I have a futuristic story of how an organisation – maybe one like yours – substantially grew their revenues from 2015 to 2020. They primarily did this by making some very effective changes to the way sales and marketing worked together to interact more effectively with their modern day clients. Let me relate the story from the ‘back to the future’ point of view of the CEO.
The CEO’s futuristic story goes like this:
Our FY 2020 just ended, so it seems a good time to reflect on just how far our business has come since those problematic days back in the mid 2010s. You see, in our organization we used to have big problems between Sales and Marketing. They both pretty much felt that they were somehow competing with each other. When we did not achieve our sales targets, blame and finger-pointing became the order of the day with Sales saying that Marketing’s leads were no good, while Marketing claimed that their leads were high quality but that the problem was that the salespeople were just lazy or incompetent. In the end, their relationship was nearly as bad as the one depicted in the picture here.
Yet, we were not alone in this situation.
Back in those days the disconnect between Sales and Marketing teams in medium and large organizations was almost legendary. But even back then it really was nothing new.
The War between Sales and Marketing
Why, even way back in 2006 in a Harvard Business Review paper, called “Ending the War between Sales and Marketing“, Marketing guru Philip Kotler and Sales legend Neil Rackham, together with Suj Krishnaswamy, lamented the dysfunctional state of affairs between Sales and Marketing teams in large organizations. Their chosen language at the time struck me as extraordinary, though. They could have elected to call it a ‘gap‘, a ‘disconnect‘ or a ‘chasm‘. Alas, they did not. Instead, they chose a term far more impactful. After all, there is hardly a way that is more severe to describe a relationship, than the word ‘war’. What a terrible way it must have been to do business in those days.
But, how did we get to this situation ? Are perhaps the business management theory gurus like Philip Kotler, Neil Rackham and their peers to blame ?
It might seem strange to you, dear reader, that the very people who described the problem, and who indeed proposed a solution to it, should stand being accused of having caused in the first place the very problem that they now wanted to fix. Nonetheless, there was an argument to be brought, and the debate did indeed rage on for a while back in the early 21st century. After all, it was the management experts’ own original thinking and teachings that had led senior corporate executives to believe that there was merit in separating Sales from Marketing, and to treat them as two distinct areas of expertise and business specialization.
This, in turn, made it fashionable in management theory circles for organizations to improve ‘operational focus’ by establishing so-called ‘centers of excellence’. And so, just like other organizations of our time back in the 1980’s and 90’s we started to split our teams into discrete departments, one for ‘selling’ and the other for ‘marketing’. Each had their own set of objectives and their own ways of measuring success, and their own chief. Is it any wonder then that these two most customer-facing parts of any business would over time drift further and further apart, become increasingly alienated, lose respect for each other, and eventually would stop talking to each other altogether ? And this is exactly what happened in our organization.
But, as I said, we were not alone back then. Why, even in the purist world of academia I knew some very vocal marketing professors and university lecturers who wanted nothing to do with the subject of ‘selling’. Often, they saw marketing as a noble art form and even a science that one could deservedly gain a formal tertiary qualification in, whereas ‘selling’ was often perceived by them as some form of devious trickery that somehow cons people into buying something. The popular academic notion of the time being that marketing was noble, whereas selling was somehow tainted and “dirty”.
It’s funny how outmoded and misguided this once popular view now seems, doesn’t it ?
Luckily, we started seeing the light around late 2015. We realized that our traditional customers’ needs had evolved: old world customers had been looking to our salespeople to educate and advise them, and they then bought products that our sales people wanted to sell them. But by 2014, more and more customers did no longer want to buy just products, they were looking to buy outcomes (such as buying the proverbial hole in the wall, instead of buying a drill). Increasingly they were buying the solutions (i.e. combinations of products and services) that they had researched online and identified as suitable without the help of a salesperson. But they did not stop there, either. They started to verify their preliminary research findings through online networks, such as social media, expert sites, professional reviews and chat sites. This ready availability of free high quality advice made it easy for buyers to increasingly rely on these new trusted online influencers. As buyers’ personal online networks grew and changed, their importance increased and the role they played in decision making could no longer be ignored. It became clear that the boundaries between Sales and Marketing had blurred without people in my organization having realized it. It took a while to sink in that what we needed was something more more akin to ‘Smarketing‘. Lots of organizations tried to bring their Sales and Mamarketing functions closer together, but mostly, all good intentions failed at the execution stage, which often amounted to not much more than a directive by the CEO to “Just get along, guys.”
