Getting access to senior-level decision makers is a must if you want to accelerate the buying cycle. Reaching high-level decision makers, establishing credibility, and raising awareness about your value are critical to closing complex, considered deals. And doing so early in the buying cycle is increasingly vital.

Consider this Forrester finding: 74% of business buyers conduct more than half of their research online before making an offline purchase. Whatever stat you choose to believe, it’s clear that buying committees often are not engaging sales reps until they’ve narrowed down their list of options. That means some vendors are not up for consideration, and those that are need to come to the table with a compelling business case.
Thought Leaders as Market LeadersBut, in other cases, you can actually create demand – not merely fulfill it. You can illuminate a business problem that was unclear and undefined prior to your efforts. You act as a provocateur and catalyst for change.  Indeed,  Corporate Visions found that 74% of buyers choose the company that was first to add value as the buyer in defining its buying vision.

Understandably, a busy executive is not going to take time out of the workday to meet with yet one more sales rep who lacks the requisite status. As a result, most sales reps find themselves in discussions with those further down the decision chain. While these peripheral stakeholders can serve as champions and even advocates and mobilizers, they are less influential on the final decision. Moreover, because the sales rep must convince each one of them separately, engaging with these subordinates slows down the entire sales cycle.

Break down the Trust Barrier

The key is to secure senior-level appointments at the outset, and the way to do that is by establishing  select employees and allied consultants as thought leaders. Doing so is the first step in breaking through the Trust Barrier, and gaining that trust is the price of entry.

Decision-making executives usually will make time to meet with peers, but your executives are often busy with other responsibilities. Fortunately, those on higher floors will often also meet with recognized authorities. This is where the value of being a thought leader extends beyond the individual to that person’s organization and peers. It’s for this reason that “Visible Experts” elevate their firms in every category that counts, including growth, new business, reputation, partnerships, billing rates, and the ability to close sales.” And it jibes with ITSMA’s findings that 75% of would-be buyers say thought leadership helps them determine which buyer to put on their short list.

By meeting with recognized authorities, decision makers can gain insights that will help them make the best purchase decision. It’s no wonder ITSMA recommends that to reap the benefits of a thought leadership program you must have subject matter experts that are recognized outside of your company.

The most effective approach is to build a team of thought leaders and trusted authorities within your organization. These can include those who, for example, speak at events; publish articles, papers, or even books; and present webinars. By developing a program around these people, your company can build a set of recognized  experts who help the sales team gain entrée to the C-suite.

Thought Leaders as a TeamExecute a three-point Thought Leadership Plan

We’ve seen this three-point plan work effectively for developing this team and leveraging each member’s perspective and insights:

  1. Identify thought leaders
  2. Capture their insights
  3. Build their reputations

 

Step 1: Identify members of the thought leadership team

Ideally you should create a “portfolio” of thought leadership talent to call upon as needed. While your C-level executives will likely be on this team, it’s sensible to also draw upon a dedicated set of thought leaders from across – and beyond – the organization. This can include experts from product management, marketing, and professional services, or those with domain expertise in a vertical market or other topic. It can even include independent consultants or members of your company’s broader ecosystem. Whether these experts play a fractional or full-time role as thought leaders will depend on your objectives and the nature of your business and market.

To determine the most fitting members of this team, answer these questions:

  • Who do we want to build up as thought leaders and why?
  • What gaps do these people address?
  • What expertise and authority does this person bring to bear?

Ideally, your thought leaders should satisfy the following criteria:

  • Articulate a unique perspective on some aspect of the business, whether the vertical market, an acute business problem, a specific solution area, or a mix of all three.
  • Impart valuable insights to and challenge assumptions of prospective customers, in particular decision makers.
  • Speak the language of business and answer key questions that arise during the decision-making process.

 

Step 2: Capture their insights

Once you’ve identified and recruited members of the thought leadership team, it’s crucial to harness their knowledge and expertise to develop content. As we said in another post, authoritative and insightful content is now essential to demand gen and sales enablement efforts. It’s fitting that Laura Ramos of Forrester placed thought leadership at the top of the content marketing “pyramid”: when content serves as a vehicle for differentiating insights, it positions the company favorably with the highest echelons of potential buyers. And it’s at the pinnacle because it represents carefully harvested and well-developed ideas that can truly impact a buyer’s business when embraced.

While thought leadership content can take many forms – such as eBooks, white papers, and presentations – the focus is on demonstrating the team member’s thought leadership. In other words, the true goal is to build up the authoritative individual behind the content so that this person becomes recognized in the marketplace. With that recognition established, this thought leader can more easily help your sales reps gain access to senior-level decision makers.

Note: though a thought-leadership initiative is about more than creating content for consumption, it’s wise to modularize this content so each thought leader can present the perspectives and stories as their own in various settings.

 Step 3: Invest in establishing thought leadership

Make no mistake: it takes a process to build up your thought leaders. It also requires commitment to tap into the full power of these recognized authorities. In addition to publishing content with their names attached, you will at times need to dispatch your thought leaders (including C-level execs) to engage with a prospective client’s key decision maker.

Here’s how it plays out: Your marketing team develops and publishes thought-provoking content assets by calling upon the insights and expertise of your thought leaders. When someone on the buying committee of a target account consumes this content, you’ve paved the way for a future conversation. In fact, 79% of would-be buyers say thought leadership is “important to critical” in determining which providers they want to learn more about.

Once the time is right, your sales team can ask these recognized thought leaders to “open up doors on higher floors,” so to speak, and help secure meetings with targeted decision makers. Remember, you need to enable and arm the sales force to use your thought leaders as a resource. One way is by creating outreach messages your reps can use to make the case for setting an appointment involving a thought leader.

Your investment will pay off in the form of a team of trusted authorities to engage in marketing/demand gen and sales outreach. More importantly, it will prove valuable by turning the tables in your company’s favor as buyers narrow the list down to their final choices.

Want to learn more? Contact Visible Impact and a client strategist can provide a complimentary briefing – sharing insights, perspectives, and winning practices based on VI’s experience designing thought leadership programs for top brands.