The Sales Messaging Hierarchy

Just because you’re selling, it doesn’t mean they’re buying. One way to ensure you never get the order is failing to address all of the relevant stakeholders — executives, economic buyers, technical buyers, primary user personas (PUPs), etc. — with the right message at the right time. Each of these personas cares about different aspects of the business and has varying degrees of scope, so your messaging and sales process should address these stakeholders with the right message according to their priorities.

Does the CEO of your prospective customer care about the auto-scalability and concurrency of your database solution? Probably (and hopefully) not. Does the data engineer care? Definitely. Conversely, does the data engineer care about the broader strategic implications of embracing a modern technology stack? Nope. Does the CEO? Yup. Here’s a useful framework for deciphering which message is right for which stakeholder:

You must craft your messaging according to the priorities of the different constituents. While the need for your product could originate from any level in the organization, you must be intentional about cascading your message across all levels and organize your sales process according to where demand for your product might originate.

Top-down

During category creation, it is uncommon for users to seek out products from the emerging category. For example, before email became ubiquitous, users of fax machines weren’t dreaming of sending communications electronically over the internet — they were asking for better fax machines. It would have been an intentional decision by leadership who realized that in order to outpace competitors, they needed to embrace faster modes of communications. The technology may have been imperfect, but the best leaders could envision how this form of communication might improve with a few iterations. I suspect the leaders did not study SMTP protocols and sophisticated networking, but I am certain they tasked their VPs with initiatives to explore these technologies who then employed their technical users to evaluate them more granularly.

Builders of technologies that catalyze new categories should organize their sales process top-down. Executives think about broader, more strategic issues so introduce your technology in a way that showcases the broader implications of embracing it. In another example, Docusign had to first convince executives that outpacing their competitors and improving customer velocity meant embracing digital contracting. Sellers must convince executives of the broader strategic implications of acting now.

Once executives communicate strategic initiatives downward, it becomes incumbent on the VPs and line of business leaders to derive initiatives to convert strategy into action. This layer in the organization is highly sensitive to job measures. Sales leadership cares about revenue growth, marketers care about demand curation, product leaders focus on product velocity, and engineering leaders focus on productivity, reliability, throughput, and more. Failing to exceed or meet expectations according to these measures means their jobs are at risk. The objective of the seller is to connect the product they’re selling to the job measures it influences. Your buyer does not know the degree of their pain, so it’s the sellers’ job to help them measure it. For example, if an account executive at Docusign can demonstrate that deals convert at a higher rate than those that depend on paper processes, it becomes much easier to unlock the budget.

If the same account executive starts selling features to this audience before demonstrating value, they can expect to encounter ambivalence. Why do anything? Because doing so influences the job measures that they care about.

The technical buyers and PUPs evaluate the solution and help demonstrate the job measure in practice. Do Docusign’s features support our use cases? Does the product integrate into our systems? Does it meet our security requirements? Questions like these are addressed among these lower-level stakeholders. This is typically where the competitive evaluations and product deep dives occur. It is also the layer at which companies assess why us vs. substitutes and competitors.

Bottom- and middle-up

In existing categories, the strategic importance of acting already permeates the line of business and user ranks such that decision making typically depends on how might your product more effectively impacts job measures relative to substitutes and better meet the requirements of the users themselves. The job of the salesperson in these environments is to target one of these groups and then partner with them to build the case for the other. Either uncover pains among users that are so pervasive that they will lobby their leaders to consider an initiative for change or start with communicating the potential impact on job measures to leadership so that they employ their teams to evaluate further. In either scenario, ensure the right message lands with the right group.

Message Gravity & Inference

Each message framework — strategy, initiative, solution — has its own gravity. If you start communicating features, you will inevitably get pushed to the people who care about features.

You’ll get relegated to different layers in the organization according to the language you use.

Upon realizing what message resonates with your audience, you’ll decipher where you are in the organization (titles aren’t always the most precise indicator). If the people on the other side of Zoom start asking about features and functions, you are probably lower than you need to be to unlock the budget. A feature buyer is seldom an economic buyer. If your audience’s questions relate to measurable value and — wait for it — job measures, you might be at the layer where budget or budget influence exists. Do not underestimate the importance of the feature buyer though; these folks typically experience the pain of not having your solution directly and are eager to partner with you to communicate their suffering upward. Champions typically feel pain and will help influence economic buyers.

What are the implications for outbound prospecting? Your message should speak to the different stakeholders in their language. During category creation, focus your efforts on executives so that they assimilate your view about how the future will unfold and adjust their company strategy, accordingly. In all cases, communicate job measures to the VP and line of business ranks. If your feature emails to users are landing on deaf ears, this is a sign that the top half of the organization is not bought into why now and why do anything.

Slow down to go fast

Too often I see sellers become impatient with their lack of access to other parts of the organizational hierarchy and assume that dominating a side-by-side feature comparison to competitors or substitutes will unlock the deal. Your customer doesn’t care that it’s the end of the quarter and that you need to achieve a certain growth milestone to raise the next round of funding. If you haven’t communicated the appropriate messaging to all of the layers of the organization, slow down to ensure you do.

Whereas this framework differs from the Conjoined Triangles of Success approach made famous by the hit HBO show Silicon Valley, it will level up the strategy of any seller seeking to run an effective sales process. Now go ask for the order (once you’ve tackled the hierarchy, of course).

Special thanks to Howard Katzenberg for his feedback on this post.

Investor at Vertex Ventures.