The Secret to Sales & Marketing Alignment? Customer Focus.

June 21, 2017

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on Inc. here.

Most consumers don’t know the difference between sales and marketing and don’t care, but it’s a huge deal within some companies. Too huge.

Blame human nature, but once you create teams within an organization, some friction between the teams is inevitable. While a bit of constructive tension is good, sales and marketing teams often take things too far. It’s common, for instance, for marketing to blame sales for not following up with sales prospects and for sales to complain that marketing isn’t getting them enough quality sales prospects in the first place.

Excessive conflict can be counterproductive. Research shows that B2B companies that fail to align their sales and marketing departments lose 10% or more of their revenues per year. Companies with strong sales and marketing alignment post a 20% annual growth rate while those with poor alignment have a 4% revenue decline.

The fix isn’t easy, but it is simple: Orient sales and marketing around the customer’s needs instead of the other way around.

The Trick: Start with first principles

One of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits” is to “begin with the end in mind.” This applies to businesses as well as individuals. Companies that don’t design products by considering how consumers will use them will soon be out of business. Similarly, sales and marketing should be oriented around helping the customer understand and address their specific needs.

Sounds like common sense, right? Unfortunately, many companies organize sales and marketing around what they think each department is supposed to do rather than what a prospect or customer needs. It is more “marketing should do this” or “sales should do that” instead of “the customer needs this, let’s figure out how to do it.”

The first principle view of the situation is trying to offer the right content with the right contact point to help the customer move down their journey to purchase. The sales contact points include a phone call, visit or perhaps an email while marketing contact points encompass everything from an online article to a Twitter ad to paid content to costumed actors or even skywriting. The trick is to figure out what type of contact to make in what situations to help the prospect advance their thinking and move down the funnel – all in the name of delivering the right content at the right point of contact.

The best companies have choreographed sophisticated systems for both contact and content. They might have a salesperson identify a prospect, hand the information to marketing, have marketing send out a specific piece of content followed by a series of online touch points. This may warm up the prospect enough that they are interested in attending a webinar or, perhaps, even starting to use a free product or a free trial. Marketing may then alert a salesperson who has a call and, if the prospect is not yet ready, pass the prospect back to marketing for additional touch points. This process could continue for quite a long time until the prospect is ready to purchase.

Marketers used to think of customers as a generic group, but now they are using technology and data to cater to their individual needs and desires. They used to just chum the waters, and now they’re learning to take a targeted approach.

This more personalized, account-based approach to sales and marketing means the overall mission is different. Rather than getting hung up on the respective functions of sales and marketing, a better approach is to work backwards from customer touch points and decide who is responsible for each. Then sales and marketing should work together on a choreographed approach that they can A/B test. Working backwards from the customer’s needs leads to what sales and marketing should do rather than what their department titles suggest they do.

The realistic way forward

Learning how to narrow your focus isn’t easy, but one way to start is by winnowing down your target customer segment as much as possible so that the group of companies remaining has common needs. The reason companies don’t do this is because it’s difficult and many worry that their market will be smaller than they’d like, which could lead them to believe that they’re missing out on business elsewhere. As a result, they wind up implementing something generic rather than taking a targeted approach.

My argument is this: If you’re a $5 million company, you probably only need to target a $15 million segment to double the size of your business. But it’s still tempting to pursue a billion-dollar market. My approach then has been to suggest that companies carve off some of what they are doing to take a more targeted approach with one segment while they continue to conduct broader activities elsewhere. Next, compare the results and see which approach works better. Most companies will generally find that a blend of broad and narrow works well.

At the heart of it, the mission I’ve laid out here isn’t complicated. The idea is to help a customer move towards a sale. Sometimes sales can move the customer in that direction, sometimes marketing can and sometimes it’s a mix of both. But the starting point should always be the same: the customer.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.