How to Make the Most of Your SVP of Sales

Gone is the quintessential backslapping salesman, but who should take his place?

May 15 2013 by Fran Hawthorne


Throughout 2011, Greg Buscetto, one of five senior vice presidents of sales and marketing at $13 billion pharmacy benefits manager Catamaran, took about a dozen trips to Atlanta from his company’s suburban Chicago headquarters to woo a potential $400 million client. Meeting with the target firm’s CEO, COO, CFO and other top managers, Buscetto explained how Catamaran is structured and how it administers prescription drug benefits. “He described everything from the technology to people resources to transition plans,” says Buscetto’s boss, Catamaran CEO Mark Thierer.

Overseeing a company’s sales efforts today requires much more than a friendly personality, a good golf handicap and familiarity with the merchandise. The modern head of sales—often called the senior vice president of sales or the chief sales officer (CSO)—is a strategic partner of the CEO, helping to set long-term corporate policy. That’s largely because this person is now selling packages, not products, and that means taking on broader responsibility and forging alliances across corporate divisions.

“It used to be that if you could really know your clients and lunch and golf [with] them, that was enough,” Thierer says. “That’s no longer the case. What Greg is selling is the company’s ability to deliver on all the promises we make.”

Redefining “Product”

For the sales chief, probably the most important change in the business model is that the corporate focus has gone “from product-centric to customer-centric,” says Vikas Taneja, the managing director who leads Boston Consulting Group’s marketing and sales practice in the Americas. Although this trend has been developing for at least a decade, it’s accelerated over the last three years or so.

Originally, the quintessential backslapping salesperson sold widgets. Then, he or she sold widgets plus service contracts. But now the “product” being sold might be the services of a 24-hour data center; or as at Catamaran, it’s the ability to negotiate drug prices rather than the drugs themselves. At Visit Indy, the official marketing organization for Indianapolis, Senior Vice President of Sales Michelle Travis is pitching an entire city, including the 12 downtown hotels that are connected by climate-controlled walkways and the car races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Data analysis has gone from being a small piece of the senior sales position to the core job. There’s market-intelligence work, analyzing databases, focusing on vertical markets, micro-messaging to specific groups.”

In broadening the definition of what they sell, this trend inevitably broadened the sales chiefs’ turf. If 24-hour tech support is part of the package, the CSO needs some connection with the software group. With increased global competition, hanging onto existing customers is as important as attracting new ones, which means that sales now has to worry about loyalty programs that previously came under the marketing department’s purview. In addition, Greg Buscetto of Catamaran works with the finance staff to understand the cost of the goods and services they pitch.

The sales chief can delve into other departments without stepping on the departmental managers’ toes by forming alliances, says Suzanne Kounkel, a principal in Deloitte Consulting’s tech practice who advises clients on sales effectiveness.

Because of all these added responsibilities, the SVP of sales is now equipped to play a bigger role in helping the CEO set strategy. Travis, the Visit Indy SVP, is one of just three members of an elite sub-team of that organization’s eight-person executive team, along with CEO Leonard Hoops and the executive vice president, James Wallis. Among their recent efforts was analyzing whether to support a proposed municipal tax hike on car rentals and stadium tickets if the proceeds went to help fund Visit Indy—a task far beyond the old widget-selling role.