CEO’s Guide to Increasing Collaboration Between Sales and Non-Sales Teams

We’ve all witnessed the dysfunction between sales and other business units over time. We’ve seen the erosion of trust and accountability between departments. Sales teams walk into most tech organizations with a label of brash egos, covert politicking, overt demands, and the list goes on. Before long, the management isolates the sales team behind a wall or separate wing of the building, ensuring the animals stay in their cages as the rest of us do the real work.  

How do we break down this wall so that groups collaborate better and sales integrates into the organization? It all starts with what I think is the biggest problem: mutual misunderstanding. Specifically, sales leaders don’t understand what other departments do and other departments don’t understand how sales works with customers. Someone has to extend the olive branch, and here is a quick guide for business and sales leaders on how to communicate more effectively to cut through the misunderstandings.

Product/Engineering

  • Sales teams: Bring problems not solutions.

Salespeople hear issues all day long and formulate ideas for how to solve those problems.  To make it more difficult, prospects say things like “if it only had this, we would move forward.” Salespeople hear this as a product problem, but it’s usually an easy excuse for a “no”. While some product problems are legit issues, salespeople tend to offer solutions that either aren’t the right fit or the problem could be solved in other ways.

Leave the problem-solving to the product team and bubble up the issues more effectively.  Don’t try to think of a perfect solution; instead, explain and document customer issues and concerns. Additionally, do a better job of proactively bringing in the product team to meet current customers and prospects. You own the relationships, so help your product team create better products.

Additionally, know who you build for and talk to more customers. Yes, you know what will make things easier or better, but will anybody care? Customers and prospects can answer that for you. This is self-explanatory, but great product people live with the customer. You can’t build amazing things behind a desk; that happens in the field. The quickest way to ensure a bad market fit is to build in a vacuum.  

Finance/Legal

  • Finance/Legal teams: Have empathy and patience.

I’ve had some epic battles with finance, and when I look back, finance was right most of the time. Finance exists not to screw you out of deals but to make sure the company exists and thrives to pay commissions and buy steak dinners. If they accept bad deals, all goes away and no one has a job.  That said, finance leaders must exhibit amazing levels of empathy to listen and guide sales to win-win situations. 

To make your life easier, explain the why. Oftentimes, salespeople just need to understand the “why” before they accept things. Take time to train sales leaders on basic contract management and governance and their implications, which leads to more consistent adherence to financial and legal requirements. 

  • Sales teams: Don’t be a dick.

Finance is just trying to help the company, and if you shut up and listen you will better understand how to create win-win scenarios for you and the company. Sales can best help themselves with Finance and Legal by truly knowing what constitutes a good deal to those groups and what concessions they prefer over others. This allows you to explore all options with customers before passing them up the chain. It also helps to eliminate many awkward conversations with conflicting goals. If you know what Finance and Legal want to see, then the sales team can consistently deliver great deals for everyone.

CEO/COO

  • CEO/COO: Stay close to the organization in the early and middle years. 

Sales leaders are not the Second Coming despite how executives feel when bringing  them in. You can’t assume they’ll continue seamlessly from where you left off; you can’t sit back, put your feet on your desk, and let out a big sigh; no, not all your problems are solved.

You may be tempted to resort to a feeling of marital bliss for 6-9 months, relying on your new sales leader’s past success as a guarantor of future success. But after another 6 months, you see that you’re spending more money without the expected improvement. To make matters worse, you realize 12 months too late that you and your sales leader never had the same expectations about goals and timelines.

Nip this sort of situation in the bud. Give your sales leader the tools and support they need to be successful but also stay close, especially in the first year, to make sure expectations are aligned. The biggest source of conflict is expectation mismanagement in which friction arises from unstated expectations about how each party should act. This is most prevalent at the executive levels.  

  • Sales leaders: Manage up and across as much as you manage down.

This was one of my biggest failures as a sales executive as I focused on handling my own team and trusting other groups to just get there on their own. I spent limited time with other business unit leaders and most of our interactions were around points of contention (e.g. finance was being a pain about a big contract, engineering wasn’t building what we needed in the next two sprints, and the list goes on).

I failed to realize at the time that this perpetuated an us-vs-them culture. Someone has to lead the charge on cross departmental collaboration, and if it’s not the CEO, then the sales leader must see that a large headcount depends on those groups collaborating on at least a weekly basis. 

Throw the CEO relationship into the mix, and working with other departments and other executives can feel like a full-time job. I can tell you, though, that the alternative of not managing up to your CEO’s expectations and proactively looping them in can be catastrophic. There is a reason that the shelf life of VPs of Sales is so short, and I’m convinced that if CEOs took more time to understand and stay close to sales, and sales leaders did a better job of picking their heads up and proactively building bridges, then this trend could change.

As a sales leader, your job isn’t just to close deals; it’s to drive sustainable revenue and you can’t do that without a close relationship with product/engineering and finance/legal.

86% of polled executives and employees blame a lack of collaboration or bad communication for team problems and failures, so what are we doing about it? As sales leaders, I think it can be easiest to focus on your own bubble, forgetting about the rest of the company and how all departments are intertwined. For business unit employees and leaders outside of sales, know one thing: sales teams are on your side. They want great product and cutting-edge development. They want easy and simple contracts. They want to make sure that the CEO can sleep at night and trust that things are handled. The first step to increasing the quality of relationships and collaboration is having the expectation conversations with each other. The leadership needs to sit down and ask a simple question: what do you need and expect from me and my team? Start the conversation by being open to feedback while knowing that you can’t accommodate all expectations. The other person needs to feel heard, and only open, honest communication can do that.

Need more tips or have any questions? Happy to help. [email protected]

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