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When Shakespeare wrote the line, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," he wasn't thinking of today's CEOs. But he may as well have been. Because yet another responsibility has been added to the CEO's already considerable load.

It's no longer enough to demonstrate excellence in the art of leadership: CEOs must now be firmly entrenched at the head of the sales department.

Over the past few years we've seen the CEO's role evolve into one that's intimately connected to sales. Consider Jack Welch, for instance. Though he was basically an engineer, he was totally customer-focused. Such an emphasis on sales represents a strategic evolution from the traditional CEO's focus on branding, market share, and the like.

Analysts are looking at a company's sales performance more closely than ever before. In today's climate, if a new product falls on its face... analysts will look closely at the sales process.

Because we live in an increasingly complex world, your sales organization is the most critical link to your customer. It should drive everything you do. And that's why you, the CEO, must understand every aspect of the sales process—to ensure the accuracy of your strategy execution.

The business problems we solve and the products and services we provide become more and more complicated—we have moved beyond our customer's ability to comprehend the unique value we provide. In today's market, conventional sales methods no longer work. Salespeople must think for their customers, creating revenue-building solutions that the customers can't come up with on their own. I call that process "Diagnosis Business Development."

Your sales process must be a precise extension of your go-to-market strategy that integrates departmental functions from R&D through marketing and on to sales and service.

Why is it critical that your sales process become a top priority? The following are some insights on how to translate market strategy into sales results:

  • Avoid the "black box" view of sales. The black box view of sales is an attitude frequently found among senior executives who do not have sales experience. To them, the workings of the sales department are, for the most part, a mystery. They will set organization goals and send revenue requirements into the black box of the sales department and anxiously wait for the outcome. But, they can't effectively manage what happens between the two points. What CEOs need is a process that can make the black box transparent—that is, capable of connecting the sales function to the rest of the organization in strategic terms and creating a common language and process through which the go-to-market strategy is formulated, executed, and monitored.

  • Understand the limitations of legacy systems. The conventional sales process—whose response to performance downturns is "do more of what you are already doing"—is what an information technology expert would call a legacy system. In the computer world, legacy systems are usually outdated networks originally developed for limited, local purposes. As holistic, organizationally integrated networks are developed, these systems must be either modified or replaced. The conventional sales process is a legacy system in that it offers the sales department a way to communicate internally, but it doesn't connect the sales function to the rest of the organization in any meaningful way. It does not offer a common language or filters through which sales and other functions in the business can communicate and respond.

  • Know the four prerequisites for a successful go-to-market strategy. Ignore one or more of these prerequisites, and your go-to-market strategy will be seriously impaired and the ability to generate profitable results will be at risk:
    1. A high level of understanding of, and agreement on, the business strategies in place to acquire, expand and retain profitable customer relationships. Is every function in the company, from product conception to successful implementation with the customer, united by a shared vision and a common effort?

    2. A successful transfer of business strategies to departmental and individual responsibilities that encompass both quantitative and qualitative objectives. Does everyone in the company know what they, individually and as a group, must accomplish to achieve the defined objectives?

    3. A monitoring and measurement capability that enables leadership to assess the performance of the departments and individuals as they progress toward their objectives. Can everyone monitor their progress toward the achievement of those objectives?

    4. A capacity to anticipate and correct the most frequently occurring issues and obstacles blocking the successful execution of the strategy. Can everyone anticipate requirements, learn from their mistakes, and respond and adapt to changing conditions customer requirements?
  • Embrace a strategic alignment mechanism. Organizations need a mechanism that can create a cohesive team, communicate and reinforce messages, get everyone working toward the same goal, and measure the progress toward that goal. Everyone in the organization should be concerned about creating and capturing value for customers.

    One way to generate alignment around corporate goals is to require that each function involved in the formulation and execution of the go-to-market strategy cycles through the four stages of the Prime Process—Discover, Diagnose, Design and Deliver. The "Four Ds" offer a single, customer-centric process through which each organizational function can explore the marketplace and ensure that its efforts are aligned.

  • Commit to an integrated process. Whether an organization must respond to new opportunities or changes in the market or correct miscalculations in its own go-to-market strategy, it must have a mechanism capable of capturing and responding to feedback. It needs to be able to identify, communicate, and respond to customer needs throughout the value-creation process.

    This process requires that the various functions within the organization that are charged with delivering value to customers take to the field in one voice and one process. To effectively Discover, Diagnose, Design and Deliver, they must frame their assumptions in terms of the customer and they must test those assumptions against the reality of the customer's world.

    As CEO, you'll want to push marketing and product development out into the real world, where they can directly experience the issues and challenges of their customers' business. You'll want the sales team to communicate the issues they uncover as they conduct diagnosis, and you'll want the service and support staff to report the issues they uncover during the delivery and implementation of your solutions.

    This ongoing diagnostic feedback loop creates a learning flow that, in turn, can be used to generate continuous improvement and breakthrough innovation.

Clearly, to embrace a successful go-to-market strategy, CEOs can no longer accept "smoke and mirrors" communications from the sales department.

Sales organizations have traditionally been known for unreliable sales forecasts. If the financial arm of a company did the same thing, someone would face legal ramifications.

As I noted earlier, analysts are beginning to make the connection between forecast methods and forecast accuracy. CEOs and their sales organizations are being held to higher standards. You must have a system in place for understanding and refining your sales process.

Continuous improvement processes have been applied throughout organizations. The sales function should not be exempt. It takes a lot of work and, possibly, a whole new way of thinking about your business.

Your profitability—not to mention your credibility as a CEO—depends on it.

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image of Jeff Thull

Jeff Thull is president and CEO of Prime Resource Group ( and the author of Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (September 2006), The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Mastering the Complex Sale (2003).

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