Defining Sales and Marketing Optimization

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The need to do more with less, faster has brought sales and marketing to figure out how to work better together.   There is antidotal evidence that over one-third of all B2B companies starting talking about improving their sales and marketing alignment in the middle of last year.  Most of the talk is around lead management - how to get more leads and sales to follow them up.  And there are the inevitable side conversations about marketing or sales leadership and if it is time for a change. These are all good conversations as it means people are open-minded to change on some level.

Much has been written about the signs of misalignment but little on what sales and marketing alignment really means. We all bandy about the term, sales & marketing alignment, assuming a widely accepted definition exists that all understand and subscribe to.  I haven’t found one, have you?  What I have found is that ‘alignment’ means different things to different people based on their orientation to the problem.  For many sales leaders (not all) and technology solution vendors it means anything from automated lead management, sales force automation to marketing delivering higher quality leads.  Some CEOs think sales & marketing alignment means they’ve stopped bickering, marketing is delivering more leads or that sales is finally following up on the leads that marketing gave them.  Consultants lump into ‘alignment’ anything from developing outbound campaigns, improving product marketing to sales operations and leadership coaching.  And to most marketers, it means whatever it takes to get Sales off their backs and to regain some level of credibility and clout within the organization.     

If we’re going to improve sales & marketing alignment through best practices, we need a comprehensive definition that we all can work with.   I’ve scanned a large number of sales, marketing and leadership books and have yet to find a succint, comprehensive and balanced definition.  Most take the position that misalignment is marketing’s fault. In eMarketing Strategies for the Complex Sale, Ardath says “marketing stands to reap huge benefits….by aligning with sales.” (page 175). Ardath’s book is an excellent for a long list of other reasons.   However, we need a definition that reflects alignment as the mutual responsibility of marketing and sales.  Christopher Ryan gets closer to that in his book How to Create an Unstoppable Marketing & Sales Machine where he defines it as ”synchronizing the marketing and sales functions …with a service level agreement (that) outlines the duties and objectives of each department.”  

 I’ve put a stake in the ground and defined sales & marketing alignment at a higher, more strategic level:

 “Sales and marketing collaboratively working toward the common goal of profitably increasing revenue and customer excellence through shared processes, resources and metrics.”

What does this definition say? Alignment is more than just leads.  At the heart of alignment the two teams are working toward the same goal with a common understanding of resources.  Companies achieve this through a three stage journey that integrates activities, processes and team structures and reinforce alignment with a culture that emphasizes shared accountability and institutionalizes it with common technology platforms.  

What do you think? Do you agree and how would you improve my definition?

13 COMMENTS

  1. Christine, thanks for your post on an “oldie but goodie” issue.

    I like your definition of alignment better than the word “alignment” itself. Your post title uses the word “optimization” which to me gets more to the root of what sales and marketing departments should be doing together.

    After researching this issue last year for my article B2B Marketing 2.0: How to Engage Social Buyers and Break Marketing/Sales Gridlock, I came to this conclusion:

    Marketing and sales leaders must then clearly define a “qualified lead” and agree to work together toward a common goal. Their boss can encourage this by giving them shared revenue objectives, and fixing measurement systems that motivate lead volume over quality. Developing a mutually agreed leading scoring and reporting process is crucial.

    In my view, the only way to align marketing and sales is for the boss of both organizations (e.g. the CEO) to give them a shared goal like profitable sales, and rewarding them accordingly for working together to accomplish that goal.

    Otherwise they have no real incentive to work together and will continue to optimize their department’s results independently.Then, when things go wrong, marketing will blame sales for not closing deals and sales will blame marketing for poor quality leads.

    This “blame game” reminds me of how our political process is working in the US right now. And you can see how much progress they are making for the good of the American people. 🙁

  2. this is a topic that had been an issue for a very long time- and one made more painful and complex by the advent of technology. My own experience is that in most organizations, the challenge is embedded in a combination of culture, the organizational model and the quality of leadership in play.

    Integrating accountability is a challenge in organizations with a traditional go-to-market strategy. One VP, Sales and Marketing I worked with used to joke that he had to blame himself on alternate days for lead quality and close rates. Companies that have place the customer P/L at the center of strategy have done much to soften this issue. When a segment VP calls the shots about offers, investments and tactics in their market, the competitive rewards between sales and marketing are softened or even removed. For companies with the courage to focus on segments, especially behavioral segments, the traditional war becomes all but non existent.

