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What’s Really Going On With Sales?

I’ve had the opportunity, over the years, to provide my opinion to CEOs, CFOs, boards of directors, investors, and venture capitalists about what was really going on with their companies’ dysfunctional sales departments.

Got a minute? I've got a quick question or two...

Got a minute? I have a quick question or two...

Considering the average tenure of sales VPs these days—less than two years—one can create a timeline for a newly-hired VP that isn’t going to work out long-term:

  • Months 1-3:  On-boarding.  VP learns about the company, salespeople, colleagues in marketing, services, customers, competitors, etc.  Asks a lot of questions.
  • Months 4-6: VP makes changes in approach, terminology, territories, business partners, marketing materials, routine (sales meetings, forecast calls, etc.)  VP may bring in former salespeople that worked for them in the past.  
  • Months 7-9: Little to no performance improvement.  VP says that new mechanisms haven’t “gained traction.”  Or that their new reps “need a little more time.”  VP suggests that there have been changes in the market/economy/environment since they joined.  Assures executive team a little more time will do the trick.
  • Months 10-12: An occasional success!  The heat is off for a time, until the CEO realizes that “one big win does not a trend make.” (Dave Hathaway, partner, now retired, from prestigious VC firm Venrock Associates said that to me in a board meeting when I was an inexperienced VP of sales and bragged about a big deal we had just won.)
  • Month 13: Consultant or board member or expert is brought in to assess the situation. Meetings, reports, discussions, back and forth.
  • Months 14-16: VP and CEO see the handwriting on the wall, but keep it to themselves, hoping that the situation will magically approve.
  • Months 17-20: CEO covertly searches for new VP.  VP covertly taps into his/her network while updating their resume with the appropriate spin on this latest position.
  • Month 21 (or The New Month 1):  New VP of sales arrives…  On-boarding…

In cases like this, it’s around month 13 that I’ve been called in.  It doesn’t take me long to figure out what’s really going on.  I know what questions to ask and what the answers should be. 

Here is how I start:  I’ll ask the VP of sales to talk to me, in depth, about a few selected critical opportunities their team is pursuing—deals forecasted to close within the next two months.  The VP’s response should convey a comprehensive and objective assessment of those situations, not gut feel or wishful thinking. A strong VP will know, at a minimum, (1) when the customer (I want to know the name of the decision-maker) will buy, (2) what products or services they will buy, (3) what business issues or opportunities are causing them to buy, (4) how much they will spend, (5) what could prevent them from buying, and (6) precisely what will compel the customer to buy from that VP’s company.

How do I know whether they’re telling the truth?  Experience, very careful listening, and having been on the wrong side of that discussion.

There is a wheelbarrow full of other questions—questions about process, qualification, measurement, competitive intelligence, strategies and tactics, territory assignments and management, tools, coaching, alignment with other corporate functions, and so on…  But if a sales VP in their job for a year doesn’t know, without notes, what I consider to be vital information about their two most important deals, they fail the test.

You might wonder who is responsible for this all-too-common, Groundhog Day situation. It’s the person who continues to hire the wrong VPs of sales.


One Response

  1. Gawdluvya, Dave. Precisely. And those of us in the sales advice community need to understand, really, the dire situation most sales orgs are in. If we really want to help, we can’t be offering quick-fix solutions. These guys need so much more than quick fix.

    And bravo for IDing where buck should be stopping for this situation. C-level leadership must take responsibility for this – but they’re looking for quick fix, too. And if companies are going to do it right – they’re gonna need 12 – 18 months to really turn the ship around, right?

    Would love to see you get this Op Ed piece in a horizontal biz pub – like Fast Company or pitch it to HBR. No one else is talking about this.

    Go Dave!

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