The CEO's Role in Large-scale Sales
by Kevin Kearns

Your company has an opportunity to make a huge sale -- one that will bring revenues to an all-the time high and alter the competitive landscape. Your participation in the sales effort is essential. The strategic decisions you make and the leadership you provide as CEO will determine the opportunity's outcome more than any other factor.

The first decision you must make is deliberate, a yes-no decision. Should you allocate the additional resources that might be needed to get the business? A significant sales opportunity might require a large investment, one that takes away resources from other important, existing functions. To make the correct yes-no decision it's necessary to have a clear understanding of key characteristics of the opportunity.

Firstly, consider the urgency the prospective customer feels about awarding a contract. Unless there is urgency, it may not pay to make an extraordinary effort to land the business. If there is urgency, on the other hand, that's an important reason for making an all-out effort. What constitutes urgency?

For Huthwaite, whose business is sales performance improvement, a prospective customer with urgent needs might be one that's introducing new products whose viability requires immediate market acceptance. Another customer might feel urgency because of a mandate to increase revenue to a certain level by a given date.

For other businesses, customers' urgency can result from a regulatory agency ruling, an unfriendly acquisition effort or a plant shut-down. Not all urgencies come on suddenly. The customer's market position might have been spiraling downward steadily and now has reached a critical stage. Whatever the reason for the urgency, whether or not it exists is a key factor to consider when making your yes-no decision about pursuing the business.

Other Factors to Consider

The size of the prospective sale also will affect your decision. Sales opportunities should be managed like a portfolio, with those offering high revenue potential being given more resources than the others. However, a portfolio of many high risk, high reward opportunities at any given time needs to be avoided.

Yet another factor to consider when you make your decision, one that's often unrecognized, is the prospective customer's mindset about the expenditure. Huthwaite recommends that its clients classify their customers into three categories and use a different sales strategy for each.

  • If the customer knows exactly what it wants and wants it cheaply it's an intrinsic value customer. Unless your company can make the lowest bid, the chances of landing this business aren't good. Involving yourself or deploying a high level of resources would likely be wasteful. The selling strategy for an intrinsic value customer should be transactional.

  • An extrinsic value customer wants to work with the supplier to create value. Leadership by the CEO can provide the needed value by marshaling the company's resources to create a unique solution for the customer. The selling model for these customers is consultative.

  • The enterprise value customer is looking for a partnership with the supplier. It's ready to change its way of doing business to get the best value from what you offer. In the best enterprise value relationships, the roles of customer and supplier blend. Your involvement and that of your counterpart in the customer company may be needed on an ongoing basis. Your commitment of time and resources is huge as well. The growth potential of enterprise value customers is enormous. Selling to these customers uses the enterprise model.

Yet another consideration is the customer's position in the Buying Cycle™. Though its situation requires a speedy decision, the customer might not have thought through its real needs yet. The chances of making a sale increase when the customer reaches what we call the Evaluation of Options stage and explicit needs have been articulated. Do those needs align to your organization's core competencies?

As the prospective customer advances closer to a buying decision your participation will become more valuable. As you decide whether to invest in pursuing the opportunity, consider which stage of the buying cycle the customer is in and how that will affect your ability to influence their decision.

What to Do Now

Once you're satisfied that the opportunity warrants making a significant investment, you begin deploying the needed resources. Selecting those resources is the easy part of the task. Much harder is persuading everyone in the affected units that business will not continue as it was. Employees' responsibilities will change and some activities will be curtailed, deferred or eliminated. There will be resistance because change can bring people away from their comfort zone. It can create insecurity and even fear.

Employees must understand that your decision was part of a broader organizational goal. They should feel empowered to make the new kinds of decisions that are needed, and manage the conflicts that will inevitably arise.

Get Everyone Involved

To make the sale, it's necessary to provide more value to the customer than your competitors will. Examine all your resources to see which of them can help create value. Can your marketing and research group help the sales team better understand the dynamics of your customer's market? Proficiency in navigating your customer's landscape will establish early credibility and respect.

Can the IT unit develop an innovative way to help the customer manage the logistics of using your product or service? Is R&D exploring how to customize your offering to recognize the specifics of this customer engagement? Are the sales teams setting aside sufficient time to plan the strategy of sale, key milestones and advances desired and the mechanics of each call execution?

If you wish to achieve outcomes that are exceptional from the normal, then consider doing things now that are exceptional in themselves. You can encourage sales managers to consider this opportunity as the most important component of their account portfolio by announcing there will be incentives at interim stages in the sales process. You can accelerate the payment of bonuses - by awarding them at an earlier stage than would be typical. You might also consider adjusting goals, metrics and reward systems for others who are involved in the effort to land the business.

Your Relations with the Customer

Assure your counterpart at the customer company that the business has strategic importance for your company, you're personally committed to providing the resources required to make the implementation a success and that you will be available after the decision should the need arise. Establish that the communication door is open and available for the customer to call the most senior person in your organization. Acknowledge that you understand that placing a large order represents high risk for the customer. Particularly for large orders, trust of the seller is essential. Trust is particularly important at the customer's Resolution of Concerns stage in the buying cycle.

As you build relationships with the customer, take care not to undermine your sales executives. Huthwaite classifies customer people into three groups: Those who entered into a dialogue with your salespeople are in the Focus of Receptivity group. Focus of Dissatisfaction customers are those who own the problem your company's solution addresses. Those on top of the hierarchy are the Focus of Power -- and this is where your attention is needed.

Selling is the engine that drives organizational growth. To lead successfully a CEO must understand customers' needs and behaviors. A CEO who has these strengths can provide powerful advantages for revenue growth -- and the critical difference needed to win a large-scale sale.


Kevin Kearns is the president and CEO of Huthwaite, one of the world's premiere sales performance improvement companies. Focused exclusively on sales effectiveness, Huthwaite combines groundbreaking research with sales consulting, sales training and sales performance measurement. This allows market-leading companies to improve performance of their sales professionals significantly and achieve positive, measurable change. Contact: kkearns@huthwaite.com and visit www.huthwaite.com for additional information.

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Copyright 2004 by Kevin Kearns. All rights reserved.

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