For those of you puzzled by the title above, long ago canaries were used in the mining industry as leading indicators of looming catastrophe underground. When the canary was overcome by and died from dangerous levels of gas in the mine, things were about to get very bad–and it was time to get out.
So what’s the comparable situation in a software or hardware company? Why, it’s the imminent firing of the VP-Sales, of course!
Let’s face it, the VP-Sales get fired all the time in tech companies so I’m not implying that every time one gets fire a company is about to go down the tube. VP-Sales get fired because for a myriad of reasons: they’re not all that competent, they’re lazy, there is a sales force revolt, they fight with the VP Marketing, CEO or other senior executive, etc., etc. But most often they get fired for simply not meeting the expected top-line numbers–regardless of circumstances. There’s a quicker trigger for the sales department than any other functional area in a company. In many companies, whether you’re talking about a bag-carrying rep or a VP-Sales managing a staff of 500–don’t make your number for the year (or maybe two years in a row) and you’re history. No ifs, ands and buts.
This is an accepted method of how to deal with the sales function in many if not most tech businesses; it’s usually not even questioned. Sales is a competitive, performance-oriented function, you’ll hear. Yet I’ve always found this approach curious–and I’ll tell you why.
While I believe that the skill and work ethic of sales folks is very important to a company’s success, let’s be real here. The sales function is just one link of the value-creation chain. It happens to be the most visible because it’s the link at the very end of the chain. By the time the ball gets into the hands of the sales function, the great majority of the value that will allow a sale to happen has already been created–or not. If the value chain has worked well upstream of sales, the job can be relatively easy and sales people make LOTS of money. If the value chain is broken upstream, the job of the sales person can become nearly impossible. Ironically, it’s often in this latter situation that a VP-Sales will lose his or her job most quickly. In many organizations there is a great deal of resentment or jealousy toward highly compensated sales personnel. So maybe it’s because the sales function’s compensation/effort is so high when things are good, that they are let go first when things don’t go well. In any event, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense.
People will argue with me on the paragraph above–but in my mind it’s very true. Because of my view, I’ve always found it absurd that the sales folks are the first fired when expectations aren’t met and also that in most cases their compensation is so heavily dependent upon the end sale. I realize that many will consider this view to be blasphemy. It’s been done this way so long and so broadly that my contrarian opinion goes way against the grain of common business practices for sure. Assuming you think I’m not completely crazy, here are a few things to consider when this situation applies to your company:
A few warning signs might indicate it’s not really (or just) a sales issue
- You’ve fired several VPs of Sales in quick succession.
- You’re losing good sales people–exit interview feedback from them is that your competitive position in the market is declining.
- The developers and marketing/product management functions are fighting (even more than usual). This often indicates that the right products won’t be released in the right time frame.
- 3rd party analyst rankings of your product’s position in the market is on the decline.
- It’s becoming harder to hire the talent you need in key departments or even across the entire company.
- The scuttlebutt from water cooler conversations is that overall company morale is low.
- The percentage of current customers renewing is decreasing–not just a decelerating number of new customers. This can indicate something fundamental is going wrong with the product or the customer service/tech support function.
Steps to take before you fire your 3rd VP of Sales in 5 years
- Take a step back and make sure you’re getting true information about the overall state of your company. Especially in larger companies–but even in some smaller ones–The CEO and other very senior staff aren’t totally informed of the actual state of affairs.
- Do a complete review of your product development and marketing/product management /planning functions. Are the right products–fulfilling key market needs–being developed in the appropriate time frames?
- Review the outbound marketing/demand creation and customer/technical support functions. Make sure that an adequate number of high quality leads are being generated in support of sales to grow the business. Also make sure that customer service/technical support are treating customers with respect and doing everything possible to respond to their needs–bad customer service is the quickest way to turn customers and prospects from advocates to naysayers. In these days of the Internet and social media, word of bad service travels faster than ever and can drive your business into the ground.
So next time you’re ONCE AGAIN ready to fire the VP-Sales or even a large part of the sales team–take your finger off the trigger for a moment. Step back and take a close look at the entire value chain and make an objective assessment of the functioning of every key link. If just one of those links is broken, the potential for a sale at the end of the chain is greatly compromised.
What do you think–am I wrong about the firing of a VP-Sales often being a leading indicator of deeper issues? Post a comment below with your own opinion on this very common scenario.
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David Wick says
Your article is very insightfull, and reflects what often happens in high tech companies. Value creation starts with defining what customers want and then building it for them faster with higher quality than your competition can. I have led Sales, led Marketing and led them both at the same time, so I am very familiar with how this works.
“Firing someone in sales” when the company is not meeting numbers is also sometimes an act of leadership by the President/CEO to demonstrate they are taking action to make things better – but often the morale impact makes things worse! Let alone the unproductive learning curve the new sales people have to go through.
This article is hilarious