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Why Tech Vendors Should Be Selling to the C-Suite

Sharon Gillenwater

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If you’re a tech vendor selling “digital transformation,” one of the best articles you can read right now is a piece by Thomas M. Siebel in December 2017’s McKinsey Quarterly that explains how big data, IoT, and AI have become so disruptive that they have inverted the traditional dynamics of technology leadership.

Siebel—a tech pioneer in his own right—argues that instead of technology advocacy and adoption seeping up from the IT organization, it’s CEOs who are personally mandating and leading their companies’ digital transformation.

This isn’t a case of one CEOs wanting something bigger and better than the competition. It’s existential. Cisco’s former Chairman and CEO John Chambers predicts that 40 percent of today’s businesses will fail in the next 10 years and that 70 percent will attempt to transform themselves digitally—but only 30 percent will succeed.

For far-sighted CEOs, hitching their wagons to digital transformation is the default strategy. Keith Krach, Docu-Sign’s Chairman and former CEO explained, "Over the past 12 months, every C-level executive I've spoken with has had digital transformation among their top three strategic priorities—and for many, it's number one. For companies to make this shift, they must embrace change, lead their organizations through the necessary cultural evolution with quick wins, and use technology to make the digital transformation as quick and easy as possible.”

_Over the past 12 months, every C-level executive I've spoken with has had digital transformation among their top three strategic priorities—and for many, it's number one..png

John Furner, CEO of Sam’s Club said recently, “I’m committed to accelerating our digital transformation. We saw tremendous growth last year with SamClub.com Club Pickup and Scan & Go. We must continue to move with speed in this space and use member data and insights to quickly adapt and meet the needs of the increasingly digital consumer.”

For Booz Allen Hamilton’s President and CEO Horacio Rozanski, the innovation agenda extends horizontally across the company’s defense, intelligence, civil, and global commercial markets. He said, “It supports our efforts to tackle the toughest problems in areas that are most urgently needed for solutions. Our goal is to discover and deliver groundbreaking solutions that may start with one client, but then can be scaled across the business.”

Rozanski added that the company has developed what it calls its iHub network. In cities where technology and innovation are thriving—Boston, St. Louis, Austin, Seattle, and San Francisco, for example—it has established hubs that foster connections with local companies, start-up accelerators, and academia. The goal? Embed Booz Allen Hamilton in the innovation ecosystem.

What does this mean for vendors—and sales and marketing teams in particular? It means there is a mandate to pay attention to and nurture CXO-level customers. Five years ago, getting the purchasing agent’s attention may have been your goal. But today and into the future, the decision makers, the people articulating the vision, and, yes, those who increasingly holds the purse strings, are at the C-Level. And they are is in need of worthy partners to help bring that vision to reality.

For those who think selling and marketing into the C-Suite is too difficult a proposition, consider what could happen if your competition is doing it and you aren’t. In other words, ignore the C-Suite at your own peril.

So, how do you go about it?

 

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First you need to know who among your target companies is progressive in how they are thinking about digital transformation—as well as who may be asleep at the wheel. Dig in and research what CEOs are telling analysts about their future plans, the understanding they have about technology threats, and the kinds of investments they are going to make.

We have found in our research that many speak about digital transformation in the context of customers or are just nibbling around the edges of IT transformation. But true digital transformation isn’t just about making it easier for customers or account executives to store their data in the cloud, it’s about retooling the company from the ground up—from supply chain and business processes to, yes, customer insights that drive revenues.

It’s not just all about data, but how your potential customer is going to use that data in every nook and cranny of the company. If you know that—and can envision how it relates to your products or services—you can help that CEO refine his or her strategy.

 

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You also want to know who the CEO’s key lieutenants are—and what their key initiatives are--in this digital transformation journey. Who are the key people she is engaging in the company to develop a strategy?

Has she made high-profile hires to support the effort? Are they seeking inspiration by visiting what Siebel describes as the “headwaters of disruption”—by which he means companies like Apple, Tesla, and Uber?

Are they joining consortiums like the Industrial Internet Consortium to be a part of the effort to accelerate the adoption of “cyberphysical systems?” Are they developing their own version of an “iHub network?”

 

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Related to this is what your company’s own CXOs are doing in this area. There’s nothing more attractive to a customer’s CEO than to have his vendor counterpart reach out to connect and share. Marc Benioff of Salesforce is a master of this—and he is committed to spending a lot of time with customers. While CEOs are hiring the smartest folks available to drive the vision and implementation, wise vendors who see the massive disruption that’s coming and can articulate what needs to happen can become valued advisors and part of a CEO’s extended team. And as a vendor, isn’t that where you want to be?

As Siebel notes, if the future is a highly disruptive extinction event, it’s also a time of new and unexpected emerging enterprises and discoveries. What is an existential threat to one organization can be an opportunity for another. With the right insights and preparation, and the ability to be an effective harbinger of the future to a customer CEO, that opportunity could be yours.

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Sharon Gillenwater
Written by Sharon Gillenwater
Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market, from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits, to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.
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