When I first started exploring C-suite marketing the CEO of our company, James Harris, told me of a conversation he once had with a top performing salesperson. 

The jist of it was that, among the various elements of selling, likeability was what they rated the lowest.

When James pressed on for more information, this is what they said:

“I don’t need to be liked. At a mid-management level, they openly say they don’t particularly like me. But I spend as much time as possible at the most senior level where being liked isn’t important.

Bringing insight, even if that insight is uncomfortable or critical, is what’s important. It’s what buys me time with this audience.”

When it comes to digging deeper into his point of view, psychology certainly backs this up – especially when dealing with senior decision makers. 

You see, C-suite executives don’t need more friends. They’ve got enough of those.

The term “building relationships” is often taken literally when it comes to C-suite marketing, but in fact we need to build relationships based on intimacy.

The five stages to human relationships

When we interact with other humans, we go through the same five stages. By understanding these stages you can increase your chances of building professional and profitable relationships with the C-suite.

When we first interact with someone we naturally go into a state of withdrawal.

We don’t tend to actively seek out interactions with people we don’t know, but in business we usually have no choice, so we go straight to the next stage – ritual.

Ritual is where we shake hands, say “pleased to meet you” and follow a set pattern of welcoming the other person. From here we move into 'past times'.

These are all the questions around where we live, what we do and the like. Low pressure, gentle questions to find commonalities and build bridges with who we’re meeting.

Once we pass this we move in to 'gaming'. We begin to explore boundaries, make jokes and generally see if there’s a bigger fit.

After this, we move on the final form of interaction, which is also the most elusive.

This stage is called 'intimacy'. It’s the stage where we begin to share important and personal information, often creating a life-time connection.

Let’s break down your own friendship circle. You may have 100 friends, 50 of which you may get excited about going to dinner and drinks with. Yet you’ll likely only go to a handful when in a time of crisis.

These are the people you are intimate with, and it works exactly the same in business, although the C-suite aren’t interested in having coffee, how friendly you are or how much you have in common.

The C-suite is most interested in what you can bring to the table. They want to know the value you can bring to the business.

Not the benefits and features of your product or service, but the things they value specifically.

They value relationships that provide a surprising and different point of view, that are both relevant and credible. There needs to be value back in the boardroom for business to be done.

Everything else will simply add to the noise.


All this means two things to marketers trying to get into the C-suite. First of all, you need to find a way to put intimacy into something tangible.

You can do this by communicating in a way that changes opinions and challenges what they know.

Secondly, you need to establish credibility. Without this, your opinion will just turn into noise again. You can do this using endorsements, social proof and creating an independent entity.

It’s up to you what form you put this in, but if your current marketing strategy focuses on benefits and product-centred claims then, to the C-suite, you’re just another vendor.

For more on this topic read our posts on why legacy technologies still the biggest headache for the C-suite and how you can gain trust from the C-suite by being independent.

Tom Whatley

Published 19 December, 2014 by Tom Whatley

Tom Whatley is Head of Growth at Seraph Science and a contributor to Econsultancy. He blogs here, and you can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Comments (3)

Andrew Lloyd Gordon

Andrew Lloyd Gordon, Digital Marketing Expert, Speaker and Trainer at New Terrain Limited

Great article Tom.

I'm interested in the credibility side of this. Could you please clarify your point, "...creating an independent entity?"

over 3 years ago

Luke Bowler

Luke Bowler, Senior Account Manager at Graphic Alliance LLPSmall Business

The most important point about intimacy is that its built over time. A great product WILL get you through the door - it just won't keep you there, and the true value of a c-suite client is similarly seen over time.

Likewise the sort of credibility that builds intimacy is one proven through action, in the company of whomever you're working with - i.e. once you're feet are in the door. There's no fast track to any of this.

over 3 years ago

Tom Whatley

Tom Whatley, Digital Marketing Manager at Seraph Science

Andrew: Sure! We do this in the form of clubs. A club platform ticks all the boxes - it's an independent brand that has a sole mission of overcoming challenges and sharing insight. It also brings target senior decision makers into a face-to-face setting. I believe you've already downloaded our eBook which goes into this in more depth :).

Luke: Absolutely, it's a process and it takes time to build proper relationships. What this methodology does do is speed up the process of "getting in the door" and positioning yourself as a credible and trustworthy source. Thanks for your comment!

over 3 years ago

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