quality forum for getting together and sharing their experiences around being high-ranking women in technology as well as ideas around recruiting and mentoring other women. A global consulting firm jumped on this opportunity and is in the process of implementing such program, which has helped them really stand out from everyone else who is doing CIO events.

JILL: So that’s good for establishing thought leadership, but what about moving the needle with one specific client where there might be a deal on the table? What do you suggest?

We use a process that has proven effective again and again. It unfolds as follows:

  • Step 1: Make a list of all of the executives who are influencing the decision.
    For a technology deal, it might be the CIO, CTO, CFO, CEO and even the Chief Marketing Officer, because they “own” the customer experience that is made possible through technology. 
  • Step 2: Research each executive and make a list of their current initiatives and careabouts.
    This is typically very enlightening because you get a good 360 degree view of what is going on at the company and you can see how the various executive initiatives fit together. Also try to get a sense of their backgrounds, where they have come from and who they know–you’ll often discover you have an “in” through a board member, customer or other connection. This is important, because research shows that peer introductions are highly effective.
  • Step 3: Decide what kind of impact you want to have on each of these people.
    Envision what specific opinions you want them to form about you and your company. This will help you focus your communications with them. Remember–you don’t want to inundate them. Each communication needs to be thoughtful, relevant and expertly crafted.
  • Step 4: Create an account-specific “attack plan” designed to achieve your desired impact.
    Map your marketing assets against their initiatives. For example, do you have a customer case study that speaks to what they are working on? Are you hosting an upcoming event that is relevant? Are they involved in an industry initiative with which your company is engaged?

Uncovering and delivering multiple, highly-relevant touchpoints has proven to shorten the sales cycle. Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of, shares an anecdote in his book, Behind the Cloud, about how a well-orchestrated meeting with an enterprise CEO dramatically slashed the sales cycle and resulted in a far bigger deal than his team thought possible. That is the definition of success.

JILL: This kind of deep research approach takes a lot of effort. Is it really worth the time spent?

Clearly, you may not be able to take this approach with every prospect. But for qualified, high-priority accounts, it’s really a no-brainer. The payoff is the edge you gain over your competitors by being more relevant, offering more value and forging strong relationships with the people who are ultimately making the decisions.

And with more companies seeing the payoff of this approach, you can’t afford not to. Companies will invest with the vendors they know and trust–and that have repeatedly demonstrated an understanding of their business and the ability to deliver value.

That’s why—regardless of industry or company size—so many companies are creating key account programs, customer intimacy programs and executive-to-executive engagement initiatives. It works—in the best and worst of economic times.


Sharon Gillenwater is the founder of Boardroom Insiders and also a marketing strategy consultant to Fortune 1000 companies.

She’s an expert in program strategy, including account-based marketing, event marketing, marketing communications and CXO engagement programs. 

For more info, visit

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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