How to build an organisation that supports Partnership selling


“An effective sales organisation is one where sales is ingrained in the leadership at the very highest level”.

That was the premise of the first in my series of articles on Sales Leadership, in which I explored three sales styles – the Transactional, the Traditional and the Partnership approaches. You can read the full article on my website.

In this, the second in the series, I’ll take a look beyond the individual seller to the sales organisation. For a partnership selling approach to be really successful, it needs to be supported by a partnership selling organisation.

So what is a partnership selling organisation, and how does it differ from a traditional selling organisation?

In a traditional sales organisation, the majority of face to face sellers are typically account managers, who are generally of average skill level (the old saying – thank god our clients are buying because we are not selling has never been truer). You will usually also have a small team of high performing strategic sellers (who have proven that they approach clients in the partnership model and have been pulled out of their account roles and are now shipped all over the organisation to make that sale, this is an unsustainable model as it loses effectiveness over time). Underneath these two classes of face to face sellers is often a team of inside sales reps.  

The account managers are expected to sell throughout the client organisation, from the CEO to the lowliest IT geek. By nature, no matter how hard they try otherwise, they usually end up pinned at a certain point in the client organisation between those highest and lowest points. They find their own level and they stay there, because that’s where they’re comfortable.

The Chief Sales Officer

A partnership selling organisation is a CEO-led sales organisation. The tone and culture for the whole organisation is set from the top and for a partnership sales approach to be successful, the CEO has to see him or herself as the Chief Sales Officer.

A really good acid test of whether a CEO is a Chief Sales Officer is their attitude to improving sales. A CEO who says ‘sack the entire sales team and get me some better people’ is not building a CEO-led sales organisation. The one who asks how do I change my organisation to improve the effectiveness of my sales arrow, how do I engage the whole organisation to get behind the sales engine gets it.

Why does the traditional model fail?

The reason the traditional model fails, in terms of results and in terms of its inability to scale, is because when the account manager is expected to sell to everyone in the client organisation from their C Suite downwards, the leaders of the client business see the account manager as sitting below them, not as a peer. The account manager does not have the IP or the credibility to address the client’s strategic imperatives.

The client may well like and respect the account manager, but at the same time they see him/her as being there to solve business issues, not as a partner to help them address their strategic imperatives. If the account manager is not from a CEO led sales organisation, with the best will in the world they find it almost impossible to engage with the C Suite within their client.

But my account managers are making their targets

That’s not to say that they are not being ‘successful’, in the sense that they may well be making their numbers and seen as ‘good’ account managers.

But hitting a target is as much a function of the target as the hitter (I’ll be talking more about strategies for setting targets in a later article), and unless they are truly impacting strategic imperatives, sooner or later then are going to be commoditised out of the market, because they are part of a dying model.

The account manager sees themselves not only as financially successful, but thinks they have evolved with the market – they can clearly distinguish themselves from the ‘old style’ reps who simply sold technology. But as we saw in my last article, there are three levels of sales approach – transactional, traditional and partnership. The account managers who are sitting in the middle, traditional, spot can justifiably say they are one step ahead of the transactional sellers, but they’re missing a trick by not realising that there is another level above them, and that they need to migrate into the partnership space or risk being beaten by those who have.

This blinkered view is often held not only by the sellers themselves, but by their management too. After all, they’re the ones setting the targets that the traditional sellers are meeting. Typically, at least 25% of these traditional sellers will be making their numbers and be the apple of their manager’s eye.

But in my experience, in any cohort of sellers, as many people don’t sell a single thing, as make their numbers. That’s up to a quarter of your sales team for whom you’re still paying a base salary and burdened costs, not to mention the cost of all that lost opportunity.

What about this small group of strategic sellers – aren’t they making a difference?

Sometimes, yes. But the reality is more often that they are brought in as the ‘white knight’ on specific opportunities, which doesn’t give them the time to build a sustainable relationship with the client, they don’t share their knowledge and add to the overall skill level of the team and quite simply they are often brought in too late (after it becomes clear that the account manager cannot handle the opportunity) to make a tangible difference.

And the Inside Sales Reps?

In most organisations, the Inside Sales Rep is a ‘catch all’ – he or she is briefed to ring out and find the small opportunities, to sell the ‘rats and mice’ that the account manager and strategic sellers don’t want to bother with. ISRs are often not briefed on the strategic imperatives – they are seen as the transactional sellers, there to supply technology bits and pieces only.

The issue is that whilst the ISR might be a good seller, the structure works against them. They are selling to the lowest level in the client and there is therefore a risk that they devalue the standing of the whole sales organisation because everything defaults to the lowest common denominator. To continue the analogy of my first article, there is a risk that they will blunt the arrowhead.

This is not because of any intrinsic characteristic of the ISR role or of their capabilities. It is because their organisation is not a CEO-led sales organisation. Their leadership does not understand that every single person who engages with the client needs to understand that client’s strategic imperatives and how the organisation offers value to address them.

ISRs can be a very powerful weapon for find ways to add value to the client’s strategic imperatives. (The same is true by the way for maintenance staff, who often spend more time on the client premises than the sales team and who, being seen as ‘non-sales’ are trusted and have access to information that the sellers would never see or hear). A true partnership sales organisation recognises this and uses every possible touch point to deliver its value message. As Simon Sinek so wisely says, ‘Start with Why’ and ensure that every member of the organisation understands why you do what you do and how it adds value to the client’s strategic imperatives.

