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Over the last three years, I’ve helped dozens of enterprises and global organizations with AI strategies, AI product development, and competitive intelligence initiatives through our work at Emerj – particularly through our AI Opportunity Landscape research.
On top of that, I’ve been a part of the lead generation and marketing efforts for nearly 50 AI startups around the world – helping them reach AI buyers in almost every sector – from banking to manufacturing and beyond (via our Emerj Creative Services for AI Brands).
Most AI companies are a mix of product and service providers, and hardly anybody in AI firm is selling plug and play solutions. AI services often require lengthy white-glove customization, building, integrating, tweaking, and learning from client to client. As such the consultative sale is almost always the case for AI solutions, and sales cycles for AI products are often made longer and more complicated by the new factors that AI (as opposed to traditional software) introduces.
Across all the AI procurement teams I’ve worked with, and all the vendors I’ve helped sell, I’ve come across three broad categories of roles that tend to be the right place to “land and expand” for AI product companies, AI service companies, and AI consultants.
In this article, I’ll explore these three role categories, provide example roles and seniority for typical AI buyers, and also provide advice about whether or not a specific title or role might be (or not be) a fit for what you offer. I’ll end with some important considerations specifically for AI consulting and services firms.
Regardless of what role category the buyer fits into, the best potential AI buyer prospects have three factors in common, in the following order of importance:
- They have the ability to wield budget. Their role commonly involves wielding budget, or heavily influencing budget decisions. If your prospect generally does not wield influence in procurement decisions, they’re unlikely to be a strong prospect for your services – as their influence is likely to stay small.
- They have a problem that you can solve directly. Buyers want to solve a problem or alleviate a pain. Without a pressing problem that your product can address, a buyer is unlikely to take a first call, and even less likely to take a second call. Ensure that the person you’re speaking to has an objective in mind – or a pain that they’re struggling with – which your product or service is uniquely suited to solve.
- They have a personal motivation for the project. Some stakeholders are personally excited to build their resume for a next role within their company, or as a point of validation on their resume. Others are simply personally driven towards innovation projects and finding new ways of doing things. Ask: Does this stakeholder believe that this project could improve their career position or value?
The first two factors are essential. Without the ability to buy, and without a pressing problem to address, a lead isn’t worth much.
The third factor is personal, and isn’t necessary in order to get a sale closed. That said, all things being equal, a prospect with a personal motivation is better than one without. It almost always behooves an AI vendor to determine – through conversation – if there is any personal enthusiasm for the project or initiative in question, and to leverage that existing desire appropriately so long as it genuinely aligns with the goals of the client company.
Common Functional AI Buyer Roles
Most of the time, AI vendors target the functional side of the organization for lead generation.
Across nearly 50 AI product and service companies, and hundreds of campaigns, I’ve found the following titles to be most commonly targeted by successful AI vendors:
- VP of X
- Director of X
- Head of X
- (Occasionally) General Manager of X
“X” could be compliance, customer service, operations, etc – depending on the product being sold, or the need being served at the prospect company. Here are some questions you might ask:
- Who at this prospect company is most likely to have procured the current solution that they use to solve the problem that your solution solves?
- Who at this prospect company is likely struggling most with the responsibility of handling the problem that your solution solves?
Since most well-funded AI vendor companies sell to larger enterprise (we’ve explored why this is the case in a previous Emerj Plus article titled Identify Enterprise Firms Most Likely to Spend on AI Projects), the C-suite is often inaccessible as the first point of contact – or even as an active stakeholder in the procurement process in general.
Strategy for the C-Suite: Functional executives (CEOs, COOs) might be ideal allies for an AI project, it’s usually unrealistic to pull them into the buying process, especially early on, and especially at larger public companies (i.e. the companies most likely to have the R&D budgets, data, and understanding to attempt significant AI projects). It can be helpful to determine which C-level leaders or executives might resonate best with your value proposition, and message them directly – expecting to be “handed down” to one of the four titles I mentioned above.
