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Is the Head of Sales Job Going Extinct? The Rise of the CRO

Chief revenue officers have a birds-eye view of all revenue activities and are able to identify new sales channels and uncover untapped markets.

woman giving a presentation, colleagues sit around her on chairs
CRO giving presentation before sales colleagues. [David Prado/Stocksy]

Chief revenue officers (CROs) seem to be everywhere these days. Since Forbes dubbed the chief revenue officer a “CEO’s secret weapon” nearly a decade ago, the role has exploded in popularity. A peek at LinkedIn now shows more than 2,000 open job listings for CROs, most of them posted in the last month. Is it another example of C-suite overcrowding? (Anyone remember the chief “listening” officer craze?) Or is it an indispensable miracle function that will superpower your business and propel your revenue to new heights? Let’s dig in.

According to industry analysts at Ventana, almost one-quarter of organizations will establish a chief revenue officer role by 2023. Businesses are realizing that to stay agile, strategic, and most importantly, sustainable, they need a CRO who can fold marketing, sales, and customer success into one seamless revenue machine.

“In the last seven or eight years, we’ve seen a real emphasis on the chief revenue officer,” said Michael Maoz, senior vice president of innovation strategy at Salesforce. “They’re able to pinpoint how organizations can strategically move themselves into a very successful future.”

What does a chief revenue officer do exactly?

Great question. It’s an evolving discussion that comes up with our customers every day. A CRO leads the revenue-generating processes across your entire organization. They see how all departments can drive revenue for the company; those departments can include sales, marketing, customer success, and finance. The CRO leverages cross-functional knowledge to create a complete view of the customer lifecycle from bringing in new leads to closing deals to renewing customer contracts.

“What we learned from recent research is that ‘growth’ has a different definition than it did 10 years ago,” said Karen Semone, vice president of innovation strategy at Salesforce. “Growth isn’t just describing the financial valuation of a business anymore. It’s a broader term, inclusive of growing talent, market share, brand relevance. The evolving role of the CRO considers this more holistic definition of growth.”

READ MORE: 5 Game-Changing Traits of Chief Revenue Officers

Alignment is the name of the game, as CROs rip down silos to gain full visibility into every part of the business. With a birds-eye view of all revenue activities, they’re able to identify new sales channels, uncover untapped markets, and take advantage of other previously unknown revenue opportunities. They’re able to scale operations to maximize revenue.

Although the CRO often has a background in sales, the role should not be confused with the vice president of sales.

We’re seeing this CRO role now because we’re starting to think about revenue as more of a continuum rather than just sales bringing in revenue.

Asia corbett, head of revenue and community operations at revgenius

“There’s a perception that a good CRO is the best salesperson in the room,” said Timothy O’Neil, the chief revenue officer at Alation, the leader in enterprise data intelligence solutions. “As a CRO at a scaling company, you have to focus more on the strategy and methodologies than the day-to-day deals.”

It’s a big job with plenty of responsibility. Although the tasks may vary day to day, they might look something like this:

  • Establishing a go-to-market strategy and defining revenue goals/metrics
  • Recruiting, retaining, and training the best talent
  • Diving deep into data analysis with revenue, pipelines, and forecasts
  • Acquiring and deploying the right sales tools for efficiency and effectiveness
  • Fostering senior-level client relationships and influencing deal structure
  • Incorporating customer feedback into the product development cycle

Having one person who’s accountable for alignment among all the revenue-related departments pays off. According to Forrester, companies that aligned people, processes and technology across their sales and marketing teams achieved 36% more revenue growth and up to 28% more profitability.

“The CRO is thinking way ahead. They’re thinking about renewals, and how to ensure that revenue continues to exist and persist beyond this quarter. There’s a wider lens around bringing the voice of the customer into all parts of the organization,” said Adnan Chaudhry, head of Americas sales at Slack.

The CRO brings together marketing, sales, and customer success in this flow chart.

CRO in the organizational chart. Screenshot from this Future of Selling video (1:13)

Why are chief revenue officers surging in popularity?

Short answer: 2020 happened.

In many ways, the pandemic showed the urgent need for organizations to possess agility, resilience, and an unshakeable long-term mindset. Silos evaporated as sales, marketing, and customer success had to come together as one to make decisions that would ensure survival.

“We’re seeing this CRO role now because we’re starting to think about revenue as more of a continuum rather than just sales bringing in revenue,” said Asia Corbett, head of revenue and community operations at RevGenuis, a network for revenue professionals. “You need somebody at the top who is looking at the strategy over the whole buyer’s journey and not just focused on sales.”

Companies need to think across three years, five years, 10 years, a generation. So they bring in a chief revenue officer.

Michael Maoz, senior vp of Innovation at salesforce

Add to that, the C-level title is a great way to recruit talent in an escalating war for the best sellers. The Great Resignation is a real thing, and rewarding go-to-market vice presidents (VPs) with an expanded role is a great way to get people in the door and keep them there.

“The CRO title gives the person coming into the role the reassurance and confidence that they will lead all aspects of the team, and that someone else won’t be hired on top of them,” O’Neil said. “It lets you know that you’re at the highest level.”

Will chief revenue officers replace the head of sales?

So will CROs be coming for heads of sales’ jobs? Will heads of sales go the way of switchboard operators and become extinct? Not exactly.

“The VP of sales could still have a place in the revenue ecosystem. If we think of the CRO as being responsible for the entire go-to-market team and not just sales, it would make sense that your VP-level people from sales, marketing, and customer success would roll up to this CRO, who’s driving this overall strategy,” Corbett said.

Sometimes the way heads of sales might be incentivized — quarterly sprints — can run counter to what’s best for the long-term health of the company. The CRO helps to maintain a marathon mindset without getting distracted by quick wins.

“The head of sales, their life is a hard life. They’ve got to make sure they’re on target for the quarter and then another quarter and another, so you might call their job more tactical,” Maoz said. “But companies need to think across three years, five years, 10 years, a generation. So they bring in a chief revenue officer. This individual is freed up from what I’ll call ‘short termism.’ They can really get the big picture.”

Another differentiator between the two: their perspectives around recurring revenue. Renewals and retention are a CRO’s bread and butter. After all, closing new deals doesn’t matter if those customers churn out a year later.

To put it plainly, heads of sales win games, while CROs build a championship legacy.

Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. This saying isn’t just for athletes. A mix of traditional and new, chief revenue officers are really chief “readiness” officers who prime your organization for success at scale. By playing the long game, the CRO cements a seamless customer journey and a predictable future for sales organizations.

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