Salespeople can succeed with minimal oversight. But sales teams don’t succeed without support from smooth, well-planned processes and capable sales managers and sales ops teams, in a chain that ends in the CEO’s office. Your company lives by sales: no sales, no company. But what can CEOs do to actually push sales forward?
1. Listen To Reps’ Calls
Listen in on live calls or record calls and play them back. Think of yourself like a coach watching tape of the team on the field. You can see where reps are really killing it - lessons that can be transferred back to the rest of the sales team. Consider listening in on live calls too, either by phone or by showing up in the sales room and shadowing reps.
But that’s sales managers’ jobs, I hear you say. We have people for that. All true. But you’re still where the buck stops. And by picking up the phone and listening to reps’ calls, you can learn surprising things about how your company is reaching out to customers, leads and prospects. In big enterprises, this might seem like it would be less of a problem - but that’s not always true. In fact, sometimes big companies get that way and stay that way because their C-suite are always all up in everybody’s business.
The first sales person in any startup is usually the CEO. Then there’s a ‘honeymoon period’ where sales staff make up sometimes as much as 40% of the company.
Image Source: Sales Team Size by Company Size and Revenue by InsightSquared
But as you scale, that can’t last. The company grows faster than the sales department so efficiency becomes an issue, and new reps are hired who weren’t there at the beginning. How sure are you that they’re representing the company ethos when they make their calls?
2. Talk To Your Customers
As early as possible, CEOs should be spending some time in their reps’ shoes - and talking to your customers provides you with three vital pieces of information that are hard to get any other way.
First, customers will tell you (if you ask, and you should) why they bought your offering. Everybody’s got something to make their business fly higher on less fuel, but they put their hand in their pocket for you. Why? Knowing that is vital to strategizing sales, and you need to have input as sales strategy is constructed because it will inform successful process design.
Secondly, customers will tell you what value they derive from your product. That is a radically different thing from the initial reason they bought from you. Everybody’s heard the saying about judging books by their covers, but what else can we weigh a prospective purchase on than its outside? You have to get a few weeks or months’ use out of a product to know its real worth - hence a free trial, or the freemium model that’s common in SaaS provisions. (It works, too; I just went Pro on a tool I’ve been using free for over a year.) And when you do find out the types of value your customers are deriving from your product, you’re guaranteed to learn that people are using it in all kinds of ‘off-label,’ unexpected ways.
Finally, you’ll discover your product’s weaknesses. What causes churn? Why did some customers turn to competitors? Call them up and ask them; they’ll usually be plenty willing to let you in on their reasons. And current customers may have a shopping list of in-offering pain points: We don’t like how this works. There are too many screens here. I can never find this. Even comments about things like color choices can go towards constructing a more frictionless product.
Ally that with the new knowledge you have about what your customers really use your offering for, and why they thought it was worth their time to begin with, and you have a more solid basis on which to build sales processes that deliver.
Some of the most successful CEOs around spend up to a third of their working days talking with customers. Getting big and staying big is a matter of knowing your customers and there’s no better way.
One final point: Most sales relationships start off as a relationship with the CEO in the early days of the company. As you scale, customers lose that connection and access. Consider giving it back to them.
3. Track Sales Process - And Compliance
As soon as a sales process is in place it starts to decay. New hires bring their old habits, and there’s the perennial problem of noncompliance - especially with technology that’s perceived as unwieldy or ineffective (looking at you, CRM). So reps drift away from the process. But there’s pressure on the other side too, as the sales landscape changes. Imagine if you were still using a sales playbook from the 1980s. You’d be way off beam for today’s business world. That process is continuous, so CEOs should be involved in tracking sales processes, and rep compliance with the process.
In small companies particularly, there’s a risk that leads will be dropped at the borderline between sales and marketing. Sales leads come in, but they don’t get followed up - in a baffling 73% of cases - or they don’t get followed up quickly and professionally. That’s money just being left on the table, and it’s a sign of a poorly constructed process.
When CEOs are getting together with sales on a frequent basis, sharing phone time with reps and talking strategy and process with both managers and frontline reps, they’re in a better position to take all that detail back out to the 10,000ft view and say, ‘this is what we need to do.’
4. Listen To Feedback From Sales
CEOs often feel like they can handle sales, even if they’ve never had a sales role. That’s dangerous. As much as you want to be monitoring what sales are up to, you also want to be listening to seasoned sales pros who can tell you about strategy and tactics based on skill and experience.
And while you’re at it, don’t just listen to your sales managers. SDRs, reps and AEs can all offer useful information. Make it easy for those people to bring things to your attention. Even if you eventually pass that data on to sales managers, you’re still the one with your finger on the switch. You can hand on strategic direction at the same time. It’s also possible to fix process from a high altitude view if you also have information from those on the ground.
If you’re getting lots of rep complaints about one aspect of the system you’re using, and that information is landing on your desk at the same time as reports that show tanking numbers, you’re a lot closer to finding the problem.
5. Strategize With Sales
Sales managers shouldn’t be spending half their time poring over reports and compiling forecasts, and lurching from quarter to quarter isn’t a plan. Process should be informed by long term strategy, and the numbers bear out that whole-company strategies should be built to back sales. Say it like that and it sounds obvious, but many folks aren’t doing it. Those who are, who build sales management into the heart of strategy, see revenue growth 50% to 80% higher than their competitors, according to Sales Growth author Jon Vander Ark.
There’s more to this, though. Marketing sees the long view; sales want to close. Marketers think salespeople are like rock ‘em sock ‘em robots, geared up to hunt and kill what’s directly in front of them and never think further than next quarter. Sales think marketers have never made a sale and the content they produce is worthless. CEOs get to watch marketing, sales and support form a circular firing squad of evasion and blame.
Or they can step in, present that strategic overview to each department as it applies to them and emphasize that everyone’s out of a job if sales doesn't sell; the rest of the company is the back end to sales. The unique value a CEO brings to the company is that you’re ‘the only person in the company with the leadership skill and aptitude necessary to structure the company for highest return,’ points out Gal S. Borenstein.
To do that, CEOs need to do two things: go beyond short-term thinking that focusses on products and create a coherent narrative and a roadmap for navigating it; and take sales with them when they do.
Many CEOs have no sales experience. That means you need to listen to your sales staff and learn from their expertise when you make decisions, but you’re still the one with the vision and the plan. While you shouldn’t try to be everywhere, doing everyone else’s job - that’s how you make entrepreneurship unsurvivable - getting involved with sales, collaborating with sales managers and sales ops to build processes and selling the sales department on your strategic vision all help to boost sales, increase revenue and deliver growth.