What was needed was to source and implement a strong and purposeful methodology to enhance our competitiveness through innovation, better customer experience and higher customer relevance. We chose a Methodology that carried a simple, yet powerful message that promoted three simple concepts. They were:
- Aligning our go-to-market strategy with our buyers – this was mission-critical as we recognised that the internet and the ‘Buyers Journey’ have fundamentally changed the selling game forever
- Team collaboration works better than isolation
- Taking care of our People first, then our Processes, and only then our Technology. We saw this as the right priority sequence to building and sustaining a successful business
Thank goodness we saw the light when we did, because back in the mid-2010s there were many organizations that did not. They stubbornly stuck to their old Sales and Marketing silo structures and suffered loss-making year after loss-making year, until they were either acquired or disappeared altogether, or both. Some senior managers at the time did not want to (or did not know how to) embrace change. They usually just paid mere lip service to the collaboration agenda, either hoping that the problem would just go away by itself, or that they themselves could move on to another role in another business in time before their own end point came up. Others really tried but were helpless against entrenched and prevailing internal company cultural beliefs and attitudes. They all were simply unable to turn their ship around. Some saw their salespeople miss their targets month after month, quarter after quarter, and just tried to put it all down to the post-2008 GFC economy. Often, one would hear them say that “Once the economy goes back to normal everything will be all right again”. They were merely hoping to ride out the bad times and wait for the return of ‘the good old days’. But they never came again. Some managers would still be waiting had they not lost their jobs, their titles and the respect of their peers and staff.
The way that Buyers buy had fundamentally changed
Little did they understand back then that the reason the sales reps were missing their targets was not that the reps suddenly stopped selling, or that the economy had gone bad seven or eight years in a row. It was that the buyers had changed the way they made their purchasing decisions.
In the ‘olden days’ the reps were in charge of the sales cycle and their job was to push the buyer through to transaction as quickly and efficiently as possible. This was no longer true for the new buyers in the ‘Buyers Journey’. These buyers did not believe they needed to be visited or cold-called by a sales rep. They identified their needs by themselves, then went online to research their choices and how much they should pay for them. By the time they felt ready to contact a vendor they often knew more about the product or service that they were interested in, than our reps did. This situation resulted in some pretty embarrassing scenes when our reps’ language and messaging did not match the one that the buyers had experienced on our website and social media posts. We lost some pretty high profile customers who decided to simply walk away when they experienced serious disconnects between our marketing team’s online content and our sales reps’ offline versions. Not only were we not saying the same things, we also differed markedly in our language.
Our Reps were Powerless
Our reps were unprepared for these super-informed buyers who often contacted them out of the blue, ready to buy now, albeit purely on the buyers’ terms. Trying to up-sell or cross-sell them was a near impossibility. The buyers had simply come too far on their journey to be persuaded to go back over what they deemed was old ground. The buyers had done their research, found what they wanted and were now ready to buy. In the buyers’ eyes our reps were no longer adding value, they existed merely to either ‘get out of the way’ or to complete the final transaction at the lowest price available. This situation clearly eroded our margins and made our old go-to-market model unsustainable. It also made for some very unhappy sales executives. Almost as a knee-jerk reaction sales reps were given more sales training and were taught such things as ‘sales closing techniques’ and ‘objection handling’. This had worked in the past and there always was budget already allocated to training, so it was an easy decision to take. Also, some sales training vendors had come up with supposedly new sales techniques that provoke or challenge the buyer into buying from us, but these turned out to be just a waste of time as the techniques were not really new, and our reps were not of a sufficient caliber to really pull off the new methods.
At that point we realized that the problem lay not just with our sales force and we began to understand that we needed to align our organization with the ‘Buyers Journey’, and that we could no longer afford any disconnects between our Sales and Marketing functions.
Suddenly, we realized what we needed was a good dose of ‘Smarketing’, and so we decided to implement the methodology discussed earlier. We saw that in order to remain competitive we had to become nimble, innovative and, most of all, flexible enough to be customer-focused. We embraced Customer Experience as our key competitive differentiator as we had learnt that the massive adoption of social media that everyone had been witnessing was leading buyers to making purchasing decisions largely without the help of traditional sales reps, which means that Marketing’s content was all of a sudden the very first point of contact of buyers with our brand. If buyers did not like what they saw about us and our offerings on social media, on our website and in online forums they would simply walk away, and we would never know that they even existed, let alone that they could have been a hot prospect.
