“I’ll prove it to you!” exclaims Jack Kosakowski.
“Let me show you the current state of Sales and Marketing alignment.”
It’s September 12, 2017. I’m attending the London Sales Hacker event.
We’re in the middle of a panel discussion, “Sales And Marketing Alignment Strategies To Build Massive Pipeline”.
The two have contrasting views.
“Everyone in the audience that’s in sales, stand up!” orders Jack.
Two-thirds of the 600-strong audience stand.
“Okay,” continues Jack.
“Stay standing if you believe Marketing give you enough warm leads.”
I look around.
Not a single person remains standing.
Jack turns to the rest of the panel.
“See what I mean!” he proclaims, waving his hand theatrically at the seated room.
“Marketing isn’t aligned with Sales at all.”
Why Sales and Marketing Alignment is a Good Thing
Sales and Marketing alignment seems like common sense.
If Sales and Marketing work together as one, then revenue generation is more efficient and effective.
The evidence bears this out.
The Aberdeen Group research identifies a direct causal link between Sales and Marketing alignment and revenue growth.
Your own experience will probably concur.
When Sales and Marketing align successfully, revenue increases because:
- Marketing campaigns focus on the most beneficial topics and channels.
- Salespeople have a higher volume of well-qualified, sales-ready leads.
- Sales have the correct quantity and quality of content needed to convince prospects. Both teams agree upon the right time to pass leads from marketing to sales.
- Marketing deliver company-specific and marketplace insights that improve selling effectiveness.
- Metrics and qualitative feedback are available for continuous improvement of sales and marketing performance.
What company doesn’t strive for these benefits?
Unfortunately, like many things that sound easy on paper, Sales and Marketing alignment turns out to be more difficult to achieve in the real world.
In fact, in my experience, the lack of alignment is the cause of more angst in business than any other topic.
However, if Sales and Marketing alignment is something that business wants, why is it so difficult?
The Sales and Marketing Blame Game
The conflict between Sales and Marketing plays out in many companies.
Sales blame Marketing and Marketing blame Sales.
To quote Tavris and Aronson, “Mistakes were made (but not by me)”.
In other words, both sides blame the other for the repeated failure to turn marketing activity and leads into won opportunities.
There are many reasons for this finger pointing.
- Goals that do not encourage cooperative behaviour.
- KPIs that do not align.
- Personal desire to look good against rivals, including vying for the future CEO position.
- Short-term sales objectives conflicting with longer-term marketing priorities.
I could probably go on.
Popular Strategies for Sales and Marketing Alignment
Do a Google search on Sales and Marketing alignment and you will discover no shortage of content.
In fact, 40.3 million search results.
You’ll even find there’s a Sales and Marketing alignment summit.
To examine best practices for Sales and Marketing alignment, I carefully reviewed the top 50 search results.
You probably don’t want to spend as much time on this as I did, so I created a summary of the recommendations that you can read here.
Some of the recommendations will clearly have a positive impact.
It’s hard to disagree, for example, that a robust lead hand-off process should be implemented, that Sales and Marketing must define and agree the customer buying process and that they must communicate regularly.
Other sales and marketing alignment strategies are more controversial.
For example, potentially not every business will want to make both sales and marketing the responsibility of a single chief revenue officer.
So what else can we do?
5 Sales and Marketing Alignment Recommendations
Let’s return to the problem.
Sales and Marketing frequently blame each other for missed objectives.
However, in most cases, as Jack and Jason concur at the end of their Sales Hacker panel discussion, neither side is entirely right nor is either side entirely wrong.
Unfortunately, both Sales and Marketing come to the debate with their own preconceived ideas on the responsibilities of the other.
It’s these ingrained perceptions and, in many cases, preconceived views of the way the world works that determine where each side places the blame.
We need to break out of this narrow horizon to align Sales and Marketing successfully.
But what’s going to smash through the existing paradigm?
Enter center stage: CUSTOMERS and PROSPECTS.
We need the direct involvement and input from customers and prospects.
That may not sound radical.
Yet it’s something many companies hardly achieve at all.
So, here are my five recommendations for Sales and Marketing alignment.
- Create an effective open feedback loop with input from customers and prospects.
- Create an effective closed feedback loop with quantitative metrics.
- Re-shape your end-to-end revenue process and methodology.
- Implement a process of continuous marginal gains.
- Make project-led structural improvements.
I have applied these Sales and Marketing alignment strategies in many businesses with success.
