Business Insights

Business Insights

Marketing Theory for Non Marketers – Sales alignment


It’s fair to say that salespeople and marketing departments don’t always see eye to eye. Sales blame marketing for delivering low volume or low-quality leads. In turn, marketing criticise sales for not converting enough of their well thought out strategy into a return on investment.

The marketing textbook diagnosis of such a problem is “lack of sales and marketing alignment.” But what does it mean in the real world? How do you spot it and how do you cure it?

What’s relevant?

The problem of sales and marketing alignment is generally only relevant to B2B situations and only relevant if you have a sales team in place. For smaller B2C operations, often the role of sales and marketing falls on one person’s shoulder. Whether that’s the right call or not is another matter, but you would hope that they are aligned with themselves. It applies to all sizes of company, although the complexity of the solution could vary. You can’t ignore it, you must deal with it.

How do you know when they’re not aligned?

The core of the problem very often centres around the definition of a lead, and the expectations from the parties involved. A salesperson typically interprets a lead as a prospect waiting to hear from them, and often the expectation is that the lead is there waiting for their call, cheque book in hand at the ready. Marketers don’t always see or interpret it that way. You might have heard the acronyms MQL (Marketing Qualified Lead) and SAL (Sales Accepted Lead). These terms - and a plethora of others - were invented in an attempt to classify opportunities. An MQL might be an inbound enquiry that has been vetted as worthy of passing to a salesperson for a call or visit. In general, it could be defined as the point at which it’s worth a human being having a conversation with a prospect. An SAL, on the other hand, could be, for example, that you’ve had a referral to a sister business from an existing client where a direct recommendation and introduction has been made over email. Essentially, you’ve had a conversation and it makes sense to follow it forward. But these aren’t hard and fast definitions: leads have shades of grey – or more usually shades of traffic lights - where they can be colour-coded according to their urgency or likelihood to result in a sale. Whatever badge you dream up to codify your lead status, and whatever your definition, be aware that sales and marketing alignment is not a CRM issue. It is a team (people)-related issue.

How to stop it

Having identified “alignment problems” by observing degrees of disharmony between your sales and marketing teams, how do you go about solving them? First of all, you must work out which processes you can put in place to address the situation. Each step in the process should be defined, written, owned, measured and, crucially, agreed on by both teams. Use someone as a mediator to help to reach agreement on the processes. Ideally it should be an individual who doesn’t have a full-time connection with the business, and therefore carries less baggage.

How long does it take?

It needn’t take more than a few hours to pin down some parameters, including the definition of a lead, and to work out some interdepartmental processes between sales and marketing. The processes should form a bulleted discussion document which is dissected at one meeting with key people from each department – ideally facilitated by the right person (like a part-time Marketing Director, for instance). A consensus is all you need to get up and running. So, to get started should be less than a day. Although, again, this depends entirely on both teams finding a common ground. Measuring that you’re still on track can take place weekly, fortnightly or monthly. Quarterly monitoring is too long a time to wait – keep a close eye on progress and identify issues quickly. A short meeting with the key people from each department (which could be the whole department if it’s a small company) with a tight agenda will likely weed out any new issues quickly. Agree a solution, document it and add to the next agenda for follow up. Documentation is everything here. If it’s not written down, it won’t happen.

Some integration tips

Get sales and marketing working together. Has marketing been out on sales calls with the salespeople? It’s usually a big eye-opener and respect-generator. For even deeper understanding you could even organise cross department content creation, where the marketing department arranges an “expert” blog, ghost-written on behalf of the salesperson. Shared activity calendars are another way of making the functions feel connected. So, when a campaign is happening it should not be a surprise to a salesperson. Ideally, they will have seen some early prototypes, and given some input (critical as a team member “working at the coalface”). They will also have had a copy of all the related creative and messaging and been made aware when leads may come in so that capacity is available to deal with them. Attending events together is another way of bonding. Trade shows, seminars, networking events, training – or even just a group social – can break down barriers. An easy, sure-fire winner is a short fortnightly sales and marketing meeting, perhaps over breakfast.

Fix it and fly even higher

Fixing a sales and marketing alignment issue can be straightforward. It takes a little time and thought. The plan can be devised and put in place quickly, but the process will be in place forever. But here’s the thing: when you get sales and marketing playing together happily, you not only solve problems but you create opportunities which didn’t exist beforehand. The fusion of knowledge and expertise nearly always leads to bright ideas, renewed enthusiasm and a collective bonding borne of mutual respect and understanding. Shoot for that as your goal – if you just get sales and marketing aligned and agreed, you’ll spend less on customer acquisition and increase on your investment. And who would argue with that? Are your sales and marketing departments aligned, or are there huge gaps?  Find out with our Marketing 360 Healthcheck.  



Image credit: By New Jersey Birds (Baby Ducks) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons 

Written by Rob Croxall

Rob Croxall is Regional Director for The Marketing Centre and specialises in working with small and mid-size businesses. He has over 30 years’ experience working in the media, engineering and charity sectors, focussing on UK as well as global markets.

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