    Consider that bank that sets quotas for product and channel managers (revenue and cost for service, respectively). Everyone is chasing the same customer who gets over promoted, over messaged and over offered. The process gets exacerbated when quotas are set so aggressively that the only way for any of the product or channel managers to win is to take share from another.

    That same bank has the data to segment behaviorally and use the same tools to promote by segment only those products and services which are appropriate. But this means letting go of the traditional views of volume marketing and making the segment manager the internal client and voice of the customer. In short, the alignment issue is connected to the age old argument that surfaces in every CRM initiative: Who owns the customer?

    Integrating process over an organizational model that sustains competition and finger pointing is at best challenging, which may be why alignment continues to be so painful and challenging. But by removing both formal and informal rewards based on anything but customer outcomes, this is a tribal war that can be turned into a powerful alliance.

  3. Christine,
    I have a simplified version of alignment – one forged in the bloody trenches of selling before I got into the sales AND marketing business.

    Alignment comes when Marketing knows how to make the immediate job of the sales team easier and Sales understands exactly why Marketing’s long term direction is important.

    If we are talking leads, Marketing needs to know exactly which leads the easiest to close. And, Sales needs to understand why some of the leads may be hard to convert but are strategically important.

  4. Dick Lee – Christine, if everyone in the company subscribes to a single goal, the definition of alignment is irrelevant. Our clients never ask us to explain what we mean by “alignment,” despite our focus on aligning strategy to customers, process to strategy, and technology to proccess. What they fully understand is that we’re going to work Outside-In, starting with the customer and carry customer needs and expectations to strategy, then to process, then to technology. They understand “alignment” by creating it.

    When you design sales-marketing process to optimize value delivered to customers, the proper relationship between the functions readily emerges. At least some sales and marketing people (particularly marketing)aren’t going to like the outcome, but change is necessary.

    BTW – companies should never redesign sales process without customer service in the loop. Rsponsibilities and resources between the two are usually misallocated from a customer value perspective.

  5. Christine,

    Thank you for stimulating this discussion. As someone who’s never seen much value in definitions by themselves, I’d like to suggest an alternative perspective: how will we know when we’re aligned?

    Nor have I seen much value in pursuing sales and marketing alignment for its own sake. Instead, I suggest that both sales and marketing need to be aligned around a common understanding of who the organisations’ most promising prospects and customers are, what really matters to them, and how and why they choose to buy – an “Outside-In” strategy, if you like.

    I’d suggest the following tests of an organisation’s sales and marketing alignment:

    1) Is there a shared understanding, and a common definition, of the characteristics of the organisation’s most valuable customers and prospects?

    2) Is there a shared understanding, and a common definition, of the most pressing challenges faced by these prospects and customers – the issues they are prepared to spend money to fix?

    3) Is there a common agreement about the organisation’s most powerful capabilities as they relate to the prospect’s most pressing challenges?

    4) Do both sales and marketing share a common model of their prospect’s buying process, and an evidence-based approach to determining the current status of any given prospect’s buying journey?

    5) Are there clear responsibilities and hand-offs between marketing and sales at the points at which a prospect may pass from one team to the other (for example, a “sales ready lead” and a “lapsed opportunity for recycling”)

    6) Do both teams share a common language, common metrics and common rewards – i.e., both being compensated for the role they play in facilitating the buying journey, and for the outcomes achieved?

    7) Do the behaviors, attitudes, priorities and actions of the sales and marketing organisations clearly reflect the above?

    If you can say yes to all (7), I’d say that you were well on your way to achieving a level of sales and marketing alignment, co-operation and collaboration that would far exceed that seen in most organisations – and I’m sure that you would be generating significantly greater customer value and successfully eliminating a raft of wasteful activities.

    Regards

    Bob Apollo | Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners
    http://www.inflexion-point.com

  6. Who couldn’t relate to those examples. Meanwhile, technology can sometimes be the side battle ground where misalignment comes to light. For example, marketing complains that the SFA system never gets completed with enough or accurate data and the Sales team thinks of it as a pain in the neck.

    Or the technology can be an enabler for alignment. Similar to Barry’s point on behavioral segmentation, I am thinking of examples such as Ford (b2c) and National Instruments (b2b). Both have implemented automated lead scoring and profiling based on leads’ website behavior. Based on the behavioral clues leads are prioritized for the Sales team to follow up. Ideally, this prioritization is fed back into the SFA. Then the SFA data will be more intelligent about which leads are high quality (the scoring part) and how to go about selling to them. (the profiling part)

    As others have commented, this should be a small example of what sales and marketing can do and align on when both are tasked to increase sales rather than marketing just passing leads.
    Akin

  7. Hi Christine, Interesting post. This discussion feels a little like “fiddling while Rome burns.” I agree with Dick, if the business is focussed on creating successful customer outcomes and recognises the power of the customer is growing day by day then “alignment” of sales and marketing functions becomes a non-issue. How do our customers want us to behave, structure ourselves and interact with them ? I believe many businesses have been locked in a structural straight jacket for too long. Do our customers want to be “sold to” or “marketed to” in a traditional way or do we need new models and structures to reflect a new and rapidly changing business environement ?

