Improve Sales and Marketing Alignment

Why don’t marketing and sales talk more? This question was recently posted on LinkedIn by a member of the next generation of B2B marketers. We point out the individual’s generation because we heard the same question twenty years ago. It was probably asked twenty years before that. Is there a perpetual, uncrossable gap that makes sales and marketing alignment so difficult? We don’t think so. While the gap may be large, we believe it’s possible to build bridges that benefit both functions.

This belief is based on our experience working with stakeholders on each side of this perceived divide. As a research and strategy firm we routinely explore issues that touch sales and marketing efforts: Go-to-market strategies, pricing, win/loss analysis, buying journey, etc. The following are trends we’ve seen that can help B2B marketing teams strengthen their relationships with the sales function.

Behavioral Economics Conflicts

Most sales and marketing professionals want to make choices that benefit the overall company. They want to follow the new strategies senior management has developed. They believe in those strategies. However, back at their desks their individual motivations and personal economics can push them down a different path than the company, and they themselves, wanted.

This is easiest to see in the sales team because their compensation is tied directly to specific, measurable outcomes, commissions being the most obvious example. They sometimes receive incentives for meetings, proposals, etc. The nature of these rewards inevitably leads some individuals to focus on short-term performance. It becomes easy to schedule meetings with marginal prospects to raise their activity metrics. Their financial rewards nudge them to sell whatever the prospect looks like they will buy, even if it is a smaller solution than the company’s stated strategy of focusing on larger solutions. If they have the power to do so, they will reduce prices at the end of a quarter to hit their numbers. How can anyone blame them for these actions. It is hard to play the long game when you are evaluated on short-term performance.

The B2B marketing teams of today are held accountable for revenue generation. According to the Product Marketing Alliance’s 2020 State of the Product Marketing report the Top-Two metrics product marketers are held accountable to are generating new revenue and generating leads. A third of B2B marketers report that they are measured on increasing website visits. This pushes marketers to focus on quantity. With the tools available, marketers only have so much ability to target purely qualified leads and are often left with the shotgun approach. The result can be complaints from the sales team about the quality of the leads provided.  

These KPI pressures become more pronounced during an economic slowdown. In the ideal world, the solution would be to remove the metrics that push sales and marketing into inevitable conflict with each other. But in the real world that is unlikely to happen.

The most realistic approach is for B2B marketers to take the first step in building the bridge with the sales team. Here are some ideas for how to work toward better sales and marketing alignment.

Better Sales Collateral and Playbooks

Most B2B marketers are responsible for creating materials for the sales team: Collateral, playbooks, battlecards, etc. In some firms marketers complain that sales doesn’t fully utilize these materials. On the other side, sales often feels the materials provided are not relevant to their day-to-day interactions with prospects.

Thinking about the sales team as a prospect can help B2B marketers rethink how the create and communicate marketing materials. If prospects were not paying attention to a branding campaign, the marketing team would acknowledge that campaign wasn’t connecting and needed revisions. They would not blame prospects for not appreciating all the time and effort the marketing team put into creating the campaign. This same logic applies to marketing strategy, sales collateral and playbooks – if they are not being used it is better to revise the materials than try to change the sales team.

1. Understand the day-to-day

Many companies move prospects through a set selling process. The sales team provides specific information to prospects and completes specific tasks at each stage of the process: These are the questions asked during the first call. Price is only revealed after an ROI analysis or demo is completed. Etc.

Within this process the sales team has a degree of freedom to operate. Some have more than others, but one area of autonomy is how marketing collateral and sales materials are used on a day-to-day basis. The marketing team often lacks visibility into this aspect of the sales process.

Learning more about how these materials are used can help B2B marketers revise the materials, the way they would revise a marketing campaign, to encourage greater adoption by the sales team. Are they too long? Do the case studies feel too generic or specific?

B2B marketers can gain these insights by interviewing the sales team to gather direct feedback on how the materials are used/not used and why. If you have the time and relationships, ask to shadow a sales rep over the course of multiple deals to see what’s happening on the ground.

2. Sell your marketing strategy

The sales team is on the front lines. They interact with customers and prospects every day. As with any frontline team, they feel that they know the market better than anyone. Although they may be overconfident in what they know, it is hard to deny they are ones having the direct conversations with prospects. And if they have something that works for them (who they call, what they focus on, what they share, etc.) from an economic reward standpoint, they will resist change.

It takes time to learn something new. This pulls away from time selling which is where the sales team makes their money. Change introduces real and perceived risks. A marketing strategy may ask sales reps to bypass short-term opportunities in favor of larger strategic sales. This goes against basic human nature, where a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. 

As with prospects the next step is to Sell your sales stakeholders on the value of what marketing is offering. Why does the marketing strategy matter? Why should sales trust the new positioning? What is it based on? Why should they change their approach? And in the most basic sense: What’s in it for them?

3. Make it tactical

The sales team will be more accepting of new marketing strategies and playbooks if they can be implemented tactically and with the smallest amount of disruption possible. By understanding the day-to-day sales process and working with sales leaders, B2B marketers can provide specifics of how the marketing strategy impacts distinct conversations/interactions they have with prospects and clients, e.g.

  • First sales call
  • Second sales call
  • Budget discussions
  • Account management
  • Upsell conversations
  • Etc.

To fully execute on this approach requires collaboration with sales leadership. Beyond any tactical outcomes achieved, working together on this initiative will strengthen marketing relationships with the sales team.

Many B2B marketers may find that they cannot gain the full buy-in from sales leadership required to undertake such a robust initiative. If not, the spirit of the recommendations outlined above can be conducted on an informal basis with whatever relationships the marketing team, or individual marketer, can cultivate with the sales team or individual sales rep.

Lead Triaging

Despite targeting, gated content, and screening, it’s almost inevitable that many marketing efforts will generate unqualified leads. This is especially true of brands with high levels of awareness in the market – they are automatically included in the prospect’s consideration set.

The issues arise when leads get too far into the vendor’s selling processes before everyone realizes that the prospect is not a good fit. This doesn’t help anyone. The sales team can fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy and continue to push through the process in hopes of salvaging a deal. This uses time that could be better used focused on more qualified prospects. It’s annoying for the prospect. They feel as if their time was wasted and the sales reps didn’t listen to them.  Marketing ends up with a black eye for generating poor leads.

In addition to continually improving its lead generation activities, B2B marketers can help sales by providing a handful of dimensions that sales can identify early in the sales process that can help better triage customers. These dimensions can include objective metrics and behavioral tendencies. Illustrative examples include:

  • Good prospects typically spend at least x% of their annual/marketing/etc. budget on our category of offering
  • Prospects that consider themselves innovators will lean towards/away from our product
  • In order to adopt our solution, prospects already need to have xyz in place

Triaging by these type of dimensions will never be perfect. But even reducing time spent on lost cause prospects by 10% makes a long-term difference for a sales rep.

There are multiple sources of information for this data: Surveys with sales reps about where they have the most success. CRM data. Customer surveys. Win/Loss analysis, etc.

As with creating better sales materials and communicating marketing strategies internally, this approach will benefit from a senior champion. It will take time, effort, and even budget if customer research is conducted. Still, whatever efforts marketing can make in this area, however modest, will improve communication, collaboration, and trust between the marketing and sales teams.

Narrowing the Gap

While a gap between sales and marketing will always exist, it doesn’t need to be an uncrossable chasm. As a research firm we’ve watched and helped clients and individuals use customer and prospect insights to better align sales and marketing to the needs of the market which benefits everyone.