As sales consultants, we encounter sales leaders with a variety of fancy acronyms in their titles. In addition to the SVPs/EVPs of Sales, the sales leader landscape also includes CROs, CSOs, and CGOs. While these titles imply a distinction in roles, to most people, it’s just alphabet soup.
What’s the difference between a Chief Sales Officer (CSO) and a Chief Revenue Officer (CRO) or Chief Growth Officer (CGO)? From the CEO or board member perspective, which role does your business need? For a sales leader, which role is the best fit with your capabilities?
The easiest way to distinguish between these roles is to compare their scope of responsibility, core objectives, and what defines success. Appointing a “heavy hitter” to a CSO, CRO or CGO role, rather than a VP of Sales, indicates the need for a greater span of oversight from a strategic, revenue generation, and customer lifecycle perspective.
Graduating Levels of Responsibility
In general, you can expect graduating levels of scope, responsibility, and strategic oversight from the Sales VP to the Chief Sales Officer to the Chief Revenue Officer (sometimes known as the Chief Growth Officer). Each role expands based on a) the portion of the customer journey and sales funnel the executive manages, b) the challenges he/she must address in the organization or marketplace, and c) the importance of strategy versus execution.
Note: Every organization is different and adopts their own nomenclature. These are general patterns and observations, but organizations may draw different interpretations and establish their own approaches to roles/titles. Additionally, this post is written from the perspective of established organizations with large, often complex sales teams. In smaller or start-up organizations, titles are awarded more liberally, and may not follow the rationale in this blog.
VP of Sales: "The Master Sales Operator"
A solid VP of Sales is a master at managing to the number. They’ve lived and breathed sales and grew up through the ranks of high performing sales organizations. These leaders can be found in the field more often than their CSO or CRO counterparts. Good ones are adept at partnering cross-functionally, forging productive relationships with Finance, Product Management, Marketing, Customer Success/Service and Sales Operations. They are skilled coaches to their sales teams and run their business with a disciplined cadence.
The Sales VP is effective at managing the full sales process from qualifying leads (MQLs) to closing business. He/she manages all resources involved in that process, such as sales development, direct sellers, overlay/specialists, and partners. His/her focus is on the core sales funnel from lead to close – an effective Sales VP will collaborate with marketing and customer success above and below that funnel.
In large organizations, you may see Sales VPs specialized by team (e.g., VP Field Sales, VP Inside Sales), who report to an SVP of Sales.
There are often limits to the Sales VP’s capabilities. Some may not feel entirely comfortable navigating board rooms and answering tough questions that go beyond the scope of the sales pipeline. They may feel ill-equipped to confront major strategic change in their business (e.g., industry shifts, business model changes, structural issues in the sales organization/channels). They are gurus in their zone of near-term pipeline, forecasting, and sales team management, but they may not be capable of rethinking go-to-market strategy, re-assessing their sales resources, or executing structural changes to their organization and paths to market.
Who Fits the VP of Sales Role: Since this role has been around the longest, most people are clear on who fits. The more relevant question might be whether a sales leader has “outgrown” the role, or whether there should be an “S” in front of the “VP”. Typical skills or characteristics of Sales VPs:
- Leaders who is adept at managing to sales goals (particularly current year pipeline)
- Skillful collaborators and communicators across the organization
- Those who enjoy staying laser-focused on the team’s tactics to make the number
- Those who prefer to stay closer to the customer, the sales team, and day-to-day business, than the board room
Chief Sales Officer: "The Strategic Sales Architect"
The Chief Sales Officer (or in some cases, an EVP of Sales) is an executive who is capable of addressing needs of a complex sales organization (e.g., multiple business units, matrixed organizations, siloed or multi-pronged sales teams due to M&A activity). He/she is ready to make tough decisions around go-to-market, direct vs indirect channels, and existing sales resources.
Upon taking her new post, the CSO maximizes her first 90 days to thoroughly understand the organization, establish quick wins, and set a long-term strategy. After assessing the situation, she may establish a plan for a sales force transformation or sales resource optimization and enlist help from outside consultants to do it.
