Getting the Most Out of the Sales VP

When you hired your Sales VP, did he sell himself to you better than he is now selling your company’s products to your customers? Has your company struggled through several failures, either because you defined the job wrong or had the wrong person? A burden is lifted and new possibilities open up when the sales process has the right leadership and really starts to click. In my last column I wrote about using outsiders on your Board. That is a nice idea—you may actually get around to it some day. Your Sales VP problem you have to fix right now.

Frustration is Common

Three presidents have told me recently of long-standing frustrations with their sales VPs. I’ve turned over in my mind the 20 management teams with which I have served. I have concluded that most companies fail two or three times before succeeding in this crucial area. Most surprising: the failure is subtle, even insidious. It can take years to recognize it and know what to do about it.

The Role and Its Pitfalls

When a company starts small, the president may, in effect, be the first Sales VP. The president brings a lot of strength to the sales job and usually succeeds (or the company dies). The president’s early success makes it easy to assume that a new VP will do at least as well. Not necessarily! Decide what role the president will play and what role the Sales VP will play. Define how engineering, operations, and marketing (especially marketing) will relate to sales. Even the best new hire will fail, without these steps. Some common pitfalls role definition:

  • Some strong Sales VP will shake things up. This may be what you want. He will advocate change in product direction, he will be impatient with delays, he will put the customer’s convenience ahead of internal convenience. This can be a big shock. Before you hire, decide how much of this you want. If you call it wrong, the match is not going to work.
  • Some presidents should run some aspects of sales, no matter what. The Sales VP needs to know the ground rules ahead of time.

Look at what elements actually create sales success in your company. Then, you’ll know which of the following traits are most important.

The Person and 13 Areas of Strength

You are looking for a great individual salesperson, and more. You probably want strength in three distinct areas: Selling, Managing, and Distribution. In practice, this further subdivides into specific traits. If you evaluate your current VP, and future candidates, against these points, you won’t be swept into making a poor choice.


  1. Cold Calling. Picks up the phone and calls strangers, gets through to people, awakens initial interest, starts conversations at trade shows, etc.
  2. Qualifying. Asks fearless questions, probes for needs, finds the true decision maker, assesses budgets and decision time frames, anticipates objections. Makes connections between needs and solutions.
  3. Give and Take. Engages in dialog, thinks on his feet, tolerates ambiguity, follows opportunity, listens, responds to concerns, creates as he goes, gets to agreement. Most engineers and financial technicians are very weak here.
  4. Knowledge. Knows the customers, the competitors, the technology, the products.
  5. Authority. Has presence. Controls accounts. Is believable. Is persuasive. Does not let people waste his time. Forces issues. Speaks well to groups.
  6. Attitude. Is energetic, ambitious, unstoppable, persistent. Is not necessarily “optimistic” in the sense that he always expects better outcomes than most people expect, but he does intensely want good outcomes, and he does what it takes to get them. Does not let the problem bury him. Responds to setbacks by formulating a new attack.Managing:

    It’s common to get all the above and still have a lousy manager, so we need to add management skills to the mix. They are:

  7. Process. Has a sense of beginning, middle, and end. Can set daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals, create a process for reaching them, and work steadily over the time frame the goal requires. Can extend this approach to a group of people. Always has a plan.
  8. Product Marketing. Knows how to define markets, project trends, position products, extrapolate from individual customer needs to market patterns.
  9. Business Sense. Understands the P&L of the company, the link of sales to engineering, production, marketing, and finance.
  10. Management Team. Can work as a cooperative team member with other senior managers. His opinion is valuable on issues outside of Sales.Distribution:

    Ideally, especially in some businesses, you would also like specific skills in managing partners, distributors, integrators, and other channels. These skills are less crucial and more easily learned, but still nice to have them ready to go.
  11. Contacts. Knows the right people in the industry. Knows which companies do what, who the players are.
  12. Channel Business Model. Knows how resellers make money, what their needs are, what challenges they face.
  13. Program Experience. Knows how to create and implement pricing, discounts, and promotions. Knows how soft money works, knows what resellers will and won’t do.


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