An Open Letter to Sales and Marketing Leaders: Alignment is a Verb
February 17, 2022
In marketing communities, on podcasts and at conferences, one topic is always on the agenda: Sales and marketing alignment.
Up until recently, it wasn’t something I spent a lot of time thinking about. In my time as a marketing leader, I’ve always been lucky enough to work at companies with phenomenal sales leaders.
- They made smart hiring decisions.
- They knew where marketing ends and sales begins.
- They were driven by the right metrics.
- They understood that in order to succeed, both sales and marketing strategies need to evolve with the way customers want to learn and buy.
Perhaps most importantly, if either side recognized areas that needed improvement, it was mutually understood that the lines of communication were always open—and that solving problems together was a top priority.
Because of that, my marketing teams have always been able to work in lockstep with sales to drive sustainable, long-term growth.
I’m learning that this is the exception, not the rule.
Acting now as a growth consultant for fintech and finserv firms, I see companies dealing with wild misalignment between the two teams, and between the two team leaders.
But just because not every marketing leader has been as lucky as I’ve been (and I think my former sales counterparts would say the same), that doesn’t mean that creating alignment between sales and marketing is a lost cause.
It can be done. The problem is, it takes work—a lot of it—from both sides. It requires rethinking old processes. It requires changing mindsets. In some cases, it may require a structural overhaul.
If you’re a marketing leader who wants to create more cohesion between the sales and marketing functions at your company, read on (but with this caveat: Not every business is ready for the framework I’m suggesting. If yours isn’t, you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle).
Here are the truths I’ve learned about aligning sales and marketing:
The CRO role is a band-aid. Let’s get this out of the way first: Sales and marketing teams should be led by two different people.
In theory, perhaps it makes sense to bring marketing and sales together under a Chief Revenue Officer. They’re working toward a common goal, after all—shouldn’t unifying the functions create more alignment?
In reality, most CROs are former heads of sales who know little about modern marketing.
The head of marketing needs to deeply understand the role marketing plays in driving revenue, strategically and tactically, in order to hire the right people, make decisions, adjust campaigns that aren’t performing, optimize content creation and distribution, develop messaging—the list goes on. Most CROs aren’t qualified to do any of that. So when the CRO, a former head of sales, is in charge of marketing, marketing teams become glorified order takers from sales.
I’m not picking on sales leaders here, by the way. Marketing leaders are equally unqualified to run sales teams. It would be difficult for a CMO to understand the nuances of effective one-to-one cold outreach and follow-up, the art of giving demos tailored to different people’s needs, the stamina long sales cycles require and the psychology of selling.
Respect is the foundation for success. That brings me to my next point, which is that not only do sales and marketing leaders need to respect each other as people, but they need to respect the role each team plays in driving results for the company.
And respect begins with understanding. Marketing and sales should be led by two different people, but they can’t exist in siloes. Having deep empathy for what the other team does will change behaviors for the better.
Both teams need to agree on goals and SLAs. When sales and marketing teams have respect and empathy for each other, they set goals that are realistic and achievable.
Beginning at the top with revenue, the leaders of both teams should work together to define the marketing and sales metrics necessary to build a full funnel from contact to close.
That also means collaborating on the SLAs that directly impact revenue goals. For example, sales will call qualified leads within 5-10 minutes of receiving them from marketing, if marketing nurtures leads to the point that sales can expect a contact rate of 25%+ on those calls.
Defining ‘Qualified’ will save the relationship. The key word in my previous point is ‘qualified.’
There’s no faster way to drive sales and marketing misalignment than to send sales a bunch of leads with low to no buying intent. This goes back to empathy, which I mentioned earlier.
Imagine if marketing teams had to follow up with every person who downloaded an ebook? They’d stop passing those leads over to sales pretty quickly.
On the flip side, when sales handcuffs marketing to a fraction of their potential target audience because some segments require extra legwork to close, they make it more difficult for marketing to reach their goals.
Coming together to define what makes a prospect ‘qualified’ will save both teams time, frustration and bad blood. When I say qualified, I mean both fit and intent:
The prospect is firmographically in the company’s ICP.
The prospect has shown intent to buy—meaning they’ve asked to see the product or speak with a sales rep.
Together, sales and marketing can identify where prospects with the fastest close rates typically come from and what their similarities are, including challenges they’re facing and objections to purchase. That information is gold for marketing teams, who can then optimize those high-performance channels and tailor messaging to speak to prospects most likely to close.
It’s everyone’s job to understand the market. Sales and marketing leaders must have an understanding bordering on obsession about their target customers:
- What do they need most?
- What are their biggest challenges?
- Where does the product or service fit into their lives?
- What language do they use?
- Where do they spend their time—digitally or otherwise?
- How do they prefer to make buying decisions?
The customer is always most important. When sales and marketing leaders put the customer first, they organically do the right things.
Both leaders also need to understand where their product or service fits into the competitive landscape. What existing gaps does it fill? What truly makes it unique? What are common purchase objections? What do customers know that prospects don’t, and how can marketing close that gap?
Problems require collaboration, not blame. Marketing and sales have long been each other’s scapegoats when goals aren’t being hit. Sales blames marketing for bad leads. Marketing blames sales for not being able to close deals. And no one gets any closer to actually reaching revenue goals.
But success never runs exclusively up and to the right. Sales and marketing leaders should anticipate that underperformance is occasionally going to happen, and put processes in place to identify, together, why the problems exist and how to fix them.
For example, what are sales people consistently hearing on calls? Is there a gap in the product or service that needs to be addressed?
Is marketing noticing a dip in engagement rate on a certain platform, or is new messaging not resonating with the market?
Are there trends in churn rate that can be analyzed? Perhaps a certain segment of the market actually isn’t a good fit.
When marketing and sales leaders work together to correct problems, their teams can better execute their individual, but complimentary, roles.
Marketing needs to create demand. Only about 2% of any addressable market is in a buying cycle at a given time. And that’s exactly who most marketing teams prefer to focus on, fighting with competitors at the bottom of the funnel over the small number of buyers actively ready to make a purchase.
But the real power of marketing is in driving awareness to the other 98%—by educating, creating communities, flawlessly executing campaigns, optimizing organic communication channels and outthinking the competition—so that when that larger portion of the market is ready to buy, there’s only one brand they think of.
Sales needs to capture demand. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—when marketing is done well, sales becomes easier.
But that doesn’t mean sales becomes easy. Sales needs to carry the demand marketing creates across the finish line, which means:
- Executing flawless prospect outreach and follow-up
- Knowing the product or service better than anyone else in the company
- Being able to tailor demos, calls and proposals to the specific challenges of the businesses they’re pitching
- Understanding, and being transparent about, how every feature or solution stacks up in the marketplace
Creating marketing and sales alignment is hard work that requires both commitment and an ego check from both sides—but the results are worth it. If your growth teams’ relationship could benefit from an outside perspective, get in touch and we’ll get to work!