The Chief Sales Officer is proficient at all of the tactical things that make a great Sales VP, but also knows how to build a world-class sales team within a large, complex organization. She looks at sales from multiple angles, including strategy and structure, process and technology, enablement and people, and management and coaching.
The CSO knows how the sales organization executes on a value proposition where multiple products/services are involved, in a way that resonates with the customer. He orchestrates how multiple resources – e.g., inside sales, sales engineers, overlay resources, partners – can work in a unified way to make the company easy to buy from. He strategizes across teams to expand customers’ adoption across the company’s portfolio of products/services. He builds repeatable, predictable sales processes to win new business and expand existing accounts. He moves in lock step with the CEO and is clear on the role Sales plays in the company’s near and long-term success.
Who Fits the CSO Role: Senior sales leaders who are able to map sales strategy and structure to market needs are a good fit with the CSO role. Other characteristics include:
- While managing the day-to-day business of sales, they continually question if the company’s model/approach is valid amidst customer, competitive or industry developments
- In addition to current year performance, they anticipate multi-year strategies and align their sales organization accordingly
- They use a fearless approach and their political savvy/clout to initiate bold changes with executive leadership when they are necessary
Chief Revenue Officer: "The Full Revenue Strategist"
Sometimes known as the Chief Growth Officer, the Chief Revenue Officer is usually capable of managing everything a CSO does (as described above), but also assumes a greater span of functional responsibility to serve all stages of the customer journey. The CRO cares just as much about activities above and below the funnel as she does the sales funnel itself. Attracting and delighting customers are just as important as closing them.
Sales and marketing alignment is second nature to the CRO. The teams under the CRO’s purview serve the customer via all touch points with their organization. With the CRO’s guidance, the marketing team is clear on their ideal customer profile and focuses on attracting, capturing, and funneling good prospects to sales.
A revenue engineer of sorts, the CRO focuses on driving profitable customer actions across the customer journey. They use a highly data-driven approach to implement better buyer targeting, customer adoption, and pricing. They manage teams to metrics like customer acquisition cost, lifetime customer value, average sale price, conversion, and churn.
For a healthy, growing company, at least half of revenue comes from existing customers. Recognizing this, the CRO has clear revenue generation processes and resources to maximize upsell, cross-sell, and renewals. The CRO is maniacal about customer satisfaction and has established metrics to measure it.
Who Fits the CRO Role: A good CRO has the same experience and C-level savvy as the CSO, but thinks more holistically about growth. Other characteristics:
- She knows how to identify revenue opportunities that have leverage and where to double down on resources
- She is passionate about building long term customer value, in addition to closing customers
- She is as comfortable in marketing circles as she is in sales circles and takes on a strategic and operational focus
- She is data-driven and skillful with strategic and business unit revenue and budget planning
The table below compares each role based on scope, objectives, and the metrics that define success:
Which Role Does Your Business Need?
A VP of Sales (or multiple ones by business/vertical) is best for your company if pipeline execution and sales team management are at the top of the list for revenue success. Sales channels and revenue model are typically well-defined, and what’s most important is building and managing the sales process and sales team capabilities (including supporting resources) to win business.
A CSO is likely the best fit for larger, more complex organizations where overarching sales strategy and structure is just as important, if not more important, than sales execution. Leadership may see the need to rationalize or rethink sales go-to-market and resources after major events like M&A, competitive shifts, or new company strategy. You have established sales managers/VPs who will continue to execute, but you need sales leadership to drive change and long-term strategy.
A CRO (or CGO) is a great option if your company faces similar circumstances as described above for a CSO, but you also need a cohesive revenue strategy across marketing, sales, and customer success. A CRO might be a better solution for businesses with multiple paths to market and revenue sources. SaaS companies are an obvious fit (which should make sense given that the CRO role was originally conceived in Silicon Valley to exploit new revenue opportunities from digital products and services). For the business seeking a CRO, sustainable growth is your number one priority.
With the right person in the right role, your company can ideally position itself to maximize value across the customer lifecycle and over-deliver on sales and growth objectives.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.