Let’s go through them.
1 – Create an effective open feedback loop
Marketers strive for a closed feedback loop that links lead and opportunity outcome back to the originating campaign.
This closed loop delivers quantitative metrics on lead conversion rates and the efficacy of marketing campaigns.
This is crucial. I’ll explain how to implement an effective closed feedback loop successfully in Recommendation #2.
However, an open feedback loop is something else that provides other benefits.
Input from external sources is what defines an open feedback loop.
In other words, when there’s no external feedback or stimuli coming into play, nothing will challenge existing perceptions or alter the status quo. Matthew Syed describes it this way.
“Without external input, failure doesn’t lead to progress because information on errors and weaknesses is misinterpreted or ignored; an open feedback loop does lead to progress because the feedback is rationally acted upon.”
To achieve Sales and Marketing alignment we need to break the existing cycle.
It means we need an open feedback loop.
Feedback on success and failure
For the purpose of Sales and Marketing alignment, an open feedback loop means we need input from customers, prospects and leads.
We need this input not to apportion blame, but to understand the customer buying process and to make improvements to our sales cycle.
In other words, unless with have this external input, the status quo will continue. Sales and Marketing will still blame each other for ineffectiveness, because what else is there to do? There is nothing to challenge the existing model in the absence of customer and prospect insight.
Specifically, to break out of this, we need input on the customer buying process in two areas.
- We need to learn from success. Why did we win?
- We need to learn from failure. Why did we lose?
I recognize the latter, in particular, is a deeply uncomfortable recommendation for many businesses.
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Unfortunately, getting first-hand feedback on the reasons for failure is something we do infrequently, either as people or as organisations.
However, this is critical.
Think about it.
How often is ‘price’ blamed for a lost deal or an opportunity that does not progress?
I can vouch from personal experience of conducting research on behalf of many clients that price is rarely the root cause reason for a deal sales that doesn’t succeed.
For example, here is verbatim, what one person told me recently:
“Yes they were the most expensive and the price was too high, but if we had wanted to work with them I’m sure we could have gotten around that somehow. The fact is we didn’t want to work with them, so it was easy just to say, ‘your price was too high’”.
Prior to this externally focused research, this company spent many months tinkering with their pricing strategy with no discernible impact on opportunity conversion rates.
It was only after getting external feedback, from customers and prospects that the company began to truly learn why they win and why they lose.
Areas to get external feedback
Here are examples of specific areas on which you can gain valuable qualitative feedback:
- Why do some unqualified leads fail to become qualified leads?
- What stops some qualified leads becoming opportunities?
- Why do some deals not progress beyond the initial, discovery stage?
- What causes some deals to be lost at the negotiation stage?
- What is the compelling reason why certain deals are won?
And lots more.
The key thing about this feedback is that it is comes from external rather than internal sources.
Steps to get external feedback
To implement this first sales and marketing alignment best practice, gather external, qualitative feedback in many ways, including:
- Invite customers and prospects that didn’t buy into the company e.g. a facilitated team meeting.
- Commission independent in-depth telephone and face-to-face interviews.
- Get independent observation of live sales calls and visits.
- Sit alongside the customer in their office and experience ‘walking in their shoes’.
One more thing about external feedback.
Get to the heart of what the customer means. Don’t accept at face value, “I don’t like the brochure”. Discover the underlying reasons; for example, whether this view relates to the core messages, the way the content is written, or the physical appearance.
In an upcoming blog, I’ll expand on this Sales and Marketing alignment best practice by detailing six ways you can get external feedback.
To get a heads-up when this post is live, register here.
2 – Create an effective closed feedback loop
The first sales and marketing alignment recommendation is to create an open feedback loop. This creates qualitative, externally sourced feedback that leads to improvement.
However, external feedback is only part of the story.
The second best practice is to gather accurate and reliable internal feedback. You do this through a robust closed loop feedback process.
This needs to happen in two ways.
- Insist on quantitative feedback.
Link every lead and opportunity to its source and originating marketing campaign. If no campaign produced the lead or opportunity, record this as well.
2. Insist on qualitative feedback.
On every lead handed-off from Sales to Marketing, whatever the outcome, ensure there is qualitative feedback transferred the other way.
How to implement a closed loop for quantitative feedback
The only effective way to achieve this is by using a CRM or sales automation application.
Unfortunately, many companies fail to implement the closed loop successfully by failing to follow these 5 best practices.
