Can we clone the CEO – in order to turbo-charge sales?

Posted on by Lewis Stanton

In our experience working with middle market companies, we find that the CEO is almost always the best salesperson. Hopefully, the head of sales is better skilled at sales management and sales operations. Yet in terms of the actual act of selling, the CEO stands above the rest. Why is this?

To keep things simple, let’s assume that CEOs have one of two backgrounds: 1. The owner/founder; 2. The hired gun. Number 2 is easier to explain. When a hired gun is brought into a middle market company, he/she is almost always the most experienced (not necessarily the same as oldest), best educated, and most well-rounded member of the team. Having worked in a variety of companies in more than one industry, and being the recipient of formal sales training and probably great on-the-job training earlier in his/her career at a large company, that the hired gun CEO knows how to sell is not surprising.

Now what about the owner/founder CEO? What we used to find really surprising was that the owner/founder (or second generation thereof) CEO is also really good at sales. We recognize that founding a company and growing it successfully into a middle market company does not exactly happen by accident. It takes enormous hard work, persistence, a lot of smarts, an appetite for risk, and extraordinary subject matter expertise. Some of this must be helpful in sales, of course, but far from all of it. Moreover, many of those qualities are often present in members of the sales team too – salespeople who are not succeeding.

So what is the secret sauce?

Having watched these CEOs for many years we believe they are great at selling because they don’t sell. They don’t try to sell. They didn’t start the company to build a better product and sell it in large quantities. They started the company to solve a problem no one else could, or at least to solve the problem faster, more effectively, and at a lower cost (not the same as lowest price, btw). And they really enjoy business; often being the “happy workaholic.” So what do they like to talk about? Business! Not products, and certainly not features (at least not until asked). They engage in a peer-to-peer discussion with the prospect/customer about the target’s business. This is not a clever process step that is a precursor to taking an order. They are genuinely interested.

And what type of questions do they ask? Well, not about “which model do you want and how many,” but they ask what are your challenges and hurdles, who are your competitors, what would it take to beat them, etc. And they have good ideas. The prospect is doing most of the talking, getting value and enjoying the conversation. And when it is time to talk about the product, the CEO’s love for the product or service is manifest; the CEO displays passion and enthusiasm for what the product can do –for the buyer.

In summary, the CEO is interesting and informative, offers business advice and educates, and explains what the product can do for the buyer. The CEO doesn’t want to sell. He/she wants to elicit what the buyer truly needs. If there is a fit, the buyer gives the order. If there is not a fit, then a strong relationship has been built for the future.

Yes, it is true that the owner/founder has some advantages the average salesperson does not have; in particular the title can get a meeting with less difficulty than any salesperson can. However, is getting the meeting really where the sales effort fails? Probably not. I recognize that I have glossed over the details of the selling process, but that was so we can focus on the essential elements of the owner/founder’s success at selling. The question is, can it be emulated by line salespeople? We can’t really clone the CEO entirely, but can we “clone” the CEO’s ability to sell?

Fortunately, the answer is definitely “Yes.” The CEO’s vision, positioning and sales conversation can be turned into a repeatable sales process that the general sales force will follow. A process that resonates with customers, prospects, and indirect sales channels. Doing this requires careful analysis and documentation, training, and practice. However, the return on this investment, from improved sales effectiveness, will be enormous.

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