Sales process development: How involved should founders & CEOs be?

by Steli Efti

How much should founders and CEOs participate in developing an outbound sales process for their companies? Better to get their hands dirty and immerse themselves in the nitty gritty of sales, or to delegate it to someone else so they can make the big strategic decisions and work on other things?

This question was at the core of the challenges facing the man I recently had breakfast with: a highly accomplished CEO and founder of an incredibly successful SaaS company.

Their startup is doing great. Steady, sustainable growth through inbound marketing and channel partnerships. The whole machine is running beautifully.

Except that there's a lot more opportunity out there for them than what they're getting from inbound and channel partnerships. And our successful SaaS CEO is hungry for that opportunity. How can he get access to that vast untapped potential?

Say it with me kids: outbound sales!

Developing a sales process

He did some things right: he hired a couple of young, ambitious sales reps who felt excited to tackle the challenge.

He learned about different sales tactics and outbound strategies. He did his best to supply them with the right leadership (he mentioned how he already replaced several non-performing heads of sales).

He spelled out what needed to be figured out:

  • lead generation
  • prospecting
  • qualifying leads
  • funneling high quality outbound leads to the account execs
  • what tools to use
  • using cold emails and cold calls to get to decision makers
  • etc.

But in all his efforts to get outbound sales rolling, there was one crucial thing that was missing:

Him!

He pretty much handed off the development of the outbound sales process to his employees, and spent about an hour a week checking in with them. That's not enough. 

In this crucial stage of your company, where you're experimenting and learning how to do outbound sales successfully, you as the founder or CEO need to be knee-deep in the sales hustle. You need to be actively involved, you need to participate.

gruntworkceo

You need to get your hands dirty doing all the things you want your sales team to do. Even low-level activities like sourcing leads to reach out to, or dialing dozens of numbers in a row just to get one prospect to pick up the phone. Whatever it is. Do the grunt work. 

Why CEOs & founders should be involved in building the first sales process

Many founders and CEOs push back when I tell them to do this. "But Steli, I could be closing six or seven figure channel partnership deals, and you want me to spend my time cold calling prospects that at best bring in a couple thousand in MRR?" 

That's exactly what I want you to do. Not because of the couple thousand in MRR that you might potentially get from doing cold calling. But because of the many millions of dollars your startup could steadily earn if you build a strong outbound sales process.

Bambi, meet Gozilla

To build that sales process, you need to know what it's like to do all the things you want your sales team to do. You can't take some ideas you picked up from a book, from a friend who grew sales for his SaaS company by XX million dollars, or from the charismatic speaker at a conference.

You need to take your beautiful and precious ideas and see what happens to them when you put them out there in the battlefield of harsh realities. Because if you just hand your untested ideas over to someone else, and it doesn't work, you'll never know if it doesn't work because the idea was wrong, or because the person responsible didn't do it right.

"The best way to find product/market fit is to get in front of customers and validate your assertions. Start early, and validate before you build anything. Use wireframes of the product to walk customers through your vision, then keep validating throughout product development.

Develop objective listening skills, and don’t get caught up in selling too hard. Often entrepreneurs only hear what they want to hear, a trait sometimes referred to as “happy ears.” When a customer disagrees, you’ll often hear these entrepreneurs say: “They just don’t get it.” This is a good indication the entrepreneur isn’t listening."

—David Skok, Accelerate Your Startup: Get the Right Product/Market Fit

David writes about finding product/market fit—but the same principle applies to building your outbound sales process. 

Nobody understands your business as well as you do

Nobody is as qualified to do this as you are. Nobody else has the big picture understanding, combined with the nitty-gritty knowledge of the mechanics of your company. 

"How can you send some young MBA “biz dev type” out into battle to sign up partners when you’ve never met with your potential business development collaborators and heard what their goals are and how you can meet them?  If you send out the biz dev guy I’m sure he/she will ink deals. That’s what they do. But you’re unlikely to yield results unless there is a close alignment of benefits for them and for you."
—Mark Suster, Startup Sales – Why Hiring Seasoned Sales Reps May Not Work

Mark wrote about biz dev deals, but the same principle applies to developing your outbound sales process. As a CEO/founder, nobody is as attuned to your business as you are—that's why you are the one who needs to do this. 

You get unfiltered insights

Doing the grunt work is the price you pay for getting an unfiltered view of the marketplace. You need these first-hand experiences: the reactions of the prospects when you try to get their attention.

You need to hear with your own ears the words they speak when you pitch them.

You need to see their responses with your own eyes.

You need to understand what it takes to find a hundred quality leads, what works and what doesn't.

blindmenelephant

It's not good enough to rely on the interpretations your sales reps provide you with, because they don't see the full picture. They lack the context required to make the kinds of judgment calls which will shape your company's outbound sales process.

When can you hand it off to someone else?

Your ultimate goal is to build a scalable and repeatable sales process that doesn't require any handholing or personal attention from the CEO or founders—but that's exactly how you start out. You start out holding hands, you start out dedicating your personal attention to closing deals and figuring out how to make things work.

Once you transition from the sales exploration phase to the sales execution phase, then it's time to find a sales leader and let her take ownership of your sales operation. I wrote about the four stages of startup sales in my sales hiring post, and the transition point between sales exploration to sales execution is between stage #2 to stage #3.