In this latest post on Forbes, I talk about 5 ways to bridge the sales and marketing gap referencing experts from the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals, Microsoft, and other leading companies.
Pointing fingers is a familiar and repetitive motion between the sales and marketing groups of many companies. “It is very common to have marketing people complain that sales isn’t following up on leads and salespeople complain about the lead quality and quantity,” explains Bob Perkins, the founder and chairman of the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP). According to the organization’s 2017 report “Top Challenges of the Inside Sales Industry,” as a category "Leads" was the number one challenge for both leaders and sales reps alike. It was listed as a larger concern than quota expectations by a factor of 2.5 to 1. “This challenge moved up from previous years and indicates lots of work and change needs to happen to solve this issue,” Perkins observed. “When sales reps are not meeting their quotas consistently, the pressure is high and there are even more visibility and attention on lead quality and quantity.” The same is true across the organization as expectations continue to rise on corporate performance and the importance of sales and marketing is emphasized.
Does this sound familiar? If so, here are five best practices and approaches to bridging the gap between sales and marketing that have worked successfully.
1. Take a Walk
“On the top of my list of best practices is to have marketing listen to live sales calls,” Perkins proposes. “In and of itself, this can cure some of the ills of misalignment and the complaints that sales and marketing have about each other.” How this happens will be different for each company. “You don’t want marketing listening into more calls than the inside sales manager,” Perkins counsels. “But they should listen regularly.” It could be a standing “call week” event set each quarter or it could be tied to a specific marketing campaign that needs monitoring and optimization. In any case, best practice is to sit together and use that time not only as an opportunity not only to hear the prospect call, but to debrief on what went well and what didn’t. “By having a marketing person walk into a sales group, you send a message. That you are open to feedback and want to learn how to make sales successful,” Perkins observed. That short walk across the building can go a long way. If a walk isn’t possible, use video conferencing. Perkins said that among his members, sharing in calls provided a powerful way to get early feedback on campaign effectiveness, rather than waiting for the lagging indicator of pipeline growth.
2. Open Your Meetings
Invite sales to participate in regular marketing staff meetings. Trip Jobe, whose experience in sales and marketing leadership spans senior roles at Oldcastle, Neehah Paper, Kimberly-Clark, and International Paper, had this advice. “When you can have sales or sales leadership involved in a marketing meeting, they typically gain a perspective on the many levels of execution needed to tackle a program.” Better to do this regularly and ahead of the action to get insights that are usable by both teams. “By getting the opportunity to hear the 'sausage making' process, they gain a perspective on many of the details involved in certain marketing programs,” Jobe continued. “Sales can also shed light on what it views as priorities or not.”
And that openness goes both ways. Perkins suggests that in his experience consulting with leading sales organizations “the best companies invite a marketing representative to sit on the weekly inside sales team meetings to share updates on campaigns and feedback from the field. Both learn about the campaigns from the first-hand experience."
However, how you conduct those meetings matter. “My experience is when you can create this two-way dialogue you will more quickly gain alignment,” Jobe advises. “When either sales or marketing is preaching one way, the other side will tend to start tuning out.” Keep it a conversation with opportunities for feedback and you can watch partnership building.
3. Build a Council
Sometimes, physical proximity, the scale, or the leanness of the team prevent regular cross-functional communications. In those cases, you can build representative councils to provide input. Jobe used this approach in several previous companies to create sales councils of several sales reps (3-6 at the most) involving them in 4-6 meetings a year (mostly over the phone, but maybe in person at a national sales meeting or industry convention) and matching them with key marketing leaders. He has used the council to get feedback on product development, but it can extend to other topics like lead generation campaigns, sales effectiveness, or new marketing initiatives. “This does a few things," Jobe observes. "First, it gets sales more involved in the business and their peers know they have an advocate working with marketing. Second, it gives those marketers a few sales reps they really get to know and can use them to set up a market visit.”
4. Visit a Customer
Shelli Keagle, managing director at Canvas Research, a boutique marketing research and strategy firm, says that “the customer is the great equalizer.” Without a deep understanding and empathy with the customer or consumer (or even the channel), both sales and marketing can lose. Jobe added that he is “a big believer in gaining an understanding of your environment, your customers' problems, what do they face every day. Within your company, the more that sales and marketing can understand each other and communicate effectively, the better the combined output will be.” So, send marketers out with field sales reps to visit customers, work trade show events together, and create opportunities for the team to connect with customers together both formally and informally. Facilitate listening sessions at customer gatherings. If face-to-face meetings are impractical or incomplete, conduct and share customer research and verbatims. Videotape customers using the product or talking of their experience with products or with the sales process. Encourage marketing people to build relationships with key accounts. All of these can be important sources of common truth for groups trying to work more effectively together.
5. Scale Your Approach
Rakhi Voria is a senior business manager at Microsoft who has helped to build out a world-class inside sales organization with eight different sales center locations around the world for this leading technology company. “We now have around 1,800 sellers in our organization,” Voria explains. “One thousand of those individuals were hired in the past year alone. Seventy percent of our team was hired externally from over 70 different companies.” This represents a huge scale and velocity for the organization and a great opportunity for shared listening, but at this magnitude, it is prohibitive to rely on informal structures around customer visits or call observation. While sales and marketing leaders in other organizations “have gotten creative about bridging the gap between marketing and sales by having the teams sit under the same umbrella organization or by physically putting marketing managers and salespeople side by side, however at Microsoft, marketing and sales report up through different organizations and marketing managers often aren’t based in inside sales center locations.”
They solved the problem in a different way on a scale that matched the enterprise. “As part of our organizational design planning, we invested in creating resources called Sales Program Leaders who are based in our sales centers and aligned by the solution areas that we sell,” Voria described. These roles are hybrid roles with elements of both marketing and sales. “These individuals meet with sellers daily to gather insights and are able to use these insights to drive improvements across our products and offerings, to remove blockers, and to take corrective actions to ensure achieving business goals.” They also provide feedback on demand response campaigns, corporate account or channel programs, and real-time from conversations with customers and partners.
And the results are reflecting the intention. Here is how Voria describes one success story.
We were recently engaged in a deal with a healthcare customer in Latin America who was struggling with one of our cloud product offerings. This feedback was shared with our marketing and operations team, and within a few months, we were able to offer a new SKU in the market that addressed the concerns directly and packaged the offering in a way that was well-suited for customers in similar situations. It is this kind of feedback loop that makes us better, not only aligning sales and marketing, but also aligning the company to our customers."
These five approaches are some of the best practices used by sales and marketing teams seeing better alignment and better-shared results. These steps are, in themselves, quite simple. Easy, in fact. Maybe not as easy as finger pointing, but a lot more effective. When done with purpose, they can build and maintain the bridge between sales and marketing and perhaps even create onramps for new ideas and approaches.
Rakhi Voria is a contributor to Forbes in her advisory capacity on the Business Development Council. Also, I collaborated with Canvas Research on some original investigation into the use of IoT and high-end entertainment products in specialty consumer segments which I presented in the “Integrated Life” seminar at the InfoComm conference produced by Avixa in June 2018.