For detailed advice on how to design the closed loop process, read The Difference Between Leads and Opportunities. This blog post contains downloadable process diagrams in Visio and Powerpoint to help get you started.
This closed loop feedback on quantitative data also means you can collect insightful metrics on lead conversion metrics and the contribution that marketing campaigns make to overall revenue.
How to implement a closed loop for qualitative feedback
CRM systems also provide ways to capture qualitative feedback from Sales to Marketing on each lead.
For example, if your company uses salesforce.com, use Chatter on Leads and Opportunities to gather this feedback. Create reports that summarise these Chatter posts. Create tags to group Chatter posts together.
3 – Re-shape your revenue process and methodology
Your feedback loops are gathering qualitative and quantitative information on your end-to-end sales cycle.
Clearly, that information is of no value unless you do something with it.
So what should you do?
The two things Sales and Marketing must do together with all this information and feedback are:
- Re-design your revenue process.
- Re-define your revenue methodology.
The difference between the two:
Process is the planned steps you take to achieve something.
Methodology is how you take those steps.
Your sales process might include a discovery meeting. That’s a step in your process.
Methodology is the way you conduct that meeting. This includes the words you use to introduce the meeting, the questions you ask and the way you agree the next steps.
In other words, the meeting is a process step; the way the meeting is conduced is the methodology.
Some (although admittedly not many) businesses I encounter have a clearly-defined sales process.
The stages of the process are well understood by the sales team. The CRM system reflects this process in its opportunity stages. Reports and dashboards report the pipeline in a consistent way. There is uniformity across the team in terms of the process they follow.
At least, that’s sometimes the case.
However, in these businesses, what is far less uniform is the methodology the team members adopt. Sales people are left to decide for themselves HOW they undertake each process step. These companies can benefit hugely from identifying and sharing best practice and delivering training on how to execute the sales process.
How to re-shape your process and methodology
Sales and Marketing alignment recommendation 3 is about re-designing your process and methodology based on the feedback you have received.
Here are the specific steps to take.
- Get Sales and Marketing people together in the same room with a large whiteboard.
- Pick one significant deal your business recently lost (or a deal that withered on the vine).
- Map the end-to-end sales cycle on the whiteboard.
- Figure out everything you did (i.e. the process).
- Describe how you did those things (i.e. the methodology).
Then take these two further steps:
- Work out how to improve your process.
- Work out how to improve the execution of that process.
This separation of process and methodology means you focus on both what and the how.
For example, if we had to go after the same deal again, what activities would we repeat? How could we execute them more effectively? What didn’t we do that with the benefit of hindsight, we could have done? How would we do those activities?
Examine more deals
This is what you do next:
Repeat this cycle of examination for a successful deal.
Capture the things that worked well and those that didn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, even though the deal was won, identify the activities whose execution can be improved.
Then do the whole thing again with another deal.
Work through four to six deals.
You know the score:
Figure out how to improve the process and the methodology. Remember to use the feedback from recommendations 1 and 2 to decide what these improvements look like from a customer and prospect perspective.
Document the improvements to process and methodology
Sales and Marketing alignment best practices 4 and 5 explain two ways to implement these improvements.
However, there’s a precursor to implementation.
The sales and marketing workshops will produce many whiteboard photographs, flipchart sheets and handwritten paper notes.
Get it into a structured format.
- Process diagram(s) that describe the ideal end-to-end revenue cycle for existing and potential customers.
- Notes and use cases that articulate how the process is best fulfilled.
Then you’re ready to start implementing changes that will achieve sales and marketing alignment.
4 – Continuous process of marginal gains
Now Sales and Marketing have fresh insight.
We understand what works well and what needs improvement.
We have information about success and failure. Your teams have figured out what is important to customers and prospects and what they care about less.
Here’s what you do next.
Implement a process of marginal gains. This is Sales and Marketing alignment recommendation 4.
Marginal gains is the term originally popularized by Dave Brailsford, the hugely successful head of the Sky pro-cycling team.
But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.
Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years’ time. He was wrong. They won it in three years.
Each gain may be minimal in itself, but when combined together, they have an irresistible impact.
How marginal gains works
Suppose you’re standing at point A.
Test whether you went up or downhill.
If you’ve gone uphill, take another small step in the same direction. Test again. Repeat the process.
If you’ve gone downhill, take a small step in another direction. Test again.
Keep repeating this process and without fail, you will get to the top of the hill. You’ll eventually arrive at point B.
