Whether a company has a market cap of $10 million or $100 million — and no matter what the company’s end market, service or product — sales and go-to-market execution is one of the biggest challenges a CEO will face.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing about growing a business is easy, but the reason most start-ups fail, is because they can’t develop and maintain a great sales channel. Even a bright kid out of college can identify a market, research the competition and build a product, but they don’t have a Rolodex, and they can take a company only so far with their friends and family connections.
To succeed, the CEO has to stop acting like the head of sales, and build out a sales team of people with Rolodexes, who know enterprise sales, and are able to leverage their networks. As naturally as this comes to most CEOs, they must accept that they can’t effectively grow their company beyond a certain level if they are playing the head sales role. This does not mean that the CEO will not be involved in sales anymore. Rather, CEOs need to transition into a role where they only help in relationship sales and to close key deals, but are not involved in the details of the process.
“Your team should develop every possible client relationship so that it can be used as a reference.”
To be successful, a company and its CEO must embrace and apply the following.
Hire experienced people who have a network. If you don’t have a brand like Apple or a product no one else has, your team better have a network that will get them in the door. What made me successful over the years leading up to my role as CEO is what I call “relationship sales.” I built a Rolodex full of loyal clients I had delivered for in the past. These folks knew they could count on me to be there for them day or night. Good sales people build great relationships that stand the test of time because they deliver on their promises.
Target decision makers. It doesn’t matter that you got into a Fortune 100 company if your meeting is with someone with no decision making capability. You know the person is a decision maker if they don’t have to ask anyone else for approval. If you hear the words “I need to check with…” you are not dealing with a decision maker. Once your team identifies people who are empowered to buy, they need to make sure that they want to buy. As obvious as this sounds, most sales pipelines are full of people who can’t make a decision or don’t want to.
Recognize that time kills all deals. Your team needs to be creative in coming up with ways of maintaining contact and keeping the momentum going. However, if the prospect simply won’t engage, it’s time to move on. You can’t push people who don’t want to buy no matter how much you think they need what you’re selling.
Know your story and make it repeat-able. Never miss an opportunity to tell your story. This means that everybody on the sales team (and quite frankly in the company) knows how to tell the company story. When you get the opportunity to talk to the channel, your pitch has to be clear and it has to be delivered in stages. Too many people go straight into the details with CEOs. Good executives will ask for specifics when they need them. Don’t bury them with complex details in meetings or emails. Your communications have to be simple, even obvious. There’s plenty of time to go into the finer points once you know they’re interested.
Cultivate great references. Once you start scaling a channel, you need references. Your team should develop every possible client relationship so that it can be used as a reference. There is no better way to close a deal than to say, “Don’t listen to our sales team, call this reference to hear what they think.” The best way to build a Rolodex of clients who will advocate for you is to ask for their input. I used to open my executive sessions by saying, “If you were in my seat what would you do?” Clients are dying to give you input. Let them, listen to them, write it down, and thank them for their candid advice.
There is no shortage of challenges a CEO will face as they build and grow their company, but nothing is more critical than sales and go-to-market execution. So take the search for your head of sales seriously and give it the time and attention it deserves. The CEO’s job is all about aligning with the right people. Finding, hiring and nurturing the best person for that role — who can bring and build great relationships — is the key to maximizing the sales channel, winning clients and ultimately, your success.