CEOs Want Better Sales Forces

In my recent travels, I have been asking tech CEOs a simple question: "Are you satisfied that your sales force is advancing your strategy?" The answer has been a resounding "No!" They give it a C- grade.

Here are the problems, according to the CEOs I talked with:
1) “Speed.” The sales force is always 12 to 18 months behind strategy.
2) “Calling too low.” Sales reps aren’t getting to power.
3) “The sales force can’t tell the story.” The focus is on price and not on the full value and quality of products.
4) “We have the wrong people.” Not smart enough, not tuned in to the market.
CEOs are translating their frustration into action. Many are about to "completely overhaul" their sales forces. Here’s what CEOs have in mind:
1) “Make sales more like engineering.” Engender high collaboration, high touch, higher IQ.
2) “Become more customer-focused.” One CEO trains his sales force to ask about and respond to the top three problems of each client.
3) “Better technology.” 43% of salespeople say they have better technology at home than at work.
4) “Engender more creativity.” A recent study by IBM found that CEOs see creativity as the most important leadership quality over the next five years. They also want it in their sales forces.
5) “Bring in new skills and new people.”
In my experience, CEOs are never satisfied with their sales guys. But the level of pain is at an all-time high. Why? I think it's speed. Technology change is running at unprecedented levels -- and sales forces are not keeping up. There is turbulence ahead for many sales organizations.


Same old same old - takes 2 to tango

Not questioning the accuracy of your account but surely this is just more of the same lame thinking that led to this point of frustration in the first place. Most of what you've suggested has been pushed through as "complete overhauls" before, with the current result.

The issue of consumerization of IT is certainly bigger than before - people want the ease speed and interactivity of apps at work that they get at home and in their pocket. That's hardly a sales department issue.

The biggest new wave is that salespeople are simply not needed in the same way as before, and not at the same points in the cycle, as they were due to the social web and the information available. The buyer's cycle has changed faster than the seller's cycle.

I think fixing that would do most good. It can be done with the people you have - there are no "new" people that are going to solve your problem. They still remain sales people - sales isn't consulting. And the idea of settling in and talking over the 3 things that "keep you awake at night" is as dead as the dodo. So much for the creativity of the CEOs, who are demanding "more creativity" from their new-to-be-hired sales teams. I think they need more business process innovation from the field and their staff and a lot less "creativity".

Thanks for the note.

Walter @adamson

Sales Cycle Has Changed - Make Your Sales Team Successful

George, I respect your view but I agree more with Walter. Many purchasers have changed their buying methodology due to information proliferation and lots of sales organizations have struggled to change the way they sell or have been slow to adapt to the information revolution. To be successful in today’s information rich environment organizations and sales people need to adjust their marketing and sales processes to map to the way people and organizations buy today.

So if the sales people are too slow, calling too low and can’t tell the story, focus on helping them be successful by providing the information your customers want in the medium they want it. This will allow your prospects to self-select in or out during early stages of the buy cycle / sales process. If customers have access to information they need in a format that they want in the early stages of the buy cycle / sales process then sales people can spend more time on winnable opportunities at the end of the sales cycle.

It's Not Just a Sales Problem

Maximizing sales revenue is not simply a sales issue. In my work with clients I have learned that three things combine to maximize sales revenue. These are:

Sales Force Optimization
Marketing Alignment
Customer Intimacy

And......someone needs to be managing and "coaching" this revenue process.

You can always optimize the sales force, but that alone is not enough.

The process begins with everyone "understanding" the corporate strategy and moving forward on these three fronts from there. It is a long hard process, but it leads to a much more productive organization and maximiziation of sales revenue.

For additional insight you may go to

Duh!'s the equivalent to a coach complaining that his QB can't read the game, can't run and can't throw the ball and is only capable of handing off the ball to the running back. Maybe some time for the shareholders to vent their frustration for the guy who's responsible?

How to get to Power?

I suggest start reading and practicing "Getting to VITO (The Very Important Top Officer): 10 Steps to VITO's Office".

BTW: How many CEOs grew up in sales themselves? Is the CEO not the #1 sales person of the company?

