The CRO’s Secret Weapon

Aaron Sun Avatar photo

Anyone who thinks sales is all about golfing and glad-handing should see the to-do list of a new CRO at a B2B software company. A three-martini lunch it isn’t. 

A headache is more like it. A newly minted CRO needs to build a team that can generate a constant flow of quality leads, convert them to sales-qualified opportunities and close them as fast as possible, turning buyers into happy customers who drive upsells and references. All while staffing up and expanding into every global region. 

That sounds daunting enough. The details look even hairier. A typical 100-day agenda might include:

  • Cleaning up CRM so leadership can get its bearings
  • Investing in sales enablement to create consistency across account executives
  • Implementing software like CPQ to automate processes
  • Rolling out dashboards to visualize key metrics from one place
  • Putting in a sales methodology like MEDDIC to inspect deals at scale
  • Re-tuning or revamping the sales process
  • Reallocating territories and segments
  • Hiring, hiring, hiring 

Yet even with all that, most new CROs leave out something important—something that costs them dearly in the long run. Each of those items makes a sales team better at selling the products they’re given. None of them ensure they’re selling products the market wants. None addresses that all-important quality known as ‘product-market fit.’

“Well, yes,” the CRO might respond. “But product-market fit isn’t Sales’s responsibility. We go into the field with the products we have. I’d like to see them dialed-in better, but there’s nothing I can do about it. I have enough on my plate managing the things I can control.”

But here’s the problem: everyone feels that way. The developers say, “We build cool stuff. It’s Sales’s job to find someone to buy it.” The marketing team can picture the ideal buyer based on surveys and market research, but know little about what particular prospects want. Product management worries about product-market fit, but they’re either looking in the rear-view mirror at existing customers or planning five years out, which does little for the business today. 

Companies tend to know a lot about what customers are buying and what they’re complaining about, but a lot less about the product capabilities that will bring in new revenue, make customers pay more over time or close deals. They also have limited to no insight into what customers are using and why they purchased in the first place.  

In today’s reality, ensuring product-market fit is everyone’s job. It’s not surprising everyone does a piece of it. What is surprising is that no one brings the pieces together.

Imagine if someone did—if they created an interlock between Product and Sales. Intelligence from Sales could flow immediately to the product team. Product could tailor its roadmap to market demand. Sales would know precisely which prospects — even ones that had been left for dead — would be activated by a new product release, and how much revenue they might bring in. 

But that’s usually not how it goes. Every company I’ve ever encountered has a huge gap between the go-to-market teams on one side (sales, SDR, marketing, CSM), and the development teams (engineering, product management) that live in product lifecycle management (PLM) like Jira on the other. Each has parts of the puzzle. Neither connects with the other. 

You can always tell when a company’s product and sales teams are misaligned. It develops products and features users don’t need. Its sales teams can’t figure out who to target with new releases.  Growth is steady, not hyperbolic. Competitors are scooping up market share. 

And who suffers the most? The Sales team. Sales is where the rubber meets the road. Whenever there’s a disconnect between Product and Sales, Sales feels it first.

The irony is, B2B CROs not only have the ability to connect sales and product, they’re the only people who can. They own the solution. It’s the Presales team. (Different organizations might  call it Sales Engineering or Solution Consulting. I’ll use Presales, but the job—and the value—is the same.) 

I’ve talked to a lot of sales chiefs, and I can tell you most organizations have a blind spot the size and shape of their Presales department.  No CRO would dream of drafting a 100-day plan that didn’t address sales intelligence, sales development or sales enablement. No one would assume those functions will just take care of themselves, or that they’re fine the way they are. But there’s nothing remarkable about a sales plan that doesn’t mention Presales at all, except to project the need for more staff as Sales scales up. A CRO might have tens or even hundreds of presales FTEs reporting in, yet no strategy for engaging with the team, improving the team, never mind using it to its full potential. 

You can imagine someone asking, ““Full potential?” What does that even mean?” After all, Presales are often seen as the propeller-heads brought in to run demos after the sales team has done the heavy lifting. That is a huge mistake. Presales are the ones working side-by-side with potential buyers every day. They hear things nobody else does. They know things no one else knows. Like what features customers care about (and don’t). Who is likely to buy and who is just stringing you along. What deals you could bring back to life if you just made a few adjustments to the product. 

Right now all that knowledge is locked up inside Presales, but there’s no workflow or technology in place to get at it. Nobody even realizes there’s anything worth getting at in the first place. You can’t think of Presales as a support function. It’s a strategic function—a connective function. It can be the glue that binds the worlds of sales and product together. But only if it’s treated that way. 

In my experience, Presales usually gets neither the attention nor the investment it needs. It has to navigate a huge range of procurement processes based on buyers’ size, location, vertical sector and business need. Each calls for different combinations of demonstrations, business value assessments, proof of concepts and technical presentations. Selecting the right Presales motion for each buyer increases the chance of sales conversions, yet most organizations have no formal way to do this. Nor do they have any way to match the right Presales staff to the right sales opportunity. They just go on gut feel.

Likewise, Presales has no way to share what it knows with Product on the one hand and Sales on the other. There’s no system of record, no central hub that other departments can visit, no way to channel information to the people who need it. 

It’s a situation a CRO would never tolerate anywhere else in the Sales cycle. Yet when it comes to Presales, most accept it without a second thought. There might be no other part of the organization where so much value goes untapped.

So what should a new CRO actually do to make Presales the glue between Product and Sales?

  • First, make sure Presales is recording what it hears across all deals, and that the  knowledge gets set down somewhere in a persistent format; make sure Presales normalizes the data so multiple instances are merged into one for grading and discussion.  
  • Ask Presales to assign each product gap a level of business priority based on potential revenue, business impact, competitive impact and customer impact.
  • Institute a product council where Product, Sales and Presales go through the data together, confirm priorities and decide which items are most actionable. Usually product is just checking customer forums or referring to their customer advisory board, which means the roadmap tends to be guided by squeaky wheels and complaints; this approach surfaces net-new product opportunity.
  • In release-review meetings, Presales needs to step up and identify who will be affected by new features and how they can drive revenue. And Sales needs to take notes.

I’d argue that Presales not only belongs on any new CRO’s opening checklist, it needs to be right at the top. Changing a company’s roadmap and product-development process takes longer than putting in a new CPQ solution, holding a sales training or configuring a dashboard. It’s hard, but the hard thing has to come first.

And CROs might be surprised how much support they get from product management. I’ve found that PMs are hungry for the kind of intelligence Presales can give them.They don’t love that they’re often winging it, making decisions based on their own points of view or catering to the loudest voice in the room.  They’d much rather take the bias out of the process and make decisions based on data.

So yes, making Presales a go-to-market secret weapon is hard, but not as daunting as it might seem. And it’s worth it. The companies that will win over the next decade will be those that connect their go-to-market and development teams—where the CRM and PLM systems converge. They’ll be the ones who can generate and close leads most efficiently and find dormant sources of revenue, because every release triggers a sales call to the customer or prospect who had the need in the first place. 

Companies that bring those two worlds together, and make Product and Sales work as one team, will meet the demands of the market faster than anyone else, sell faster than anyone else and beat everyone that takes them on. Is anything on a CRO’s list more important than that?

Aaron Sun Avatar photo March 30, 2020