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.

10 Responses to this post

  1. Lewis, nice article. Training the team to sell is critically important as sales is a process that can be learned, but must be systematically understood. We coach teams in a proven sales process. We should talk.

  2. I had not understood this before, but it makes perfect sense. The CEO is presenting the customer with a relationship to the company, caring about the customers’ needs and getting to know them. She/he is not just looking for a signature on a P.O. The customer feels humanized and things improve from there. I think we can all learn something from this.

  3. Moira Conlon says:

    This is excellent. Many thanks. Moira

  4. Lewis –

    Quite insightful, as always. But I’d expect no less.

    I look forward anxiously to your future morsels of wisdom.


  5. Marv Serhan says:

    Lewis, Excellent article and right on target. In managing a sales team, I once had a customer tell me, “Your XXX Company has evolved to now have a poor reputation with us and the reason is threefold: First, it is obvious your sales personnel run around here with a quota stamped on their foreheads. Second, when they do get a sale, we don’t see them for two or three years until it is time to refresh the product line. Third, your XXX Company changes Account Managers much too soon — just as we get to know them, they are gone. There is no continuity between our upper management and your Company.”

    It seems that XXX Company’s strategy is occurring much too often today particularly in the high tech industry. It’s all about closing deals, short-term selling, and avoidance of complicated solution sales that require time to integrate people technology and processes that ultimately lead to bigger deals. Those deals tend to lead to longer-lasting professional relationships that lead to good business, and are based upon trust, honesty, mutual respect and an element of shared risk (i.e., we [customer and vendor] are in this together.) Maybe so, but business today is driving sales personnel hard to fill their pipelines and close deals quickly. It’s all about short-term selling.

    Thus, to your point in your article, the CEO needs to reverse the sales-pressure trend above and teach and hold accountable sales personnel to be better listeners and educators focused on meeting the customer’s needs and establishing a relationship that is based upon the big four (trust, honesty, mutual professional respect and an element of shared risk. Or, as you wrote, “ …[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.

    We need more CEOs to pay closer attention in setting the proper example for their sales teams. Organizations that are “built to last” must invest in developing a solid set of core values in their sales teams that are more than just skin-deep.

    Thanks for your viewpoint on an important topic. Nice Article.

    • Lewis Stanton says:

      Great to hear from you. Thank you for taking the time to write such very thoughtful and valuable comments. Yes, the CEO needs to lead by example – and be consistent. What we find is often there is a disconnect: the CEO personally engages in nurturing relationships but also has his/her head of sales drive the sales team hard to hit numbers without regards sometimes for what is in the customer’s interests.
      Best wishes,

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