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You May Be Going About Your Relationship With CXOs All Wrong

The evolution of the role of technology CXOs has been a fascinating topic of study in our industry for the past two decades.  Most are familiar with the basics: technology decision makers and managers becoming business leaders; moving from ‘keeping the lights on’ to leveraging technology to drive business outcomes; the CIO role becoming the most capable to take over as CEO.  It’s a highly relevant topic which I have personally written and spoken on it countless times because this evolution impacts so many aspects of the industry in such significant ways.  We’re not going to rehash that evolution here. 

Instead, now that the industry has accepted the arrival of a new type of tech CXO with vastly more capabilities and expectations of them, it’s time we broaden our vision of how to build relationships with these folks based on appropriate mutual value. 

Let’s look at the usual three industry constituencies, how they each approach relationships with CXOs, and how they’re missing the mark.  Disclaimer: I am generalizing below.  And, yes it is completely fair to do so because for every Sierra Ventures or Menlo Ventures, there are a dozen venture firms who do not build CXO relationships for the right reasons.  For every Harness, Trifacta, or Synack there are 50 startups who are getting about 10% of the potential value out of their CXO contacts.  And for every Cumberland, Ahead, or WWT there are 100 who only look for share of wallet every time they sit down with a CXO. 

As a channel partner it’s not wrong to be focused on revenue and profit, i.e. what can be sold to a client, but how one goes about it that makes all the difference.  VCs usually rely on CXOs to help them make better investment decisions, then help their portfolio startups grow faster by buying the products and making introductions to peer CXOs who can do the same.  Startups see CXOs as potential beta customers, buyers of their products, and/or a rolodex of many other CXOs who can do the same.

Is it wrong to see CXOs in that light?  Not necessarily.  But if that’s all they’re being seen as/for, I’d argue the bulk of value is untapped.  Sometimes the best way to get a CXO to procure your solution is not to sell to them, but rather to enable them to have the right talk track internally. TSG Board Advisor and ex-Splunk CIO, Declan Morris, says it perfectly, “If you really want to create a long-term working relationship with any CXO, you have to go beyond the basic quick-win pitch. For example, when it comes to your product offering, provide the CXO with the right set of compelling business outcomes that win the support of their executive peers.” With over two decades of IT leadership experience, I think Declan can be deemed a reliable source.

Channel partners who approach a CXO with “What are you buying, because I can probably sell it to you because I sell everything” are blowing it.  Top level tech execs do not want to have that conversation.  They want to build trusted relationships based on a mutual exchange of differentiated value.  If you’re a channel partner, what is your differentiated value?  VCs who put together CXO advisory boards to simply get input during diligence then make startup intros, are missing the boat.  That leaves CXOs feeling like they’re in a one-sided relationship, because they are.  VCs need to find a more genuine approach to bringing real tangible value to those relationships, or they will be short-lived.  Startups looking only for beta clients, new logos, or revenue from a top level CXO, are wildly missing the mark.  Ask yourself what those individuals can teach you about your business model, product/market fit, how to sell to a CXO, what partners they like working with and why, what use cases resonate or don’t and why, etc. etc.  That sort of knowledge transfer and feedback will be the gift that keeps on giving across your entire business, not just with one person or one customer account.  And you’ll be even more likely to get that beta client, logo, or revenue you were looking for in the first place.

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