Confessions of a power couple

Repairing the finance and sales relationship in business is key to success, writes Kirsten Levermore

Sales won’t listen to me, whines Finance. Finance doesn’t understand me, retorts Sales. It’s a classic relationship problem. And it may be why half of US chief financial officers and executives believe inadequate sales talent is the number one barrier to revenue growth in 2018.

Coming to light as part of the 2018 CFO Sentiment Study, an annual survey by The CFO Alliance of senior financial executives in the US, the conclusion that more than 50% of finance executives lose sleep over sales could serve as the first step in reparations between the departments, and improved collaboration and top line revenue.

Trust issues

According to the 2018 CFO Sentiment Study: 

  • More than half of top-level finance executives believe current performance, lack of competency and ‘thin’ bench strength of existing sales talent is the key barrier to overcome in order to meet or exceed revenue growth objectives in 2018
  • Two-thirds of US finance executives would like to upgrade current sales talent and sales support staff
  • Some 77% feel their enterprises are less than effective at converting qualified leads to sales
  • Only 36% of respondents find their enterprise is ‘very effective’ at securing and ensuring the loyalty of their current customers and clients

Yet finance departments’ underwhelming opinion of sales divisions is balanced by a thriving hope for better performance. The survey also reports an overwhelming majority of finance executives believe better hiring and motivation of sales talent is critical to success.

We need to talk

According to the ‘solutions’ questions in the study, finance chiefs pledge to join forces with sales from here on in, and work together on a more regular basis. Indeed, collaboration is already in full flow in some companies, with more than 40% of respondents already working cross-departmentally with sales, account management, strategy, operations, human resources and technology teams.

Furthermore, finance intends to take a real interest in sales’ day-to-day work and challenges: almost half of finance executives would like to actively participate in account management, meaning client and store visits, improved people skills, and relationship-building skills – all of which could help number-orientated finance bosses better understand their sales counterparts and, in turn, encourage sales to incorporate their goals into strategies.

Reconcilable differences

Attempting to bridge the gap in the immediate future, the sentiment study reports the majority of finance executives plan to adjust how they measure the success of sales and marketing, moving from a traditional return on investment (ROI) metric to a return on objective (ROO) metric. The hope is that this will quantify and qualify the extent to which the enterprise has achieved an objective, as opposed to achieving a specific revenue figure. Whether this approach will find traction among more hardcore accounting and finance executives remains to be seen.

We can work this out

“I think the results are indicative that finance doesn’t think it is collaborating well enough to aid sales in its efforts,” says CFO Alliance president Greg Wood. “Our survey shows there’s going to be significant investment in finance automation this year, as finance tries to put fewer handcuffs on the sales function – things like making it easier for sales to report and update its systems are on the agenda. It wants to know what sales need regarding analytics, fintech, dashboards, content etc. Finance doesn’t want to be a roadblock, but a catalyst to accelerate.”

Yet the lack of faith in existing sales talent is going to remain a sore point for the two departments, Wood notes: “From listening to our members, there is some concern about sales talent – whether someone who has worked in sales for ten years is the best person to sell tomorrow’s cloud technology, for example. But finance has concerns about the suitability of existing talent throughout their organizations. And I think that creating the best teams for the best projects and accounts is something its technology investments and working with multiple teams is going to address.”

Whether it is a question of two very different types of people, goals and strategies, or if someone simply needs to “try harder”, results like these indicate 2018 may be characterized by the interaction between the finance/sales power couple, for better or for worse. And, with tensions brewing and stock markets zigzagging, it could be time to work on their relationship – before it spills onto the balance sheets.

— Kirsten Levermore is assistant editor of Dialogue