On the surface, it’s hard to come up with two organizational roles that are more temperamentally mismatched than the CFO and the head of sales.
The CFO is the conscience of the organization, bringing rigor, practicality and a sobering dose of reality. The head of sales, on the other hand, brings a relentless drive and unbridled optimism.
You’ve seen this dynamic play out in buddy cop movies where a by-the-book desk jockey pairs up with a streetwise rule-breaker. And just like in those movies, bringing these two very different leadership roles together may seem counterintuitive, but it delivers powerful results every time.
Two reasons to buddy up: the forecast and the strategy
When sales and finance are in lockstep, growth is achieved in a way that’s controlled, predictable, realistic and sustainable.
The Sales Forecast
To understand why the finance/sales collaboration is so critical, look at the organization’s single most important decision-making tool: the sales forecast. It’s the growth roadmap, telling the organization how much revenue they’re likely to generate, when they’re likely to see it and where they need to allocate resources. It is an irreplaceable metric for reaching their sales goals and ensuring proper and timely delivery to customers.
Building that forecast requires input from both sales and finance if it’s going to be accurate and actionable. Sales brings a deep understanding of the buying cycle and a close, intuitive relationship with the customer, while finance brings a facility with numbers and systems, along with a broader understanding of the organization’s resources. The result is a forecast that stands up to scrutiny and an organization that presents a credible, united front to their board. (For a step-by-step guide to building a reliable sales forecast, stay tuned for our next GrowthBit from Michael Sala)
When sales and finance work together, the result is a forecast that stands up to scrutiny and the ability to present a credible, united front to the board.
The Sales Strategy
Fostering a close, reciprocal relationship between sales and finance also strengthens the organization’s budgeting and strategic planning processes. The sales leader has the greatest contact with the buyer and is closest to the market trends. How is the product perceived? What features do we need to develop next? What pricing will the market bear? That market perspective is invaluable in helping the CFO to decide where to allocate resources.
Conversely, the CFO brings a much-needed reality check. If the CEO wants to double revenues next year, the CFO can help the sales leader work through the implications and ask the tough questions. Is this level of growth feasible given the current sales pipeline and the size of the addressable market? Can we hire, train, ramp up and assimilate the necessary staff? Can the delivery teams serve all those additional customers? Can the product team scale the product fast enough?
Three requirements of a healthy sales and finance partnership
Procedurally, a sales and finance partnership is straightforward, but culturally, it can be a significant shift. To support greater coordination and collaboration between functions, the CFO needs to focus on building trust, communication and value.
Trust between the CFO and sales is paramount—no hidden or personal agendas. The relationship needs to be founded on what’s best for the organization, not the individual. Those levels of trust are primarily set by the CEO and the organizational culture, but the CFO and head of sales can also contribute to it by demonstrating mutual respect and meeting each other halfway. For sales, it’s a matter of making sure the sales cycle is well defined and the team is well trained so that the sales forecast is credible. For finance, it’s about taking the time to understand the numbers and coming prepared to ask questions and challenge assumptions, but also look for solutions. Neither party should ever feel blindsided during a meeting; when sales and finance work together closely, everyone needs to agree on the story those numbers tell and be ready to present a united front to the board.
Most organizations have most—if not all—of their sales and financial data available digitally, which means the CFO can bring up the sales forecast and review it without any input from sales. But sitting down across a table and discussing the numbers face to face ensures that the real story doesn’t get buried.
Every deal, and particularly those with a longer sales cycle, has nuances, and it’s always a good idea to talk it through and gauge the level of confidence. Making a point of communicating regularly will uncover the nuances and extenuating circumstances that can subtly or dramatically change the story those numbers tell. And a smart salesperson will welcome the opportunity to talk it through with the numbers expert, even if, at the end of the process, the pipeline doesn’t look quite as robust. It’s always better to know the truth sooner rather than later, and definitely prior to the board meeting.
A CFO is often seen as the person who sits behind closed doors, crunching the numbers and rejecting any requests that cost money or disrupt the status quo. But if they’re doing the job right, the CFO should be more “facilitator” than “gatekeeper”—especially where sales is concerned.
CFOs can deliver value to sales in numerous ways. Here are a few examples:
- Helping sales clean up their data and double-check the numbers in the system.
- Sharing last year’s projections and actuals with sales to give them a stronger framework for building their budget for the upcoming year.
- Contributing their financial expertise to pricing discussions, legal contractual matters or term concessions that meet the customer’s needs.
But if they’re doing the job right, the CFO should be more of a “facilitator” than a “gatekeeper”—especially where sales is concerned.
The more the CFO is willing to listen, participate and strategize, and the more flexibility and empathy they can demonstrate during this process, the more sales they can help the organization close, and the closer the relationship will be between sales and finance.
(For more on the topic of delivering more value to the organization, read “Why Every CFO Needs to Become a Change Agent.”)
Here’s the bottom line.
When the relationship between sales and finance is adversarial or simply disconnected, it has a profound impact on organizational performance. While these leadership roles have different temperaments, approaches and areas of expertise, when they can learn to collaborate, the result is a system that anticipates and supports growth more effectively and a leadership team that is greater than the sum of its parts.
LLR Partners believes in sharing the wealth of experience and expertise within our portfolio companies, network and teams in order to inspire and help accelerate growth for a wider community of business leaders. We hope you find these GrowthBits helpful and share them with your network. Read more growth insights here.