What You Should Expect from Your Sales Leader

Gary Braun – Partner, Pivotal Advisors

I have spoken with hundreds of CEOs and business owners over the years.  Most have a solid grip on their financials, operations and strategy.  But for many, they are less confident in understanding sales.  There is a much smaller subsegment of the Owner/CEO group that actually came up through the sales function.  When it comes to understanding how to build a sales engine, a strong sales team, how to analyze sales performance (other than results and profit), they are not as well versed.  I hear things like “Sales is a black box to me – I don’t know how it works,” or “Why can’t they sell like I did when I started the business?”  The latter statement may not be a fair comparison.  When an owner starts a business, they chase anything and everything and have the authority to change the solution, the pricing and the terms as they see fit.  Plus, they have the clout of being a CEO or Owner and tend to get more meetings.  That is not true of the hired salesperson.

I was asked by a CEO peer group to come present to them about what they should be doing to drive sales.  What role should the owner or CEO play.   Here are some best practices for how you can drive this critical function in your company.  If you are the CEO/Owner AND acting as the sales leader, there are some tips in here for you as well.

  1. Get the right sales leader – sounds obvious, right?  It’s not.  Most owners or CEOs look for an experienced sales leader from their industry with a proven track record and “fire in their belly” or “drive” or “grit” (fill in your own adjective).  They also want someone who fits their culture and is good at relationships.  That is the criteria and that is what they hire to.  I am here to tell you that is not enough.

There are all kinds of sales leaders with different skills and traits.  Managing an inside sales team that is more transactional is very different from managing an outside sales team in the field that sells deals with hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Some who knows how to develop and set strategy is different than someone who just executes the strategy given to them.  Having the ability to build a team is different than managing an existing team.  If you have little documented sales process and structure, you want someone how knows how to do that AND drive adoption of it.  The list could go on and on.  Define what “skills and traits” you need beyond the grit or drive outlined above and adapt your hiring process to that criterion.

If you are the sales leader and don’t have the skills or experience, consider hiring a permanent or even fractional sales leader.

  1. Set the strategy – if you don’t have a sales leader who knows how to do this (they represent a small percentage of all sales leaders), that means that you need to define where growth is coming from.  There are several ways to grow – expand with current customers, find new accounts, come out with new products/services, go into new geographies, leverage other go-to-market channels, penetrate new industries, etc.  In many cases, if you let them determine the strategy, they will chase…. all of them.  You will get no focus and they will be an inch deep and a mile wide and make little progress.  Work with them to determine the 1-3 areas you want to focus on to get growth.  That also includes which areas have the biggest potential for growth, which Ideal Clients you want to pursue and how you will position yourself with those clients.  Get agreement and set goals for each of your initiatives..
  2. Demand a plan – this is one if the biggest gaps I have seen across hundreds of sales organizations.  It is not good enough to say “Go get $10M by focusing on the XYZ industry.”  That is good at a high level, but you should demand more from  your sales leader.   I bet I have asked nearly 1000 sales leaders what their plan was for how they would hit their goal.  Most times I hear very general statements, but nothing documented.  I good plan from your leader (or from you) should include the following:.
  3. Goals – not just overall, but for each initiative.  How much is coming from existing clients?  New Clients? Do you have goals around each offering?  You probably won’t have goals for all of these things, but your goals should be more than just an overall revenue or profit number..
  4. Where will they focus?  This ties back to the strategy outlined above.  What are the milestones to executing the strategy.  For example, if they are going to add to their team, when will they have job profiles done?  When should we see the first candidates?  Make the hire?  How long until they are producing or at goal?   If you are going after a specific market, when will they have the target list? How long until they’ve contacted the first x amount of prospects?   Demand this level of detail.  This allows you to hold them accountable to progress rather than waiting for revenue and deciding it’s too little, too late..
  5. Agree on your metrics – there are a lot of metrics you can be watching other than revenue to know if things are trending in the right way.  At a minimum, you should be watching:
  6. 1-2 leading indicators – make sure there are goals around items such as New Qualified Opportunities or Meetings or Proposals/Quotes or whatever is applicable to your business.  Set a standard so all the salespeople are clear on the expectation.  This is all about making sure you are getting enough “at bats” to reach the goal.
  7. Close rate – set a standard here as well.  Agree on the goal and how you will measure it.  I recommend something like the percentage of qualified opportunities that convert to business rather than just proposals or quotes which only measure the tail end of the selling process.  Even if we get enough “at bats,” it doesn’t matter if you can’t convert them to business.  Make your sales leader set the standard.
  8. Size – even if you find a lot of opportunities and you close them, it doesn’t matter if they are all small.  If you have a $1M quota and all your deals are $2000, then it takes A LOT of deals to hit your goal.  Have your sales leader set a standard here as well.

If you have established standards/goals around these areas, it makes it much easier for the sales leader to manage performance and for you to watch progress and spot problems.

  1. Hold them accountable – seems logical, I know.  But I see several one-on-one meetings between sales leaders and CEOs/Owners cover the issue of the day or deal of the day, but they don’t get into reviewing the items above.  I strongly recommend a weekly 1-on-1 with a structured agenda that looks something like this:
  2. Actual results vs. Plan – if on track, recognize it.  If off track, make your sales leader give you their plan for how to get back on track.
  3. Forecast – depending on your business, this may not need to be every week.  Make them commit to what they think will come in with a high degree of confidence and those deals that are likely, but not for sure.  Don’t bother talking about the rest unless your pipeline is too small.
  4. Initiatives – are they hitting the milestones in their plan outlined above?
  5. Metrics – review all of the items listed above.  Are you noticing trends?  Are we ahead or behind our goals/standards?  Should the sales leader make adjustments?
  6. Team issues – does anybody need to be recognized?  Addressed?  What role can the executive play?
  7. Action Items – what are the big things that need to get done between this week and next week that will help drive the strategy? This could come out of the previous agenda items or based on some other need of the business.

We implement this simple system with our clients, and it creates a much better level of transparency and accountability while removing the ambiguity around sales.  If you are not doing this today, give it a try.