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A salesman talks on the phone during the first day of the Computex trade show in Taipei June 5, 2007.

Sales is rarely an academic focus, says Frank Cespedes, senior lecturer of Harvard Business School's Entrepreneurial Management unit.

His executive program, Aligning Strategy and Sales, is designed to change that by helping senior managers explore ways to successfully synchronize strategies and field-sales activities.

The primary goal, he says, is to make sure applicants understand that any strategy worthy of the name should have something to say about what's important to sales.

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"In business, when you say 'sales,' people perk up their ears because they know that, without sales, you have a museum."

Day one of the program examines strategy: what it is, and what's involved in communicating it. Attendees learn about defining scope ("where do we play, where don't we play") and advantage ("what advantage do we have, or what can we develop?").

The rest of the course – through lectures, workshops, and case studies – concentrates on how to align selling with go-to-market activities, assuming you have a coherent strategy.

Dr. Cespedes points out many organizations discover they have goals and initiatives, but no strategy.

Tim Craik, general manager of Burlington, Ont.-based flooring importer and distributor Go Resilient Canada, took the course to learn how to build a better strategy.

"It's interesting to note that the word that stands out in the title of the program is strategy, but it was the focus on alignment that provided the greatest benefit to our business," he says.

To Dr. Cespedes, alignment is also the key word. If strategic elements are not clearly understood, he says, sales activities will not align with them, and sales affect every facet of the organization. If sales personnel are going after the wrong customers or the wrong markets, the numbers might look great, but the company loses money.

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"Value is created or destroyed in the external marketplace, not in conference rooms or at off-site meetings," Dr. Cespedes notes.

"Key externals are the industry you compete in, the market segments where you do – and do not – choose to play, and the nature of the customers that you sell and service. These factors help to determine required sales tasks – that is, what your go-to market system must accomplish to deliver and extract value, and therefore what your salespeople and other customer-facing personnel, such as service personnel, must be good at."

Sales, says Paul Nunes, executive director of research at the Accenture Institute for High Performance, "is the only part of the organization that actually makes money. Especially in small or privately owned businesses, profitability can be gained or lost by how you manage sales. A lot of small companies understand the value of sales, but they don't really understand how to make significant strategic changes without destroying that."

That focus on alignment, he emphasizes, is the big innovation – and the big benefit – of the Harvard Business School program.

Blaine LaBonte, chief executive officer of Edmonton-based Cougar Drilling Solutions, which has offices in 10 countries, says decentralization is a blessing and a curse when a company tries to align activities with strategy.

"Decentralization allows Cougar to react quickly to changes in local conditions," he says. "Problems arise as the strategy and marketing start to drift away from the head-office vision."

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His executive team, all of whom attended the HBS program, considered it an opportunity to retune. "We wanted to make sure the strategy and vision of the head office was refreshed with new ideas, but remained differentiated and unique," Mr. LaBonte says.

And, he add, it worked. "My executive team and I left feeling more aligned with each other, and the vision of the company. Our marketing also improved as a result, as we are seeing eye-to-eye again.

"I've used the ideas (in the program). I know they work – period. With that said, the material will only remain real-world based as long as instructors continue to evolve their thinking."

At other courses he attended, he explains, instructors used cases that were too old to be relevant, though the concepts were still valid.

For Jason Rowley, vice-president of sales and federal business development at Calgary-based Evans Consoles Corp., a key takeaway was improving his ability to hone in on things the company should be avoiding.

"For example, at the most basic level, we are continually identifying and reaffirming who is not our customer, instead of who is our customer," he says. "In the recent media coverage following the passing of Steve Jobs, I found it very reaffirming to learn of his strength and focus with making critical choices about what features should not be on your iPod and iPad products."

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Mr. Rowley says he didn't pick up any "golden nuggets" of recommendations for immediate change, but he did learn a framework to analyze business challenges and determine a course of action. "The framework we studied is applicable for every aspect of our business that interacts with customers."

Interaction with internal staff is equally important, Mr. Craik says.

"As a small company, we've spent so much of our time and resources hunting new business that we often forgot about the rest of the village: operations, IT, and accounting. This course created several 'ah-ha' moments for me. What I began to see was a company that was anything but aligned."

Some services are shared with another division of the company that serves a completely different industry, which, Mr. Craik says, left the shared-services employees stuck in the middle, maintaining the status quo. With these insights, he began to make changes, and he has already seen impressive results.

"The pay-off is a big move toward total company alignment. The growth resulting from this experience has been pushing 40 per cent on the top line compared with a year ago."

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