Common Technical AI Buyer Roles
Most AI vendors do not sell to technical leaders directly – but only bring in technical titles as needed in the latter stages of the technology procurement process. For most vendors, technical roles pose more of a hurdle to successful AI adoption than an opportunity. Enterprise IT roles resist the additional technical burden that AI projects often imply, and they resist a loss of control over technology vision (both because of valid concerns – such as security – and because of their own egos and feelings of worth or job security).
In a future article I’ll explore exactly how to work with (or work around) the enterprise IT function to make sure that they don’t shut down potential AI initiatives prematurely.
For the sake of this article, I’ll talk about what kind of AI product and service firms have success targeting technical roles as buyers, and which roles tend to be targeted most.
When Techincal Roles are the Ideal Prospect: The only time to target technical roles first is when the problem you solve is something that keeps technical leaders up at night.
If you sell a customer service solution, you’re unlikely to have a productive first conversation with a Cheif Data Officer. If, however, you sell an AI-enabled tool for data harmonization and visualization, you may solve a problem that the Cheif Data Officer is explicitly struggling with (you may be addressing their pain).
If you sell a solution to help AI teams match the right algorithms to the specific AI process (think DataRobot), it might behoove you to speak directly to a Head of AI.
I’ve seen the following technical titles to be most commonly targeted:
- Head of AI / Analytics / Data Science
- Head/Director/VP of Engineering
- Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)
- Chief Information Officer (CIO)
- Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
For companies that sell to the technical side of the enterprise, targeting the C-suite seems to be more common. The most commonly and directly targeted C-suite role for AI vendors is often the CISO, but this is only for AI companies who specifically provide cybersecurity solutions (think Darktrace, Cylance, etc).
Technical Product Should Still be Offered to Functional Leaders: Many companies who offer solutions to technical problems can still find buying prospects in functional business units. For example, an AI-savvy Head of Compliance at a retail bank may be well aware of the challenges to AI deployment, or to their data infrastructure, and may be able to be a strong first contact for that kind of solution.
We typically recommend that any company offering a technical solution also consider and experiment with reaching functional roles. This is typically done by updating marketing language to address the unique and specific concerns of that business unit, as opposed to analytics generally, or cybersecurity generally, etc.
A Word on “Innovation” Leaders
There is a distinct class of roles that can’t properly be categorized as functional or technical – and those are roles under the broad umbrella of “innovation.” Examples of titles in this category include:
- Head/Director/VP of Innovation
- Head/Director of [Brand] Innovation Lab
- Head of New/Advanced Technology
These roles are not responsible for any single department, business function, or goal, but often help to shape strategy and technology direction/adoption in important ways. For this reason, the following titles might be lumped into this same “innovation” category:
- Head/Director of Digital Transformation
- Head/Director/VP of Strategy
When I lived in Silicon Valley, these roles were sometimes jokingly referred to as “sunshine roles,” implying that they have no ability to buy, no ability to enact change, and motivation to do little more than innovation theater. In the Bay Area, there are lots of “innovation labs” for global companies that do little more than demos and experiments.
For many AI product and service companies, innovation titles are not ideal leads or prospects. They’re inordinately likely to kick tires, ask questions, request demos, but have no immediate budget to work with. If they do have budget, it isn’t for genuinely transformative projects to make a difference in a business process, it’s for the purpose of setting up a sandbox demo – which probably will not resonate with company leadership well enough to turn into a substantial project.
Look for a Business Mandate, Not an Experiment: Innovation leaders are sometimes exploring technology products and services in order to fulfill on a specific quarterly goal, or a specific challenge handed to them from leadership (such as solving a compliance issue, or building a 3-year technology roadmap). In other cases, innovation leaders are simply “experimenting” and exploring technologies out of curiosity, or in order to learn and gain experience with a new type of technology or solution.
