They're everywhere—those invisible but oh-so-destructive barriers that can loom between functions in a company.

Often called silos, these barriers can elicit numerous nasty behaviors—including function leaders' unwillingness to communicate, share information, or collaborate with each other, and their tendency to scuffle over scarce resources.

The Dark Side of Silos

Silos between a company's marketing function and other functions can be particularly damaging. For example, in many companies, management asks R&D to operate in a vacuum. R&D's goal is to come up with new offerings without considering their cost or market demand.

Management often rationalizes this approach by saying that it does not want to constrain creativity. But without input from the marketing staff, R&D risks creating products that fall flat in the marketplace because consumers don't care about the features and benefits they offer.

Marketing as a Silo Buster

As a marketing professional, you of course work in a specialized function that may feel like a silo in your firm. But you're also best positioned to break down the walls between your function and others (R&D, sales, finance, and so forth).

Why? Your job as a marketer is all about understanding and fulfilling customers' needs. More than any other managers in your company, you bring the customer's perspective inside your firm. Without that perspective, the entire enterprise would have no focus and no understanding of the customer—and would be doomed.

Also, leaders from other functions in your company are, in essence, your internal customers. By applying the same skills you apply to external customers to discern and satisfy these internal customers' needs, you dissolve the barriers between marketing and these functions. And you open a channel for exchanging the information and viewpoints needed to create offerings that the company's paying customers value.

Busting the silos between marketing and other functions isn't easy. But the following five tactics can help.

1. Focus your colleagues' attention on the customer

Help managers from other functions understand what customers want from your company. Then explain to them what happens when customers don't get what they want because different parts of your company aren't collaborating.

For example, try this:

"Customers want to tell us about their problem only once—not over and over again as we hand them off from one department to another because our order-processing and customer-service teams aren't talking to each other.

This latest research report shows that a customer who has to talk to more than one person to get his problem solved is ten times more likely to defect than a customer who gets his problem solved by talking to one person. So, every time we fail to solve a customer's problem on the first call, we risk losing them—and their wallet—to a competitor."

2. Use technology to sharpen customer focus

Use your company's customer relationship management (CRM) technology to sharpen your company's focus on the customer. For example, carefully analyze the data in your CRM system. Then use that data to show your colleagues:

  • How customers are making purchase decisions
  • What touch points they're interacting with as they do business with your company
  • What problems they're running into at each touch point
  • How much those problems are costing your company.

For instance, try this:

"Our system is showing that we're extremely inefficient with order entry. Delays and errors are increasing our operational expenses by 3% and driving 5% of our customers away every year. That translates into revenue losses of $200,000 to $400,000."

For additional insights about how marketers can collaborate with information managers to support their companies' success, see Paul Barsch's article "Preparing for the Future: How the CIO and CMO Must Collaborate to Win."

3. Regularly network with colleagues

Foster mutual understanding of one another's biggest challenges and priorities by regularly networking with colleagues. As often as possible, meet informally with your counterparts in R&D, sales, IT, manufacturing, and other functions. Find out what these peer managers' most pressing on-the-job difficulties are. Share similar information with them about your own department's challenges.

Steady networking is valuable for several reasons:

  • It gives all participants a wider view of the company and generates insights into how you can help each other.
  • It enables function leaders to gain familiarity with each other's skills and expertise. Once you're aware of what each of you brings to the company, you can draw on one another's abilities to solve cross-functional problems.
  • It helps you identify and break down silos. For example, suppose you're having lunch with the head of your company's retail stores, and she mentions how online sales of the store's products are cannibalizing her profits. You could start breaking down this silo by helping to devise an acceptable way for each store to offer different products.
  • It gives you the chance to win your colleagues' support for marketing strategies. Whenever you network with managers from other functions, take the opportunity to get their input on ideas you have percolating for new marketing initiatives. Get their thoughts about how a particular program might affect them and what cross-functional implementation challenges it might raise.

By inviting peers' input early, you boost your chances of winning their support for your idea. And you learn more about how activities initiated in the marketing department can affect other parts of the company.

4. Seek out cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams contain at least three members from diverse functions—sales, marketing, finance, operations, IT, and so forth—all of them working together on a special project with a common goal and time deadline. For example, people from marketing and product development might form a team focused on creating a specific new offering that marketing has determined customers want.

Because a cross-functional team's work depends on input from several functions, collaboration is essential. When led properly, such teams leverage their members' diverse knowledge and expertise to accomplish vital objectives quickly and flexibly. But in many companies, marketing's participation in such teams is sketchy—possibly owing to underestimation of marketing's value on the part of managers in other functions.

How to combat these perceptions? Do whatever it takes to identify and seize cross-functional opportunities. And once you're on a cross-functional team, demonstrate productive team behavior.

For example, ease the conflict that can arise in a team whose members bring diverse expertise and viewpoints to the project. An operations manager, for instance, may want the most efficient production system possible, while you want the right mix of products available at the right time, even if that means short production runs.

You can help resolve this conflict by understanding that if your company's factory is inefficient, costs will rise and margins will suffer or prices will have to go up. You can also help the operations manager understand that if the product isn't available, customers will go elsewhere—which costs the company sales.

Look for opportunities to compromise or to come up with a "third way" to solve such impasses. And keep everyone focused on the higher-level goal: to make money by satisfying customers.

5. Encourage job shadowing

Spend time in other parts of your company; observe how your peers do their jobs—even perform some of their duties. Encourage your colleagues from other functions to do the same in your department.

By engaging in mutual job shadowing, you deepen your understanding of one another's view of the company and uncover additional ideas for collaborating on common problems. You also gain further opportunities to stress the importance of articulating and satisfying customers' needs.

Some companies make job shadowing a required practice. Take Intuit. This maker of the renowned Quicken accounting application required its programmers to spend time working at the help desk. The programmers heard users' concerns and were better positioned to program the software in ways that avoided creating problems for customers.

Silo Busting Pays Off—for You and Your Company

Silo-busting swiftly wins you a reputation as a Marketing Champion. Why? When you help break down silos between marketing and other functions in your company, managers stop hoarding their power and knowledge and start sharing it. This cross-boundary collaboration ratchets up the firm's power to better serve its customers, which translates directly into profits.

And that's a payoff that everyone can appreciate—no matter where in the company they work.

Catch Roy's session at the MarketingProfs B2B Forum, Driving Sales: What's New + What Works, where he'll speak on "How to Become a Marketing Champion Inside Your Organization." Register here!

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image of Roy Young
Roy Young is coauthor of Marketing Champions: Practical Strategies for Improving Marketing's Power, Influence and Business Impact.