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How to Close the Gap Between Sales and Marketing

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Portions of this article are excerpted from The New Rules of Sales and Service: How to Use Agile Selling, Real-Time Customer Engagement, Big Data, Content, and Storytelling to Grow Your Business, published by Wiley.

In my days as vice-president of marketing at several technology companies, I distinctly remember how difficult it was for my team of marketing professionals to command the respect of the salespeople in the company.

We were finally successful in doing so, but only by becoming the company experts on the buyers.

The salespeople didn't care about the brochures we produced or the websites we built. They rarely commented on the email newsletter or the tradeshows we spoke at. But by effectively understanding and defining our buyer personas, we shortened the sales cycle for the reps who followed our strategies. Only then did the salespeople offer respect and kudos.

But most sales teams and marketing teams continue to operate out of alignment. The marketers and salespeople question one another's skills and their commitment to the job. They fight over the quality of the leads. I remember hearing of a sales team that snidely referred to the marketing department as the "T-shirt department" because they said all the marketers had accomplished was the production of T-shirts imprinted with the company logo. Others call the marketing department the "branding police."

Marketers, in turn, complain about how the materials they produce fail to be used by the salespeople. They bitch and moan because the sales leads they generate are left untouched, claiming that sales staffers are too lazy to pick up the telephone.

Think about your own organization's latest launch event. Were the salespeople hanging on every word as the marketers described the features of the latest product, service, or product marketing plans? If you're like most people I speak with (if they are honest), the salespeople were bored, probably poking at their smartphones instead of paying attention.

How Sales and Marketing Differ

Since Web content drives both sales and marketing success, it is essential that we take just a little time to look at how the two functions differ. By making certain we understand the difference, we can close the gap between marketing and sales and grow business faster.

It is the job of marketers to understand buyer personas—essentially, groups of buyers—and communicate to these groups in a one-to-many approach. Marketers are experts at communicating to many people, and typically the potential customers they reach are not yet ready to have a sales discussion.

The marketing team captures the attention of a group of buyers and drives those people into and through the sales process. The content generated by the marketers—blogs, YouTube videos, infographics, e-books, webinars, and the like—can influence large numbers of people. Done well, with a deep understanding of buyer personas based on research, this content generates sales leads and culminates in the buying process.

The role of salespeople is completely different: They influence one buyer at a time when the buyers are much closer to making the buying decision. Whereas marketers need to be experts in persuading an audience of many, salespeople excel in persuading the individual buyers. They add context to the company's expertise, products, and services. Through them, the marketers' content fulfills its potential at the precise moment the buyer needs it.

Closing the Gap

Closing the gap between Marketing and Sales means the marketing staff needs to be the buyer expert, not just the product expert. They need to focus on buyer personas based on real data from interviews with buyers. It's not about posters or pretty slides. It's about having deep and factual clarity about how markets full of buyers think about doing business with the company. That's when Marketing is ready to deliver tremendous value to the sales process.

Buyer persona research yields surprising information, and when you are tuned in to a problem that people will spend money to solve and you build a product that solves it, you are on the road to success.

Buyer personas also make it much easier to market your products. Rather than Web content that is simply an egotistical reiteration of gobbledygook-laden corporate drivel, you create content that people actually want to consume and are eager to share.

This approach is utterly different from what most organizations do. Either they fail to segment the market, and instead create nonspecific marketing for everyone, or they create approaches to segments based on their own product-centric view of the world.

Understanding the Buyer

So how, exactly, do we interview buyers to develop buyer persona profiles? These interviews are best conducted by Marketing, because they learn much by having conversations with real buyers.

Whatever you do, don't give this responsibility to the salespeople or have them listen in. You want candid feedback about what worked and what didn't when the buyers evaluated their options. Buyers won't open up when the salesperson is present.

If possible, either record the interview or have a colleague take notes. You want your undivided attention focused on the conversation, and you want to capture verbatim quotes to use in the final buyer persona document, as that's the best way to communicate exactly how buyers talk about a particular point.

