The rise of the Digital VP of Sales

Business is changing.

Business is evolving to leverage the massively scalable cloud, mobile is leaving the desktop behind and the internet is driving business to an always on, socially driven marketplace. With that change comes a challenge in leadership; who will lead the company through these tumultuous times, into new waters as customer demands and market requirements shift?

In popular business media, the consensus seems to be the Chief Marketing Officer. As McKinsey states “Because changing customer needs and behavior underlie many of these shifts, CMOs are a natural choice to spearhead the response.” (The evolving role of the CMO, McKinsey Quarterly)

Which leaves me asking, where is the Vice President of Sales in this conversation?

It is no secret that academia and business literature have historically turned their back on sales as an important element of business leadership, but that doesn’t mean that sales leaders should stand by the sidelines versus taking their rightful place leading this business transformation.

After all, who is closer to the customer and the change in the market place than the sales organization?

For too long sales leaders have been treated like the youngest sibling in a family of 12. With a patronizing pat on the head we are told that we must wait 18 months for the deployment of a substandard CRM system that does little to improve sales or told how marketing will be spending this years budget to reach our customers with no clear ROI or data around the impact on sales. Until now, we had no other options but to make the best of it.

Cloud technology changes all of that.

The cloud dramatically reduces the complexity of a implementation. Instead of requiring armies of technology consultants and long conversations on server installs, the “effort” of an implementation is being transitioned to business process improvements.

In other words, the business leader has the opportunity to become more engaged, shape the outcome and use an implementation to quickly improve the business. That is why it is so common to see Salesforce.com administrator teams embedded in the business, not IT – because it is all about business process and partnering on integration. The cloud is changing how companies go to market.

So why are business pundits centering on the CMO as the leader in the new era instead of the CSO?

Because most sales leaders are not comfortable with or trained to step up.

Historically the VP of Sales has been a ‘get it done’ role, the “grunt” on the executive team and not strategic in nature. Companies build complex marketing and product strategies, give the VP of Sales cursory insight into that strategy and then expect that leader to get it done. As a VP of sales, how often has your team been told to take what we give you and make it happen?

Our profession, forged out of the fire of cold calling, constant rejection and the philosophies of ABC (Always Be Closing), has accepted the position in the company as the do-er. Our profession has accepted that we will not be given credit for qualitative measures or contribution to strategy during the year end review; we have accepted that our profession’s measure of success is making the number, every week, every month, every quarter.

That mindset must change. We must be the leaders who deliver the number and step up and contribute to or even drive corporate strategy. Sales is closest to the customer, and in a customer centric company with a market that is evolving rapidly, there is no better role to provide that leadership insight.

In a practical sense, this means that sales leaders need to cross train in other functions (operations, technology, distribution, marketing), have a well articulated plan that encompasses all elements of how the business wins and retains the customer (sales, service, marketing and product) and the high level knowledge of how technology can be leveraged to achieve success. As Harvard points out in the article The New Path to the C-Suite;

.. the lines between marketing and sales are continuing to blur. Trends like crowdsourcing are accelerating the innovation process, and social technologies, interactivity, and mobility have become integral to consumer media.     Because marketing and sales must respond seamlessly to new opportunities, combined roles are increasingly prevalent.

Technology—in particular, digital channels as touch points—will continue to dominate marketing and sales strategy in the future. The demand for segmentation capabilities will grow as firms address a more diverse population of customers who expect tailored products and solutions as well as higher levels of service. Marketing and sales executives will be managing a workforce that has grown up in the digital age and catering to a customer base that has an ever-increasing desire for speed and easy interaction.

No one is closer to the customer than sales and the diverse, strategy centric sales leader is best positioned to lead the company into the new digital era and be a great partner to IT, marketing, customer service and product.

The VP of sales must step into the C-suite and become the Chief Customer Officer. To do that, make sure you have a plan.