Mr. Colony, with all due

Mr. Colony, with all due respect, if your sales force is not keeping up, perhaps they need better guidance and tools from the folks who have developed and targeted your buyer personas and product launch plans. Looking in from the outside, the key to a better sales force may, at least in part, lie with the strategy, not the implementation.

full response is at:

It's not sales, it's the entire business model that's changed

In my experience, traditional sales teams are often led by executives who made their careers selling products and sometimes services, not true customer intimacy. Companies must embrace true customer intimacy practices to survive.

And this is not the platitude-laden "social business" we see being given press... it's idea driven - like IBM Global Services, for example. Unfortunately, most execs in the tech world are still living in a hardware world.

See Dean McMann's work in this space: >>

It's a shame that sales is not as easy as some CEO's think..

Doesn’t it seem strange how often the CEO has a great meeting with the potential customer (Organised by Sales), then the CEO comes back to corporate and raves about how much the customer loves the story and the meeting was really positive....only problem is that CEO's then can't understand why the deal didn't close the very next day...and what is the Sales "Guy" doing about it.. Why is it still in the forecast for two to three quarters later.... Well maybe the CEO was telling a slightly different story to the one the Sales "Guy" has to sell...
The vision is just that, a vision/aspiration, and the product which is available for the customer to "buy" or even "test" today might not quite be able to do all the key things that the vision story outlines... Therefore the story for the Sales "Guy" needs to a bit more aligned to the present.....So, in a lot of cases the customer will eventually "buy" but only once the ROI and Capability is demonstrable...
So maybe rather than the sales not being able to tell the same story, the CEO may need to have a reality check and make sure he is aware of the delta between the story he is going to tell the customer, and what his actual offering is for this particular customer, or market category….
Sorry CEO’s but every positive meeting you have won’t lead to a closed deal that quarter, but you should be able to get a good feel from the meeting how far you company is away from having something of value for the customer to buy….. i.e. The two delta’s for CEO’s to potentially look for:
• Long Term Customer Relationship: Delta between your customer’s vision, and your vision
• Immediate Sales Opportunity: Delta between the customer’s current needs and priorities, and your offerings that can address these today!

As for sales “guys” going to low: Isn’t that is one of the many roles that the CEO and SVP/VP of Sales are employed for! To help lift the level of the engagement and in particular with new software and technology companies, where the value of the purchase the customer is, hopefully, going to make, might not make the level of dollar value signoff that reaches the CEO, CFO or even CIO’s desk.
After all, how many Vendor meetings can a C’Level take……. especially from start-up vendors, or very young corporations…. It is bit easier to consistently engage at the C’Level if you are a Sales “Guy” from SAP, Oracle, IBM, HP, Microsoft, Cisco, AT&T, Verizon etc…….
There is no shame in running a multi-level engagement and making sure that you are selling to the right people at the right time….

Question regarding "Speed"

George -

Read your post titled "CEOs Want Better Sales Forces" with interest, as the problems you have gathered in your recent travels are similar to those we hear from our clients on a regular basis.

I do however have a follow up question regarding "speed." When you state that the sales force is always 12 to 18 months behind strategy, are you referring to the fact that: (1) it takes the sales force at least a year to implement sales strategies that match the higher organizational strategies, (2) revenue generation and sales numbers are lagging behind intended revenue or (3) technology is not being utilized properly or in a timely fashion.

I'm interested in citing your blog post in an upcoming white paper and would love to have an expanded perspective of your take on "speed."


Kim Bastian

It starts at the top

It's easy to point to the rank and file as the problem within a company, but the culture and direction come from the top. If a CEO is not satisfied with the sales force, the first question to ask is "What kind of direction are they getting?"

That can be broken down further to explore these issues:
Is sales leadership on board with the strategy? (Do they even know what it is?)
Have the members of the sales team been trained properly and given the right tools to implement the strategy in a timely manner?
Are sales executives being heard when they offer feedback?
Is there effective alignment between marketing, sales and customer service or service delivery points?

In my experience, good sales people WANT to sell. They want to succeed and will do so if given the right tools and direction. There may always be a few who have trouble shifting to new models, but it's unlikely a complete overhaul is needed. Providing a good road map for success with realistic metrics and effective communication about expectations and results can help managers quickly see where staffing changes are needed.

To be successful, a tech company needs to be nimble. From the top to the front line, the organization should be finely tuned to quickly assimilate new information on strategies, products and target markets. Making people part of this process creates ownership and engenders success, and it's up to the CEO to set the tone.