B2B Senior Leadership: It’s Time to Face the Truth About Sales and Marketing

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The yawning gulf between sales and marketing is a fact of life in B2B companies.  We all know this.  We struggle to meld the cultures.  We talk about the need for “alignment.”  We grab onto new strategies like account based marketing (ABM) in the hope that this will be, at last, where the two functions will finally work together in harmony. But the gap is as large as ever.  So, what needs to be done?

I don’t have the whole answer.  But in my 25 years in B2B marketing, I have learned a few lessons and  truths, some the hard way, but all of them important and practical.  Here are three truths that will help senior leaders drive the change needed to bridge the gap.

It starts at the top

The truth is, if the senior sales leader and the senior marketing leader in your company don’t truly like and respect each other, all is lost.  Nothing is more important to set the tone and establish the culture of cooperation than a solid relationship between the two leaders.

And that goes for the CEO as well.  The two leaders need to report to someone who respects and likes them both and who will defend them both and their teams, and demonstrate that attitude consistently across the board. So, dear CEOs, if there is friction between your sales and marketing leads, it’s up to you to make a change.

Both functions are required for success

Sales without marketing… marketing without sales… the truth is that B2B firms need both. Both sales and marketing have an important role to play in revenue and profit growth. Despite gulfs and misunderstandings and animosity, both are essential. When times are tough and divorce is not an option, what do you do?  You make the marriage work. You communicate, you set mutual objectives, you treat each other with consideration.  This is the truth in B2B today.

Sales owns the P&L

In consumer markets, the marketing function owns the P&L.  Sales is one of the many levers that marketing pulls—along with other levers like product, distribution, advertising, promotions and everything else—to achieve their goals.  This is the famous product management role that rules the roost in CPG and other consumer categories.

In B2B, though, revenue responsibility lies firmly with the sales team. Marketing is in a support role, and is viewed as a cost center.  This may be a hard swallow for marketers who enter B2B from consumer, but that’s the way it is.

Marketing’s job is to make the sales function—that highly constrained and valuable resource—more productive.  To provide leverage.  By building brand awareness, identifying high-value prospective audiences and providing sales with the tools to access those audiences, like qualified leads, reasons to call, opportunities for meetings, value propositions, competitive analysis, sales presentations and collateral, educational content and whatever else they need to spend less time cold calling and more time closing. It’s a tricky position to be in, not having revenue responsibility.  Marketing spends half its time and resources trying to prove its value in financial terms.  A frustrating, humiliating and fundamentally hopeless task.

So, senior leaders, I urge you to embrace these truths. Treat them as operating principles. Set objectives and expectations appropriate to them. Don’t ask marketing to justify their existence based on revenue. That just sets sales up for resentment and marketing up for failure. Set metrics like cost-per-lead, and lead-to-sales conversion rates by campaign, by channel, by product and other variables, where marketing can hold its head high and deliver on what it can actually control. Create an environment where the two functions can work in harmony and mutual respect, where they can be more productive and deliver more value to customers and to the company.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I work in a B2B company as the leader of a product line focused on performance improvement consulting. I have seen first hand the challenges between our marketing leaders and head of sales. Our newest marketing leader came to us with B2B experience and that is helping to bridge some of these issues. Although I cringe every time I sit through a canned sales presentation that is so long-winded that our sales personnel do not have time to actively listen to prospects so that we might be able to customize some engagements. Our Marketing people should have control over sales content to free up Sale’s time to truly sell.

  2. The other complicating factor is the massive change that each function is undergoing. Old school sales and marketing (non digital legacy processes and leaders) need to transition to new ways of doing business where the balance of knowledge has shifted to the customer and with that, the ability to make informed decisions prior to engaging with sales. Marketing’s role and value is increasing for B2B organizations that perhaps relied on relationships maintained by the sales organization for ongoing business. The conflict between sales and marketing is greater for organizations still making the transition in their digital transformations. (Which of course will continue to evolve). Digital native marketers are taking the place of traditional brand focused marketers (this transition is still in flight for many types and sizes of B2B organizations) causing channel and territory conflicts which are a natural source of tension. Do we comp sales people for lost revenue to digital only channels? How can a traditional sales relationship be fully leveraged with new ways of capturing, nurturing and converting leads? The sales function can be very threatened by digital marketing and with good reason. Many companies I deal with explicitly state their goal is to reduce headcount in sales through digital enablement. That is only going to increase as higher functioning virtual sales assistants will take on not only routine but also more complex tasks like configure/price/quote where human expertise can be captured and coded into systems. We will see more conflict and turmoil as digital marketing expands into digital sales encroaching even more on the traditional sales function.

  3. In the 30 years since gaining my first position as a sales engineer, I’ve witnessed the steady erosion in the traditional role of a salesperson. No longer the keeper and educator of solution knowledge professional salespeople have transitioned into consultants assisting prospects to identify their true need/desire, matching the solution features accordingly and being honest where no profitable match for either party exists.

    During this same time, prospective Buyers have increasingly become self serve knowledge gathers within a larger buying committee. Marketing has grown to meet that need as well as the growth in purchasing without recourse to a salesperson. B2B2C.

    Both Departments/Disciplines are in a state of flux and the current, and in my opinion, old paradigms are not suited to deal with them. The growth of RevOps in the Technical and SAAS sectors indicates a need to shift from those paradigms to an inclusive holistic customer-facing group with an “outward in” customer centric philosophy.

    RevOps is an Operational attempt to merge the three customer-facing, revenue-generating disciplines. It’s a small leap to extend the concept to Strategy and Execution.

    Rising from a sales engineer to senior roles in sales, commercial and business development, like you Ruth I’ve regularly witnessed the destructive debates both between sales and marketing but also, and perhaps worse between various sales divisions. Product vs Service sales is a perfect example where the product sales took precedence because they made the first sale despite service always achieving much higher margins and was often the reason a sale was first made.