  8. Christine: Marketing and sales alignment receives a lot of ‘digital ink,’ but the connection is no more problematic than others:

    Product engineering and manufacturing
    Warehouse operations and transportation/logistics
    Quality control and sales Hello Toyota!
    Human resources and finance

    (You can substitute versus for and, depending on your experience.)

    Maybe the reason the marketing/sales conflict seems more prevalent is because we’re loud people. And if most of the talk is about lead management as you mention, maybe we’re better off than we think, because lead management is one of several vital touchpoints between Sales and Marketing.

    Bob Apollo asks excellent questions in his reply. Successful organizations establish common goals between departments, and enable people to deploy complementary resources to achieving them.

    But the differences between marketing and sales are no less important. Although social media, social selling, and social CRM have obscured the boundary recently, Sales is still overwhelmingly concerned with getting purchase orders. Marketing’s goals are related to sales, but Marketing’s planning horizons are typically longer, and the prospect view is often aggregated (one to many).

    There are as many sales challenges and selling environments as there are organizations, and there is no one-size-fits-all way to partition sales and marketing. Optimization can only occur when Marketing produces output that is both complementary and essential input for Sales, and vice-versa.

  9. I am a bit worried though if the comments are suggesting that alignment falls into place nearly automatically just by giving incentive to Sales and Marketing to work towards a common goal.

    I think that alignment is something that is quite a learning curve even if both are meaning well.

    Take for example event-based marketing (EBM). Some banks are using EBM software to trigger customer events on things such as unusually large deposits. Ditto for lack of events such as no salary deposit or no automatic rent or mortgage deduction. These events suggest an opportunity or risk situation that sales is often well advised to follow up on.

    But at these banks, sales and marketing needed to work together to decide and learn how to follow up on such flags. For example, not by calling the customer and saying, “Hey , I noticed you just put a bunch of money in your bank account.”. At one such bank that is a client of Unica’s marketing and sales agreed to bring in a 3d party consultant who trained the teams on event based selling.

    Kind of like marriage. Living together isn’t exactly automatic either. 😎
    Akin

  10. Christine, great article with some really good comments. I would like to add a few points:
    1. Alignment doesn’t always lead to optimization since you can be aligned around bad processes.
    2. As Akin says, there is definitely a learning curve and marketing and sales must agree to learn in an iterative process that is free from the blame game. This is where shared ownership is crucial.
    3. The service level agreement (SLA) can serve as the driver and guidepost for both groups to perform as promised.
    4. Joint ownership sounds attractive but if carried to an extreme can slow the process to a crawl. And when joint ownership is implemented, it is usually to the detriment of the marketing department because sales now feels that it has a veto over everything marketing is doing. However, joint ownership is beneficial at two major points: a. creation of the overall program and b. results.
    5. CEOs who allow marketing and sales execs to maintain practical and cultural misalignment are doing their companies a huge disservice. For example, on a recent discussion group, a sales executive stated that the only thing marketing is good for is to proofread documents. If he is right, marketing should be replaced. If he is wrong, he should be replaced with a sales manager who knows how to play with others.

  11. Dick Lee – Christopher, you should never align around process (in fact, as a process person I’m not sure what that means). The alignment should always be around customers. Once you commit to aligning around customers, the complexity goes away because you now have a singular purpose.

  12. My simple definition of sale and marketing alignment is

    “those common activities that sales and marketing develop together including agreed language and technology that build a common pipeline.”

  13. I have observed that there are three levels of alignment.

    1. At the lowest level–meaning alignment that generates the least long-lasting results–is Consensus Alignment.
    2. Next up the performance chain is Plan Alignment where Sales and Marketing have collaborated on a single revenue generation plan to advance buyers through the funnel.
    3. The highest level is Transformational Alignment. A good definition is “committed people working with a common plan within an environment of trust and integrity.”

    In Transformational Alignment the goal is breakthrough performance. It recognizes that alignment of goals and processes, while valuable, produce incremental improvement. The culture within Sales and Marketing must be transformed for extraordinary results.

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