Applying marginal gains in your business
Marginal gains mean you identify multiple ways in which you can make small improvements. Make enough of them, and you have a significant advantage.
So this is what you do.
- Apply the feedback you gained and work out the many small ways in which you can improve the customer and prospect experience.
- Refer to your sales and marketing funnel. Look for small changes that will improve the conversion ratio at each point.
- Examine the end-to-end lead generation and sales process. Search out the multiple small changes that together, will collectively add up to a big difference.
Remember, every error, every flaw, every failure and every piece of adverse feedback, however small, is a marginal gain in disguise.
Sales and Marketing must regard this information not as a threat, but as an opportunity.
Finally, how do you decide which marginal gains take priority for implementation? That’s why you did Recommendation 3. You worked out what was important to customers and what was not.
Focus on the marginal gains that customers and prospects care about the most. The ones that relate most closely with the unique value your business adds.
Test marginal gains
Here’s what many people forget about marginal gains.
They forget about testing and measuring.
“Marginal gains are not about making small changes and hoping they fly. Rather, it is about breaking down a big problem into many small parts and then rigorously testing to establish what works and what doesn’t”. Mathew Syed. Black Box Thinking.
In other words, test everything. Make changes and validate that they have the result you anticipate.
How do you do this testing? Keep using the open and closed feedback loops we describe in Recommendations 1 and 2.
How to implement a marginal gains process
Implementing a marginal gains approach successfully requires a structured approach to communication and decision-making.
Here’s an example of how Modernis embedded this dialogue to achieve Sales and Marketing alignment.
In this company, marketing pass leads to inside sales reps. The inside sales reps aim to turn these leads into qualified appointment for field reps.
- The inside sales team leader meets daily with the marketing team leader.
- Each field rep speaks daily with his or her inside sales rep to discuss leads and appointments.
- Each regional sales manager has a weekly face-to-face meeting or conference call with the inside sales team leader and the marketing team leader.
- The VP of Sales and VP of Marketing hold a weekly conference call. They also meet formally face-to-face monthly.
The format of the discussion is the same in every case. Here’s the agenda:
Quantitative results and metrics.
Qualitative feedback from reps.
Qualitative feedback from customers and prospects (this happens only on a weekly basis).
Results from tests on marginal gains previously implemented.
Those changes that will maintained and those to be reversed.
New marginal gains that can be tested.
There’s a formal method for recording these conversations in the CRM system.
Team leaders review these records in their weekly meetings. The VPs of Sales and Marketing do likewise.
This approach has transformed Sales and Marketing alignment. It gives both a common purpose, strategy and framework for working together.
The result at Modernis is an uplift in opportunity conversion rates of 17%.
5 – Make project-led structural improvements
Seeking marginal gains is something you do every day.
My final Sales and Marketing alignment strategy is something you do once or twice a year, sometimes not as often as that.
Marginal gains work for day-to-day improvements. As we’ve seen, it’s highly dependent on testing and feedback to check each step.
However, it will never get you to point D, the top of a mountain. That mountain represents a better design and a better way of doing things.
The problem is that when you are at point B, the top of the smaller hill, a small step in any direction always takes you downhill.
To scale the mountain you need the vision and confidence to take a big leap.
Make that leap in the right way and you will likely land at point C.
Then what do you do?
Start again seeking marginal gains. Test each change.
And you know what?
Through a combination of step-change and marginal gains you will eventually arrive at point D.
How to make the big leap
To make that leap, to get to point D, you need a better design. A fundamentally different and improved way of doing things.
That might be a marketing automation system. It can be the introduction of new products or services. A new sales strategy. A culture change.
It may be many other things.
Above all, however, it’s a visionary step change that results from detailed analysis of quantitative metrics, salesperson feedback and qualitative input on success and failure from leads, prospects and customers.
These major leaps require a formal, structured transformational project.
You need to do all the things you expect from a successful project: robust business case; clearly defined scope; agreed goals and objectives; realistic implementation plan.
But you know where it starts. It starts with feedback and input from external sources, combined with innovation to produce a best-in-market revenue cycle.
Sales and Marketing Alignment in your business
“You know what?” says Jack Kosakowski at the end of the Sales Hacker panel discussion.
“Sales can’t live without Marketing and Marketing can’t live without Sales.”
Break through the existing paradigm and Sales and Marketing enter a beautiful relationship.
A relationship that can play-out in your business if you follow these five compelling strategies on Sales and Marketing Alignment.
If you got value from this article:
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