The CEO Sales Rep

Quick Summary: There are significant upsides and downsides for the CEO to act as a sales rep; timing is everything.


For startups and small companies, the only alternative may be to have the CEO act as the company’s sales re.  There are strong reasons for having the CEO take on that role. In larger organizations, the CEO may still be intimately involved in some, or all, of the sales opportunities. There are certainly some advantages to the CEO’s involvement, but there are also several disadvantages as well.  Weighing the pros and cons is a useful exercise for each sales opportunity.

There is nothing more impressive to a prospect than to have the CEO of a vendor make a sales call on them.  It clearly demonstrates to them the importance that the vendor places on them as a potential customer.  For CEOs who are really entrepreneurs of new companies, or CEOs of small companies, the prospect’s assumption is correct.  Revenue from each customer is important.

Without a doubt, there are some major advantages for the CEO acting as the sales rep, including:

  1. They may be the only person available during the early stages of the company’s formation and may continue in that role because of their intimate knowledge of the company’s offering.
  2. They can make instant, on the spot decisions regarding pricing, new features, delivery, and terms that others cannot make.
  3. They can receive immediate, unfiltered feedback from prospects regarding their offering’s capabilities and suitability.  Often, these real-world inputs are lost in translation or not taken seriously in the company.
  4. Prospects respect the CEO title and are likely to be more attentive to them and trust their comments.

Quite often, after some initial successes, CEOs do not realize that their title, perhaps more than their sales abilities, were the major factors in closing a sale.  Of course, no one will tell the CEO that they are a poor salesman!  When the CEO is successful, it is not uncommon for them to become frustrated with their sales teams and their inability to close sales as they can.  It is, therefore, worthwhile for all CEO “sales reps” to think about the observations above before rendering judgments on their sales reps.  The article in this collection, 3.040406, “Prepare the Soil,” discusses another issue that is often missed.  It involves fully documenting the necessary definitive information that needs to be available before a sales rep is hired.  This information will most probably exist in the mind of the entrepreneur/CEO and, for them, easily flow out of their lips when they are in front of a prospect.  A new sales rep, even a seasoned veteran or domain expert, without this knowledge is likely not to succeed.

In addition to the advantages listed above, there are some disadvantages when the CEO acts as the sales rep, including:

  1. Prospects may not readily accept being “handed down” to a sales rep after the CEO’s initial involvement.  This may require the CEO stay involved, even after the sale is complete and on-going support is required.
  2. The CEO’s ability to make on the spot commitments may not give them the time to consider all of the implications of their decisions, making “back peddling” difficult.
  3. Linked to the item above, with the CEO directly involved, there is no “higher court” that can resolve contentious issues that may occur during the sales process.
  4. As the business grows and more prospects and customers appear, the CEO may simply not be able to invest the time to follow up on prospect and customer requests. This, in turn, may disappoint prospects and customers, taking personal offense to the CEO’s lack of responsiveness.

To avoid the disadvantages listed above, the CEO should not assume the role of a sales rep after they have properly armed the sales rep with the knowledge and insight that they have developed and honed.  Instead, they should be a tag-along visitor accompanying the sales rep.  Their stated goal in any sales meeting should be to listen to the prospect, interjecting comments only when absolutely necessary.  This, of course, is very hard to do.  First, the prospect will naturally direct their questions to the CEO as the highest company official.  Second, the CEO, with their past experience, probably does have far more answers than the sales rep and is probably busting at the seams to express them and take charge.  And, third, a sales rep will naturally fall back and let the boss speak when they want. Establishing the correct balance between listening and responding is always a challenge.

Another issue can occur with domestic prospects but is more likely to occur with other cultures.  This occurs when there is a title disparity between the prospect and the vendor.  Vendors naturally want to be sure they are showing the proper respect to the prospects no matter what their level in the organization.  Individuals within the prospect’s organization, on the other hand, may feel obligated to act subservient to the higher title of the CEO who is calling on them even though their organization may be significantly larger than the startup vendor.  An underlying cultural uneasiness can develop involving all parties.  True feelings and objections by the prospect may not surface “out of respect,” which can result in the appearance of very productive interactions that simply never result in a customer commitment.

Clearly, with the above comments in mind, there is no single correct answer to the CEO’s role as a sales rep.  The proper approach needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Only when a firm customer commitment has been made will it be possible to determine if the correct approach was followed, assuming, of course, that no other factors were involved, which is never the case!  So, the best advice is to have the CEO stop selling as soon the company has sufficiently armed sales reps with the tools and insight to do their jobs.


Article Number : 5.020301   

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