As SaaS businesses scale-up, one of the most important responsibilities of an executive is to participate in and support sales efforts to prospective new clients. New client sales are critical to the health of any early SaaS business, and senior executives can play a major role in helping sales teams attract customers. For many leaders, this is an entirely natural act which they execute with ease; for others it can be an uncomfortable stretch. In either case, their involvement needs to balance two competing goals: (1) help win business today that results in successful, profitable, long-standing customers, and (2) build the team’s ability to win more and more of these types of deals in the future. This second goal sometimes gets lost in the shuffle; and it significantly complicates how thoughtful executives engage.
Nearly two decades in SaaS leadership roles have taught me many lessons around an executive’s role in sales meetings (and contributed significantly to my hair-loss early in that period). As I think about those lessons, a majority tend to fall into three general buckets: two “Do’s” and one “Don’t,” as follows:
1. Do…Make the Sales Rep CEO: When a sales professional is working an account, he / she alone is ultimately responsible for the success of that sales cycle. Period. Even in team-selling environments, the rep is on the hook. If she closes a deal, she’ll get the commission and the quota credit. If not, she’ll need to answer hard questions. Regardless of what the company org chart says, she is the team leader in charge of that sales cycle. That person needs to be empowered to get the job done. So, when requested by a sales rep to provide executive representation in a sales setting, I almost always respond that I am happy to, as long as she is willing to assume the role of CEO for that engagement. Said another way, she needs to run the show. I go on to explain that I need her to tell me exactly what is expected of me and specifically how I can support her in successfully closing that particular deal.
This tends to do a number of things. Best case, it empowers the sales professional to dispassionately direct the guest-executive to do precisely what’s needed to win the deal (versus deferring to the executive, who is actually the least knowledgeable person about the account). I love it when a rep gives me painstakingly precise instructions for what value I can bring to a sales process that will help us earn business. At worst, this approach can lead to blank stares. Sometimes a rep hasn’t completely thought through why they want an exec on a call; and this can smoke-out that lack of clarity. I’ve actually had reps tell me, “I’m not sure what I need from you, I just want you to do your CEO thing.” I explain that without context, my schtick just isn’t all that great…and I politely decline the request. In most cases, though, this simple tactic puts the accountability for a successful outcome exactly where it belongs — on the sales professional. Typically, this leads to the salesperson rising to the occasion, using her account knowledge to make the most informed call on meeting strategy, and taking full responsibility for driving a successful outcome. Any action by an executive that leads to this end-result is a must-do.
2. Do…Conduct After-Action Analysis: It goes without saying that relentless pre-meeting preparation is a primary ingredient for successful sales calls, so we’ll skip right over that. What is less common, I’ve found, is prioritizing a ruthlessly candid post-meeting assessment. Immediately after the meeting. Too frequently, people rush off to catch planes or jump onto their next set of scheduled calls. The result is that massive amounts of tacit learning from meetings evaporates forever. Instead, it is well worth the effort to schedule extra time and strictly adhere to the discipline of consistently sharing post-meeting impressions and assessments. These don’t need to be terribly formal, but I like breaking them into two distinct sections. The first is: what happened in the meeting / what went well / what went poorly / what did we learn / what next steps should we consider taking to earn business from this account? This is all about this particular sales cycle, and what we need to consider in pursuit of this specific client. The second is more of a process assessment: how was our preparation / how did our staffing align to the prospect’s participants / how well did our overall messaging work / how was our intra-team interaction / what will we want to replicate with other comparable prospects / what about our approach should we reconsider in the future? This is all about using the data from this meeting as a pure learning opportunity for future application. Separately, I like to start by putting myself directly in the cross-hairs for feedback from the sales rep (aka the CEO for this sales call). “What could I have done differently — please tell me?” To the degree that there are reasonable steps that I can take to better help our salespeople, I really, really want to know what they are. Beyond that, though, I also want the salesperson to know that it is a two-way street, and we should each embrace the opportunity to share our perceptions. I almost always have post-meeting feedback for sales professionals, and / but I first want them to have an opportunity to give me feedback, for the good of the team. This practice can be really unsettling for everyone at first. But I’ve found that it quickly becomes a natural act and a staple among high-performing sales teams that incorporate executives into the selling process. Another “do.”
3. Don’t: Become a Verb: They called it getting “Gibby’d;” and it wasn’t a compliment. I was relatively new in senior leadership roles, having been battle-field promoted within a company experiencing hyper-growth. My unshakable belief in pre-meeting preparation led to a practice where our team of presenters regularly conducted rigorous rehearsals in advance of important sales meetings. Often those practice sessions were the first time I may have heard a particular salesperson present; and sometimes those presentations were pretty flawed. That’s when I’d jump in to “save the day.” I’d start making suggestions about sales strategy, meeting flow, presentation assignments, slide layouts, talk-tracks, competitive positioning, and any number of variables relating to the impending meeting. Generally, these sessions were the night before or the morning of big meetings; and the last thing anyone needed was to have a bunch of late-breaking changes foisted upon them. Although some of these last-minute changes definitely proved to be helpful for a specific meeting / sales cycle, they simply weren’t worth the downstream fallout. Specifically, they undermined the whole effort to empower the sales professional (“no…really, you are the CEO of this sales call…”) and lowered confidence and morale among these critically important team members. In sports, the rule of thumb is never to try something in competition that you haven’t successfully done a number of times in practice. In this scenario, the lesson was not to make any changes that could unsettle a sales professional before a meeting. Conversely, the big learning was to do everything possible to ensure that your sales professionals are feeling their absolute, super-human, bullet-proof best when they walk into sales calls. They’re doing so will allow them to overcome many other imperfections on that particular meeting and build a strong foundation for future sales. To the degree that changes to strategy or tactics are warranted — and they often are — the responsibility of the executive is to ensure that those changes are raised and practiced well in advance of game-day. Lesson learned: Don’t become a verb; just keep your eye on the prize and do the job the salesperson (aka CEO-for-the-day) assigns you.
In closing, executives have a huge role to play in supporting sales efforts as businesses scale; and it can be difficult to balance the desire to help win deals today while building the team’s ability to win consistently in the future. Hopefully these few rules of thumb help leaders land on the stepping stones and avoid some of the stumbling blocks.