Social Media impacts Customer Experience
We also realized that we could no longer afford to ignore what people were saying about us and our brand on social media. People had become accustomed to vent their grievances and – on occasion – their praise on any number of social media platforms and that we had thus far ignored these at our peril.
Initially, there was a robust debate about whose role it should be to monitor and respond to social media comments as far as it related to our brand and organization. Should it be HR, Sales or Marketing’s role?
In the end we decided that this was really the wrong question to ask and that we were better off to merge Sales and Marketing into a ‘Smarketing’ team. We also came to understand that social media is only one component in the bigger picture of Customer Experience (CX) and that it encompasses all online and offline touch points of the organization with a prospect or customer. This was a hugely important point.
So, we understood that we needed to go on the front foot and embrace that change in a more meaningful way. The new methodology helped us to understand that in order to be nimble we needed to become adaptive and clever. We started dismantling the old silo structures, first by punching holes into them through cross-functional processes, such as sales lead generation, scoring and nurturing.
But the Methodology had taught us not to stop there. In fact, the implementation consultant used to tell us to not stop, “Never stop!”, he would say, “Don’t ever stop. Keep going!”. What he really meant was not to rest on our laurels and to always be on the lookout for the next challenge and opportunity. So, we learned that we needed to create and manage people beyond the old silo structures. We learned how to initially work together across operational silos and across functions. We then created cross-functional teams and multi-functional task forces that would come together under project management principles to achieve a specific objective, such as to win over a major account or to deliver a significant campaign, and then disperse again when the task was achieved (or not). Then a new team would form and the cycle would start again in another area or with another task.
How did we Manage these Diverse Teams ?
The facilitator taught us through the Methodology, and through his coaching, how to use conflict resolution, team building and collaboration techniques to stand up, maintain and manage high performing specialist teams, and then had us adopt proper project management principles to keep us on track. He called it ‘Smarketing’ but someone mentioned the term ‘field marketing’ and that is what we ended up using to describe our Marketing people as they were coming out from behind their desks, closer to our buyers.
Our Technology Investments Finally Delivered Proper Results
There was new technology, too. Previously, we had poured millions of dollars into CRM and other business technology but found that, despite the vendors’ claims, the take up by our people was very poor and that the promised business benefits never fully eventuated.
We learned to see technology as an enabler of people, not as some sort of process panacea, or as an end in itself.
So, after we had our people aligned and on the same page, we implemented some really cool apps that helped us to make the collaboration easier, the feedback more constructive and the communication happen naturally, every day, instead of once or twice a year at the annual sales kickoffs. The apps even tied into our CRM and CMS systems for faster throughput and greater productivity. Most importantly, however, they improved our collaboration by leveling the playing field for both salespeople and marketers alike. With the help of the facilitator they enabled all of us to input into the decision-making process, regardless of where we are geographically located, regardless of our roles, beliefs and differing psychological profiles. This meant that even the meekest salesperson in some far away branch office suddenly had the same say as the biggest hero sales rep at head office. And Marketing loved receiving all that feedback from Sales because it helped them to make better informed decisions on how to achieve great results for the sales force and for the overall organization.
It’s also a Much Nicer Place to Work
Since all the traditional finger-pointing has stopped we have been able to attract a much higher calibre of people into the organization, and it simply has become a much nicer place to work because our people are now genuinely trying to help each other, rather than attributing blame and pointing fingers when things go wrong.
People Alignment gives us Great Results
The overall result is that we just finished our 2021 financial year, and – once again – we enjoyed high market share, great customer loyalty and record sales revenue. It will be a good year for bonuses again, too.
Looking back now, it seems so obvious that the new teaming methodology was the right solution for us. Back then, however, it looked strange and unfamiliar to us, and – I confess – at the time it seemed a little bit like management mambo-jumbo to us.
But do you know what ?
Most new things look strange until they become more broadly accepted and, eventually, become mainstream. After that, everyone usually just wonders what the big fuss was all about.
It was the same with the Methodology: It looked a bit strange to us initially, but today it is widely accepted, and it has become a what people call a ‘no-brainer’.
Isn’t hindsight just a wonderful thing ?