Strategy for Handling Innovation Prospects: It often doesn’t behoove AI product and service vendors to sell directly to innovation titles, but to see them as allies in making introductions or forging alliances elsewhere in the company. Some innovation contacts are purely interested in free or barely-funded sandbox projects (sometimes to test a legitimate idea, sometimes to engage in innovation theater). Some innovation contacts are willing to help introduce the right vendor to the right teams or stakeholders within the enterprise, where they might find a strong fit.
While it may not be a good idea to engage in small pilot projects with an innovation team (particularly if there is no context or committed roadmap to roll the solution out more broadly), it almost always behooves vendors to have warm relationships with innovation leaders. Maintaining contact and warm relations makes sense for two reasons:
- Some innovation leaders are actively involved in creating digital transformation and AI strategies, and these leaders can often help pull for vendors that they believe to be the best fit for that strategy. Innovation leaders who work with Emerj often use our services to create vendor shortlists – and these shortlists often do result in real business as the strategy is rolled out.
- Warm relationships and conversations/demos with innovation leadership can leave a positive impression with innovation leaders, which may bring them to suggest your company as a solution to a future problem, or may prompt them to introduce you to the right internal leader at a later date.
Reaching Innovation Leadership Directly – Are You on the Innovation Radar?: Ask yourself “Is my particular product something that innovation leaders are probably looking for right now?” If you offer a conversational interface solution, or you sell recommendation engines, it’s possible that a robust innovation team is already wondering about your solution because the solution type itself is popular and relatively well know.
If you sell an AI-enabled product that automates an obscure and complex back-office process, innovation teams are unlikely to even be looking at your solution category. While almost any AI product company can benefit from reaching out to innovation teams at their target enterprise accounts – this strategy is more likely to be effective with well known or popular AI application types.
Considerations for AI Services and Consulting Companies
Emerj Catalyst members are almost all AI consulting or service companies CEOs and partners. My work in helping these members to enter new markets, win AI services business and deals, and deliver more value with AI projects (learn more about the Catalyst Advisory Program here). My experience helping this group of leaders has given me unique insights on who AI consultants can sell to, and how they can position themselves for long-term client relationships.
Because AI services and consulting are so open-ended, it’s challenging not possible to come up with blanket generalizations for what titles and roles to target, but I do have some important considerations that AI service providers should bear in mind:
- Lean on your expertise. Sell to the industries and departments that you (or your firm) understand best. Selling all things AI to all people is no business strategy, even in the early days of an AI services firm. Focus on the buying titles (as outlined in this article) in those industries and departments where you can make an impact, and where you can speak the language. If you aren’t explicitly solving an issue that only technical leaders are struggling with, then sell instead to functional business leaders.
- Lead with education. As a services or consulting firm, the opportunity is not in one-off AI projects, but in helping companies improve their Executive AI Fluency and becoming a trusted long-term advisor who can be involved in their AI transformation over time. Emerj Plus members can read our article on leading with education.
- (Generally) Avoid innovation teams. Innovation leaders are generally more likely to be searching for AI product vendors than for consultants or custom AI services firms. As a services firm, you can mold your offering and pitch to explicit business problems. Use this to your advantage by reaching the VPs, Heads of, and Directors who could most be helped by your unique services and unique expertise.
There is no “ideal buyer title” for all AI products and services – but it’s important to note that most successful AI product and service firms sell best to VPs, Directors, and “Heads of” in functional business leadership roles. This helps to narrow down the bounded reality of possible first contacts for most AI vendors. It is also useful to bear in mind the general insights about when it does and does not make sense to target technical leaders, or “innovation” titles for your solution.
Ultimately, experience in the market will be the arbiter of who your ideal prospect is, and this will evolve over months or even years as you refine your product and your pitch – and learn from sales feedback in the field. Hopefully the insights from this article will help you begin with a more bounded and effective possibility-space of potential prospects as you move forward in your AI go-to-market efforts.