If you want to interview buyers about a brand-new idea that isn't yet available, you need to get them talking about the problem you plan to solve. You might start with a very general question, such as "How's business?" Then, once they get talking, you can segue to "We're hearing that buyers are struggling to [insert problem here]. What are your thoughts?" Spend about 10 minutes or so with open-ended questions about what they tell you. After that, you can tell them about your proposed solution and ask them for feedback. But the most valuable insights come before you've biased the conversation with your own ideas.

Which brings us back to those dysfunctional discussions between Sales and Marketing, the name-calling and finger-pointing that go on in so many companies.

If you have responsibility for both Sales and Marketing, you need to make certain that Marketing is focused on buyer personas. If the marketers work in a different part of the organization, you need to be an agent of change. Figure out how to get them the opportunity and skills they need to interview buyers and become buyer experts. Talk to the head of Sales or the CEO if need be.

Marketing can deliver incredible value, but only if marketers have a full understanding of their buyers' needs and perceptions.

"Teamwork" GIF image via Urs' Learning Journal.

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David Meerman Scott is a marketing strategist, entrepreneur, and partner in the sonic branding studio Signature Tones. He is the author of 10 books, including The New Rules of Marketing and PR, now in its 6th edition, with 350,000+ copies sold in English and available in 29 languages.

Twitter: @dmscott

LinkedIn: David Meerman Scott

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  • by Zak Pines Tue Aug 26, 2014 via web

    David, this is a great topic and very timely. I was with a group of about 35 DemandGen professionals at a MassTLC peer group last week, and the most common concern I heard also centered around marketing and sales alignment, and this was from a group of some of the top demand gen folks around.

    I did a summary piece following the event sharing my perspective on 3 ways to jumpstart the alignment which is here -

  • by Tony Zambito Tue Aug 26, 2014 via web

    Hi David,

    Nice article and glad to see the importance of buyer personas emphasized. What I can add to your article is sometimes the best people to interview buyers can be in strategy, research, and insights areas of companies. That is, outside of both marketing and sales. This is especially true if the problems are related to key decisions regarding market strategies as well as future growth investments. In my own research, I have seen buyers apply this mindset of not being candid to both sales and marketing, as marketing presence is felt more in the digital age.

    My take on the dysfunction you speak of is the issue is three dimensional versus two-dimensional. What I mean is organizations are best served as thinking of this as three parties are out of alignment marketing, sales, and buyers. I have seen organizations work on their marketing and sales alignment and leave the buyer out of this work. Left wondering why they still cannot connect. In essence, closing the gap between marketing, sales, and the buyer becomes the larger goal at hand. This is where deep qualitative buyer research and buyer personas can be of significant help.

    Congrats and look forward to the book.

    Tony Zambito

  • by Tuhin Verma Wed Aug 27, 2014 via web

    Thanks David for sharing this article. I my view it is the friction between Sales and Marketing that is never ending . In my area of business as a Brand Design Manager, I often come across this dilemma. It is easy to convince, combine and bring cohesion in Design Management when it comes to Marketing people. But very difficult to deal with Sales people. I have found them at odds with the Marketing team & Design. Even in meetings that concern brand building and planning initiatives, the sales team is at loggerheads and demand better trade incentives. This I believe is short term goal and should not be entertained at the cost of long term wealth creation for the brand. I am surely going to use your views in my talks / dealings with the Sales & Marketing people of various organizations I consult.

  • by Olga Maykopova Wed Aug 27, 2014 via web

    Hello David,

    Article is really nice and the problem between Marketing and Sales departement is like the neverending storie. I work is a snowboard industry on Russian market. Everybody knows that brand mostly produces their collections very selectively depending on the market. Than on sales meetings collection became even more selectively because stores owner make pre-order of what they think people will buy. Last year I made the easy quiz between 500 snowboarders throgh all ove the country. People should pick one item of three which they would buy. At the sales meeting we did the same with sales and they were so surprised that 80% of items they pick didn't work with the choice of their customers.

    Thank you for reminding to communicate more.


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