The ideal sales model for partnership selling

Having explained some of the issues with the traditional sales structure, let’s take a look at what an organisation would ideally look like if it is to support a partnership sales approach.

Strategic Sellers

The first thing is that it would have significantly fewer (if any) account managers. Instead, the sales organisation would be peopled by strategic sellers. In a CEO-led sales organisation, the frontline of sales must be those who can understand and sell to the client’s strategic imperatives.

The key behaviours that mark out a strategic seller are:

  • Critical thinking – the seller must be able to understand the connection between the client’s strategic imperatives and what the sales organisation offers
  • Ability to drive urgency – the strategic seller must be nimble enough to adapt to client needs and have the ability to overcome the natural tendency of many organisations to be slow and process oriented.
  • Innovation – strategic sellers understand that innovation is not something that a supplier ‘does to’ a client it is something you ‘do with’ a client. It is a partnership, something that is worked on together, with ideas coming from both sides.
  • Drives Accountability – strategic sellers know that they are not the owners of all the actions that are required for success in a sales process – they know who and how to hold the right people accountable to get the job done -

Essentially, they have the skills to link what they sell to what the client wants. This means understanding the client’s industry and local, regional and global trends. They will be well aware of the activities that their client’s competitors are undertaking. Many of the best strategic sellers will have worked directly in the same industry as their client, but it is not essential.

Next generation

Supporting these strategic sellers, you need a team of young, hungry, enthusiastic ‘digital natives’. These people will help and advise the critical thinking of the strategic seller. They do the research, make calls with the strategic sellers and gain real-world experience working with them. They are the ‘home grown sales engine’, looking to be the next generation of strategic sellers. I suggest that it’s really important that this ‘next generation’ team is on a shared target with the strategic sellers (more on that in the next article).

The technology team

The third essential element of this partnership sales organisation is the specialist product and technology team. Their role is, under the leadership of the strategic seller, to build a solution that works, that helps the client take that next step towards their strategic imperative, and position themselves for new opportunity.

The strategic seller is responsible for pulling all these resources together, ensuring that every single one of them understands the client’s strategic imperatives. He or she needs to ensure that the entire team is fully engaged and that they all have one overarching common goal – to show the client how they can help them reach their strategic imperatives.

The essential is that the team works together, each understanding not only the client and industry but each other’s roles. Under the traditional model, one account manager has sole responsibility for the many accounts in their patch. Under the partnership sales model, the team, rather than the single account manager, has the responsibility. They may still have multiple clients (usually all within the same broad industry segment), but because every member of the team fully understands the role they play in addressing the client’s strategic imperatives, the responsibility does not all rest on one pair of shoulders.

A quick word on job titles – there is nothing wrong with the members of the Next Generation and the Technical and Product teams having the word ‘sales’ in their title. One of the things that I have seen over the years is the creeping avoidance of the word ‘seller’ or ‘salesperson’, as if it were something to be ashamed of, or hidden. We have a plethora of ‘Strategic engagement mangers’, ‘Executive relationship managers’, ‘Advisors’, and ‘Technical consultants’, all seemingly trying to hide the fact that they are there to sell. I am of the ‘Language leads though’ school of thinking, and my concern is therefore that if you don’t call yourself a seller, you won’t sell.

Another acid test for the CEO-led sales organisation is that a true sales CEO would not let anyone in sales have a business card that didn’t say sales.


Talking of the CEO, let’s finish up with a look at the skills needed by the CEO (and by extension all the C Suite execs) in a CEO-led sales organisation.

The leaders of a CEO-led sales organisation have the same critical thinking skills as their strategic sellers, and are expert at engaging with clients. They don’t need to ask for a client briefing – they understand the client’s industry, challenges and objectives. (although this can be valuable to understand how much your seller understands their client) They built and maintain deep peer relationships with the client. They can introduce the strategic seller to the highest levels within the client organisation and their credibility reflects back onto their seller, meaning that they can then take those relationships forward in their own right. They lift the whole team to their level.  

I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I have heard an account manager say he does not want to introduce his company exec to his client. Too often the execs are unengaged, inward-looking and do not advance the opportunity or relationship.

When you have a CEO-led organisation, there is no such reluctance. The executive who meets your client will talk about the sales opportunities and add value to them. They don’t leave with empty, or unfulfillable, promises. They don’t leave more actions than outcomes. They don’t simply treat the meeting as a boasting session. They advance the opportunity and get it one step closer to closing – they have the confidence to make the sales team look good and take credit for the enhanced relationship.

In a CEO-led sales organisation, the CEO is not demanding that their staff hire the best sales team, they know it is their responsibility to build that team. They know professional training is an essential and worthwhile investment that will be paid back many times over.

They understand the importance of ensuring that their teams have a product to sell – meaning that their services are packaged, modular and legally and commercially consumable by clients. That’s a whole topic in itself, and one I’ll touch on in a future article.

The sales-led CEO will infuse the whole organisation with a sales-led approach – the CMO, the HR Director, the Product Development Manager, Legal, Finance – all will see themselves as playing a part in sales.

Sales becomes the internal strategic imperative and in a CEO-led sales organisation, every single person understands the role they play in helping to drive those sales.

With that approach, and the structure described above, partnership selling can truly thrive.

My mission is to improve the sales culture in Australia and I value your feedback.

Regards Andrew