    A radical view is to scrap the sales and marketing Divisions and create one Customer Division with one Director, (Chief Customer Officer for example), who coordinates a team of revenue-generating customer-facing professionals in agreed tactics emanating out of one singular strategy.

    At least then the CEO would only have one person to “like” and get along with!

    Thank you for your excellent article Ruth which, sadly demonstrates how little we’ve progressed or how slowly Businesses are evolving commercially. I’m certain it will spark much debate.

    PJ

  4. I think that the main problem is that many sales departments don’t understand what services marketing is for or what it is about. Services marketing is completely different from product marketing, but marketing becomes basically the folks who write the brochure, instead of being a strategic asset.

  5. This is my kind of post! You nailed it, Ruth, in so many ways. I particularly appreciated your strong advice to the C-suite to stop measuring marketing (a staff unit) on revenue and giving affirmations to the revenue-generators when it takes a team. It reminds me of the bestselling movie “The Blind Side.” Without the offensive lineman, the quarterback is vulnerable to being sacked, even if it is the quarterback who scores the points or sets up someone to score the points. And, your call to CEO’s to make the marriage between sales and marketing work was on target. Smart CEO’s establish collective goals and therefore collective accountability. I thought your comparison to a marriage was a great one. I once worked with the CEO of a major company who had on-going friction between the sales and operations heads (a similar potential friction point). He asked me to sit in on his meeting with the two of them. It went something like, “This is not the school ground, guys. But you are acting like it is. I am tired of hearing blame and “who started it” kind of excuses like you were in the principal’s office. So, you work out your differences…I will be happy to help. If you need a relationship coach, we can provide you one. But, if you cannot find a way to work together, I will replace you both.” We need more leadership discipline and less tolerance of flawed relationships. Keep up your great work.

  6. Great article, Ruth! It is always refreshing to see a truth that we live with every day come to the surface! I would add another responsibility to marketing’s role – understanding the buyer and customer journeys and sharing insights the sales organization can leverage for achieving their targets. And, yes, making the customer understanding a priority also comes from the top!

  7. Can’t argue with any of your points here, Ruth!

    I would just emphasize that there are powerful ways which good marketing efforts help increase sales. Increasing brand identity, informing the audience (even in B2B though social media or e-mails) and creating digestible content that sales representatives use to fully explain the benefits of the product so less questions are asked about the potential new client.

    Many times I speak to experts in the field and they know too much and have a hard time explaining their ideas to people outside their area of focus – good marketing helps them do so.

  8. Important as it is for CEOs to forge a stronger, more cohesive relationship between sales and marketing, real servant leadership and enterprise focus requires greater emphasis, and reinforcement, on creating and delivering customer (and employee) value.

    In all strategic and tactical customer-related planning, a key and fundamental question needs to be asked, ‘Who in the enterprise does not own value delivery for the customer, either directly or indirectly?’ That, from my perspective, should be the guiding star for CEOs. It should, as well, frame the operating relationship between sales and marketing,

    Recalling the work of W. Edwards Deming, he believed that everyone in the organization is ‘either serving the customer or supporting someone who does’. This means that, driven by leadership and reinforced by culture and internal processes, the ideal of customer experience needs to permeate the entire enterprise, from the board room to the mail room, certainly including, but beyond, sales and marketing.

    Once again, the goal is enhanced, sustained stakeholder value. Creating a working bond between the sales and marketing functions is a critical element in making that happen. That said, if the rest of the organization, led by the CEO, isn’t making customer value its central tenet, even the most enlightened and professional sales and marketing groups can’t make up the difference.

  9. I stumbled upon this Customer Think website and resource via a mention in a blog on customer service and chatbots.

    What a find, for the standard of content, contributors and fellow subscriber input, as above.

    I’m grateful to be in the presence of a learned & practically informed group of people on my own continual learning journey.

    NB: Seth Early, you articulated the state of flux B2B departments/disciplines are experiencing and now at pace far better than I 😉

    PJ

  10. Nice to hear from you, Ruth. Overall, an excellent recap. A few thoughts: The new (digital) marketing, at least in the B2B world, has made it possible to get more poor-quality leads to sales faster than ever before. Sales is more and more compelled to ignore “marketing” leads because “they suck”. You mention cost per lead in your piece above. Ouch. While you did not come out and say reduce cost per lead – that is what is rewarded. Marketing is required to produce more leads (that sales ignores) at a lower cost every year.

    I don’t agree that peers need to “like” each other. I do think they need to “respect” each other. A friend of mine used to say “you get your loving at home”. I believe that. I agree that if a CEO has reports that don’t respect each other (even if it just one-way, sales disrespecting marketing much of the time) then it is up to them to make a change. Asking the executives to just work it out together NEVER works.

    Finally, sales does what you pay them to do, not what you want them to do. To change behavior sometimes requires a “success center” (what is sometimes called a skunkworks) where the sales team finds out just how successful they can be working as partners with marketing – not as enemies. Success breeds success. If something is working everyone wants it. And that is not because they “like” each other.

    Two recommendations: Establish a judicial branch to evaluate leads that are sent to sales and returned because they are not qualified. If they are not qualified then fix that. If they are qualified then fix that. Next, in late August or early September ask sales to tell you what deals they will absolutely close in the next month, three months or for the balance of the year. This is what I have heard the “gun to the head” exercise. If they close the business they predicted they would close – reward them. If they miss their quota – yet have shiny new prospects that will close the following quarter – replace them.

    It is time to face the music. Neither marketing nor sales are doing a great job. Plug the holes. Disassemble and reassemble the machine. See what is actually there (right in front of you, so close that you sometimes miss it) instead of what you want to see. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

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